Thomas Edwards always knew he wanted to serve his country. So right after graduation from Manteca High School in 1997, he enlisted in the Army.
Little did he know at the time that he would end up being a medical doctor in the Navy.
But that is where the Manteca native is today. He is now a medical intern at the Balboa Medical Center in San Diego, his next stop following his graduation from DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine in Tennessee last May. He will be taking his medical board exam next year when he also starts his four-year residency. He has already sent his applications to the three naval hospitals in the United States for his residency – at Bethesda, Maryland; San Diego, and Virginia.
“I really don’t care which naval hospital will accept me,” because he likes all three naval hospitals equally, said Edwards during an interview Wednesday after his brief presentation about careers in the military – specifically, the Army and Navy branches which he is personally familiar with – to the JROTC class at the Buffalo campus.
His appearance at his old alma mater was at the invitation of JROTC instructors Chief Warrant Officer (C4 ret.) David Torres and Master Sgt. (ret.) Henry Benavente. Edwards was in the JROTC program at Manteca High before he joined the Army. He also played high school football for three years.
When Chief Torres learned that the former Buffalo JROTC cadet who just graduated from naval medical school was visiting friends in Manteca, he invited Edwards to come and “talk to the kids, give them just a pep talk about what they can do” in the military and how that could help them “do what they want to do” as far as a possible future career is concerned. Something that Edwards knew very well firsthand, having taken advantage of the GI Bill to pursue his medical studies, Torres said.
The retired Army Chief Warrant Officer (C4) described Edwards as “outstanding (and) very personable.
“I wish all my doctors were that way, where you can just talk to him like a human being,” said Torres who was not at Manteca High when Edwards was a JROTC student in the mid-1990s.
No family or relatives left in Manteca, but plenty of friends to visit
Edwards, his wife Savannah Leigh (Helle) and their five-month-old daughter Annaleigh Reese, were visiting Manteca for a few days last week. All of Edwards’ family are no longer living in The Family City – mother, Barbara Edwards, who worked for General Services Administration in Stockton now lives in Hawaii where she continues to work for the same company; his sister Penny Edwards Campbell who is eight years his senior and is also a Manteca High graduate, now lives with her husband and two kids in Georgetown, Kentucky; and his father, also named Thomas, has been living in Alaska for many years.
His parents divorced when he was very young, he said, and he and his sister were raised by their mother with the help of very good friends and neighbors.
It was those childhood friends, “people who looked after me” while his mother was at work, and who were actually like family, who were the reasons for his visit to Manteca. Those friends are old neighbors Judy Haskins and her family whose house near Sequoia Elementary was where he often hung out after school. Haskins and her late husband, who died two years ago, had three children who happened to be all girls – twins Candy and Christy, and the oldest, Carla. It was Carla who often gave Edwards a lift to Manteca High when he started high school.
“When she was a senior, I was a freshman,” Edwards said of her childhood playmate.
And since the Haskins had no sons, “I was like the son they never had,” Edwards said with the confident laugh of one who has been pampered with love and kindness.
It was the Haskins who played host to the Edwards family during their visit to Manteca this week when the medical intern was on leave for several days from the naval hospital in San Diego.
The last time he came up here for a weekend visit without his family, Edwards stayed at the home of another lifelong friend in Manteca, Paul Catolico. Actually, the two have been best friends for years, with Catolico doing the honors of standing as best man for his friend when he got married in Tennessee in 2006.
Others in Manteca whom Edwards kept as friends through the years he was away in the military were people he met at Northgate Community Church where he was active in youth ministry, and sports-loving friends he met while taking part in community sports programs. Edwards played for many years with the Manteca Cowboys Football League, Little League, Babe Ruth, and soccer. Those community and church involvements produced lifelong close friends.
He also got to know a lot of other people in town by working as a newspaper carrier, first, for the Manteca Bulletin and later for The Modesto Bee paper which paid a little bit more, hence the job switch, he explained.
Enjoyed growing up here in Manteca
Eyes twinkling and with a broad smile, Edwards had a lot of fun reminiscing about growing up in Manteca long before Walmart even moved a shovel of dirt, and Tracy was still a “cow town” with all its dairy farms. He remembered going to the parks with his friends, playing hide-and-seek, and climbing trees.
“I like Manteca. I enjoyed growing up here. There was always something to do,” he said, such as community sports and swimming at the popular local water holes.
The Stanislaus River at Caswell Memorial State Park and the now-defunct Oakwood Lake Resort and Waterslides were “old stomping grounds in the summer,” Edwards said.
As a teen-ager in high school, summers meant flying up to Alaska where he earned spending money by working in construction at the company that was managed by his father. Edwards has three step-siblings after his father remarried; his mother never remarried.
The road to medical school: from the Army to the Navy
The road to medical school for Edwards went through three branches of the military. During his four years in the Army, he was a medic and worked as an LVN (licensed vocational nurse). He took his LVN schooling and training at Fort Campbell in Kentucky.
After his honorable discharge from the Army, he took advantage of the GI Bill and enrolled at Austin Peay University in Tennessee for his pre-med studies. While at Austin Peay, he enlisted in the Tennessee National Guard. He graduated with biology as his major and chemistry as his minor. In 2007, he was accepted for medical school at DeBusk College of Osteopathic Medicine, also in Tennessee. To get into DeBusk, a naval medical school, Edwards had to enlist in the Navy. He graduated from medical school in May of this year.
In between pre-med and medical school, he married his sweetheart, the former Savannah Leigh Helle. The two met while attending Austin Peay where she earned her education degree and later went to work as a kindergarten teacher. Their wedding was held on May 12, 2006 right after their graduation. They first child, Annaleigh Reese, is now five months old.
Edwards is working on becoming a general internist. But what he really wants to do, he said, is to practice as an OBGYN. He made that decision after working in the labor and delivery units at the hospitals where he was assigned and found, “I want to deliver babies.” He has already assisted in a lot of childbirth labor and C-sections.
As an active member of the service, Edwards was able to finish his pre-med and medical studies on a “full-ride” military scholarship.
“Taxpayers paid my college and medical school,” he said.
In return, Edwards’ contract will have him working as a doctor at U.S. naval hospitals.
The military “gave me all these (medical) skills,” he said.
And working as a doctor in the military is “not a bad gig” at all, he added.
He plans to make it a career in the military as a medical doctor and may take an early retirement at the age of 39, or at 43 should he decide to take the full-time retirement for a higher pension.
After finishing his military career, Edwards plans to start his medical practice as a civilian doctor in the state where they met.
“My wife and I will settle in Clarksville, Tennessee,” he said.
Clarksville is a “college town” as well as a “military town.” And while it currently has a population of 110,000, the city has a small-town feel. “It doesn’t feel big,” Edwards said.
But, he added, he will never forget Manteca and the many friends who have always remained near and dear to him through the years.