BETHESDA – Five years ago, Army Sgt. Julie Bytnar was leading a very different life. She was a homemaker living in the Chicago suburbs while her husband, Bill, earned most of the family's income.
Then, without warning, Bill became very ill after a rare blood-clotting disorder ravaged his body. Over time, his condition deteriorated, and he could no longer work. Their bills began piling up, with no reprieve in sight.
Desperate to keep hope alive, Bytnar enlisted in the military so she could take care of her husband and young children.
"Although I was eligible for a commission based on my education and work experience, the lead time would have been much longer, and I needed a career right away," she said. "So I enlisted in 2009 at 38 years old and have been learning about the Army from the bottom up ever since."
Although her uniformed career has been short, Bytnar's military indoctrination was the swift, no-holds-barred kind. After proving herself at garrison duty assignments as a lead health care specialist, Julie deployed to Afghanistan in 2011.
"It was an intense experience," she said. "I provided a lot of hands-on care to wounded service members and local Afghans, treating everything from minor to life threatening injuries."
Bytnar said her experience in Afghanistan also changed her career focus. Instead of simply providing care, she said, she began thinking about the bigger picture and wondering how she could prevent injuries from happening in the first place. Her curiosity eventually led her to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences here, where she broke ground as the first enlisted service member to be accepted into a graduate-level program.
"Even though I was hopeful, I was still very surprised when I got my acceptance letter from USU," she said. "Now I'm working toward a Master of Public Health [degree]. I already have a few classes under my belt. They were challenging, but I feel confident I'll survive the program. I want to prove to myself and everyone else that I can do this."
Looking to the Future
Although she is still uncertain about her future after graduation, she said, she has a science background and a fondness for research that's pulling her toward a specialization in epidemiology.
It's a difficult track in a rigorous program on a campus full of military officers. Still, her determination is tenacious.
"The past few years have been tough, but I'm more confident now than ever before," Bytnar said. "I made it through basic training with a bunch of soldiers in their late teens and early 20s. I've gone on dismounted patrols in a war zone and treated some pretty grievous injuries. Now I'm at USU. I feel like there isn't a whole lot I can't do."