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FOCUSED ON THE FUTURE: BHSU alum takes optometry skills to the U.S. Army

Tony Patterson

Col. Tony Patterson, a 1998 graduate of Black Hills State University, enlisted in the U.S. Army following graduation and became the director of the Walter Reed Eye Institute in January 2020.

Tony Patterson, Black Hills State University class of 1998, turned down a full-ride academic scholarship to the University of Wyoming to play football at BHSU after a high school friend, Ryan Williams, encouraged him to take a look at the Spearfish University.

“I liked the smaller size. It gave you more of that one-on-one kind of teaching and not just a number in a crowd," Patterson said. "The teachers and staff know you a little bit better and you're able to really get involved in organizations. The city has great support for the university. And, of course, the Black Hills are also something that I enjoyed, just where BHSU is located. You can't get much better than having the canyon right there, and the stream running through the town.”

After watching first-hand the impact that glasses made for his foster cousin, Patterson had his first thought that he might want to pursue optometry as a career. He decided to pursue a biology degree with a chemistry minor while playing as a wide receiver for the Yellow Jackets.

Although Patterson knew he wanted to pursue a career in health care, he didn’t settle on optometry until he started looking at different schools and their programs. BHSU Professor Charlie Lamb helped lead him to opportunities to get accepted into professional school after graduation.

After his first year at the Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn., Patterson said his brother joining the U.S. Army provided him with a way to help pay for the remainder of his professional schooling.

“Josh, my brother, mentioned to the recruiter that I was going to medical school, and the recruiter said there was a health professions scholarship program," Patterson said. "So I was accepted for that and joined the Army Reserves during my last three years in professional school.”

As a part of the program, Patterson was commissioned into the active-duty Army in 2003. He was then given his first assignment in Fort Bragg, N.C., and soon after deployed to Iraq just west of Fallujah for four months, handling a lot of eye injuries and infections but also providing glasses prescriptions for active-duty soldiers that were stationed in the area and even seeing some of the locals who needed eye care.

Once back in the U.S., Patterson was sent to Louisiana right after Hurricane Katrina to support the cleanup efforts, again taking care of eye injuries and providing eye care services for the soldiers that were working.

In 2006, he was once again deployed to Iraq with the 82nd Airborne Division. That time, he spent 15 months stationed in the Baghdad Green Zone, a heavily fortified area in the center of the city. During deployment, Patterson met his wife who was a nurse with the 28th Combat Support Hospital.

“The 28th CSH needed an optometrist, so I was attached to their unit for 13 months. My soon-to-be wife worked in the ER as a nurse, and I had to keep going there for emergencies and we ended up meeting," Patterson said. "We got married in fall 2008 when I went to Fort Lewis where she was stationed.”

Patterson and his wife, Abigayle, also spent three years in Vicenza, Italy, before he was selected to do a newly created two-year combined master’s program in Health Administration and Ocular Disease Residency in San Antonio. Patterson became chief of the eye service at Fort Campbell, Ky., before being selected as the director of the Walter Reed Eye Institute in January 2020. In February 2021, he received another recognition — a promotion to colonel.

“It’s been a long haul. You know it’s one of those ranks that’s very tough to get, so I’m excited about it," Patterson said. "I’m currently in charge of about 70 people in the clinic overseeing the optometry, ophthalmology, and laser vision center at Walter Reed.”

At Walter Reed, Patterson said they see not only active-duty members, they also handle the cases of family members and retirees, have a traumatic brain injury residency program, and teach as many as eight optometry interns from around the U.S.

Although it wasn’t his original plan, Patterson has lived in six different states and countries in his 18 years in the U.S. Army. When he decides to retire, Patterson and his wife and three kids, Hannah, Benjamin, and Catherine, are looking forward to finding their “forever home.”

For now, he’s taking all the lessons learned at BHSU in the classroom, on the football field, and in student organizations to benefit patients and teach the next generation of optometrists.

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