BY MARY WICOFF
BALTIMORE — As a psychologist, Lt. Col. David Tharp wanted to serve veterans better. The Oakwood native knew exactly how to do that — volunteer for a tour of duty with the Air Force Reserves in Afghanistan.
For his service and outstanding performance of duty, Tharp has been named the Air Force Association 2012 Veterans Affairs Employee of the Year. He received his award in September in Baltimore.
In addition, for his efforts to NATO, the Air Force and the country, he received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the third highest Department of Defense award.
Tharp, 47, of Waco, Texas, was awed by the Employee of the Year award, saying, “It was an amazing experience. I was totally blown away.”
It also was a humbling experience, he said in a telephone interview. “Awards are nice, but there are people who sacrifice their lives for our country.”
A 1983 graduate of Oakwood High School, Tharp credits his upbringing in the Midwest with his success. Playing football, participating in Boy Scouts and attending the Muncie Baptist Church all gave him a solid background. His parents, the late Joe and Norma Tharp, also were a positive influence.
“We’re very proud of him,” his sister, Carol Sands of Danville, said. “To be picked employee of the year nationally is awesome.”
She also hopes his story inspires other local people to know that they can succeed on a national level.
Tharp’s other siblings are Kevin of Danville, Brian of Champaign and Joe of Urbana.
Tharp serves as a clinical and research psychologist at the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans, located at the VA hospital in Waco. His work supports research on veterans’ health-care issues, especially in the area of mental health challenges for returning veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq.
He’s also clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine.
In an effort to better understand his clients, Tharp deployed to Kandahar Airfield, the world’s largest and busiest NATO base, in October 2010 and returned in June 2011.
“I wanted to be in the midst of it, so I’d better know what they’re going through,” he said. “I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.”
He worked 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week at Kandahar, which is the main military base in southern Afghanistan and home to about 30,000 military, civilians and contractors. It’s also home to one of the best combat hospitals in the Middle East, which handles the most critical casualties.
As medical adviser to the commander of the airfield, Tharp was responsible for 28 countries’ medical assets, including medical response to rocket attacks. He also served as an adviser to the U.S. Army mental health team.
Using his talents as a mental health professional, computer engineer, hospital chaplain and strategic management liaison, he was able to make active contributions to the war effort. He even arranged for the first mobile MRI to be located at Kandahar.
Part of his job, however, involved identifying casualties during rocket attacks — something that happened almost every day.
Toward the end of his deployment, Tharp developed a health condition known as transverse myelitis, which created a serious compression of the spinal cord, resulting in nerve pain and damage.
He could barely walk, he said, but refused to leave his post, with just a month left in his tour of duty. He was treated by a neurologist for the next month, and then flown to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany for an MRI and subsequent testing.
He’s in remission now, he said, and is doing well.
While he was overseas, his wife Katherine, was accepted as a medical student at Texas A&M College of Medicine in Temple, and cared for their sons, Joshua, now 6, and Peyton, 4. She also is in the Air Force.
Coming home was special, he said, adding, “You thank God almighty that you can make it home safely.”
Still, he was grateful for the chance to experience war up close, and he can use those experiences to help veterans.
“I see young men and women returning from war zones, suffering from wounds that aren’t always visible,” he said in a Department of Veterans Affairs release. “It’s my honor and privilege to care for these young veterans as they return home — and how best to care for them than to experience what they do? We must come up with better treatment for these young people, and in an effort to help me help them, I went to war.”
Tharp has been a licensed clinical psychologist at the VA Center of Excellence since 2009. In August, he was promoted from the rank of major to lieutenant colonel.