Brandon Wills, D.O., was an emergency physician and faculty at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state when Peter Moffett, M.D., joined the team as a resident. It was 2007, and both doctors were building their careers at the cross-section of military service and emergency medicine. They kept in touch after their time in the Army, and Wills eventually recruited Moffett to join the VCU Department of Emergency Medicine, where they both continue to draw on their military training, ready for anything that comes through the doors of the hospital.

Connections and camaraderie

Wills, an associate professor and program director of the medical toxicology fellowship, joined the Army in 2005. Influenced by a family member who served in the Vietnam War and drawn to emergency medicine after working on an ambulance as a student, Wills said combining his chosen specialty with military service “all made sense.” Being separated from his wife and children was one of the most excruciating parts of his 2006 deployment to a combat support hospital in Mosul, Iraq, but he described his time in the Army as one of the most profound experiences of his life.

“I think about it almost every day,” he said. “The profound trauma and the loss, but also the camaraderie.”

When Moffett began medical school in 2003, the attacks of September 11, 2001, were still on his mind, and like Wills, his time working as an EMT introduced him to emergency medicine. He joined the Army through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which covers the cost of tuition for medical students who commit to serving in the military after training. He completed his residency at Madigan and deployed to Baghdad in 2010.

“When you’re training in the military in emergency medicine, you know that you’re going to be practicing in an environment that’s different than anywhere else,” said Moffett, who still keeps his watch set to military time. “Even if we didn't see it every day, we prepped for it every day. So, I felt comfortable coming out of residency knowing that I could take care of absolutely anything.”

Moffett worked in a combat support hospital while he was deployed, primarily caring for injured Iraqis. Like many in the military, those experiences helped forge an even deeper, long-term connection with his fellow servicemembers.

That connection brought Moffett to VCU. He'd stayed in touch with several friends from the Army, and when his mentor, Wills, called him from Richmond and suggested he check out VCU Medical Center, it wasn’t a tough sell. He came on board in 2014 and is now an associate professor and associate director of the emergency medicine residency program.

Richmond isn’t on the front line of an active war zone, but training with the military prepared Moffett and Wills for the broad range of complex cases they encounter in VCU Medical Center’s emergency department every day. Wills said the level of collegiality at a deployed combat support hospital was unlike anything he’s experienced, with VCU as a “close second.”

“I think that’s why I like it here,” Moffett agreed. “You see the pathology, the acuity of the patients, but also our group of faculty and residents is just outstanding.”

Lasting leadership

In addition to the medical training, leadership was fundamental in the Army — Moffett described it as “almost a permanent part of the curriculum” from day one.

“There was no such thing as not knowing how to be a leader,” he said. “And in the military, you sort of found people you thought were good leaders and attached yourself to them, like Brandon here.”

Moffett credits much of his career development to mentors like Wills, whom he described as both brilliant and able to translate complex concepts into something understandable.

“He’s also a master of pulling people up instead of pushing them down,” Moffett said. “I always felt like even if I didn’t have the right answer, he was going to try and get something out of me and then not make me feel stupid when I didn’t have it. So, it was this extremely supportive way of learning."

Wills takes little credit for his colleague’s success, and said Moffett was a standout resident early on.

"There’s a distance between where you are as an attending and where the resident is in terms of their clinical skills and knowledge, and with Pete, that gap was just closing right in front of my eyes. It didn’t take long for me to see that he was surpassing what I could give him,” Wills said. “Seeing that as a faculty member, whether it’s Pete or anyone else, is the coolest thing, and it’s always what I hope for in working with residents.”