When Jose Chevalier, Isabelle Trinh Phan and Nam Yong Cho enlisted in the U.S. military, they were thinking of their families. Their families were, after all, the strongest support system these three Bruins had after immigrating to the U.S. from various parts of the globe, and joining up meant easing the pressure on their loved ones. But it was a good thing for a variety of reasons.
While none of these student veterans could have predicted it, their military experiences would also point them toward academic and career trajectories in medicine, eventually leading two of them to the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and one to the UCLA College as a pre-med student with hopes of attending the medical school in the future.
Here are their stories.
Jose Chevalier: The mission is compassion
Jose Chevalier likens medical school to drinking from a firehose.
“Sometimes it’s overwhelming how much information is bestowed upon us,” said the Navy veteran and student at the Geffen School of Medicine. “One topic alone will have a physiological, pathological, pharmacological, anatomical and histological aspect to it.”
If anyone can handle it, it’s Chevalier. A double Bruin who seeks to integrate his military and engineering background with his passion for medicine, he hopes to help people who need reconstructive surgery, including those undergoing gender transitions.
The seed of this aspiration took root during Chevalier’s younger years in the Dominican Republic, where he lived near an aunt who provided pre- and post-operative care at her home for patients undergoing plastic and reconstructive surgery.
“The surgeon would perform breast reconstruction at no cost to breast cancer survivors that had undergone mastectomies,” Chevalier said. “I was just 7 or 8 years old, and I could see the confidence, the shift of energy, once the surgery was done. That’s when I knew I wanted to help people feel comfortable in their own skin.”
In 2007, Chevalier left the island — which at the time was plagued by corruption and poverty, he said — and settled with his mother and two younger brothers in Florida.
Eyeing military service as a means of supporting his family and a potential pathway to higher education, the 18-year-old Chevalier joined the Navy in 2014. As a fleet Marine force hospital corpsman, he trained in lifesaving interventions and was responsible for keeping Marines healthly and deployable.
While stationed at Camp Pendleton in San Diego County, he enrolled in community college courses and graduated as valedictorian of his class. A year later, he was accepted to UCLA as a chemical engineering major, and upon graduating in 2022, he was swiftly recruited by a large aerospace firm, where he worked in systems testing.
“I loved what I was doing, but since I was 7, I’ve thought of becoming a physician,” he said. “I couldn’t spend the rest of my life wondering.”
Earlier this year, he was admitted to the Geffen School of Medicine.
In addition to his medical studies, Chevalier is working to help other veterans forge a path in medicine and STEM fields. He serves as a mentor with the Pre-Health Program for Military Connected Students program, which helps younger, medically minded military students form solid networks, navigate coursework and feel a sense of belonging.
Isabelle Trinh Phan: ‘It was time for me to pay back’
Measuring 5 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing 110 pounds, Isabelle Trinh Phan never imagined she’d become a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve. What motivated her to enlist and overcome the physical and mental challenges, however, was a force far stronger than brawn — it was a mother’s will.
Shortly after Phan came to the U.S. from Vietnam in 2017, she gave birth to a son. Money was tight, and things like the federal assistance program for food and nutrition and Medi-Cal were lifesavers for Phan's family.
After enrolling at Orange Coast College, Phan received a CalGrant and was awarded a number of merit-based scholarships.
“America gave me everything without asking, without questioning my ability,” said the UCLA College honors student. “It was time for me to pay back.”
In 2019, Phan started basic combat training at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. She then enrolled in a medical track advanced individual training program, which included a role as an operating room specialist at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state. Thanks to the mentorship of surgeons and other medical staff, Phan got hands-on anatomy lessons during the procedures she assisted with.
“This experience gave me a lot of insights about my future career and confirmed my passion for medicine,” said Phan, who transferred to UCLA in 2022 to pursue an undergraduate degree in molecular, cell and developmental biology, with a minor in biomedicine.
It would be between her involvement with the Brain Tumor Immunology Research Lab at the Geffen School of Medicine and her volunteering with veterans in hospice that Phan, seeing higher rates of cancer development in military personnel, zeroed in on her goal.
"I want to keep serving in the military as either a trauma surgeon or a physician-scientist to provide better training and working conditions for service members — not only through informing policy changes to minimize cancer-causing biological and chemical exposures in combat but also to build comprehensive medical treatments for veterans, service members and their families,” she said.
Phan, who is scheduled to graduate in summer 2024, plans to take two gap years before applying to medical school to grow her nonprofit tutoring organization, the Regency Young Scholars Science Project, and enrich her research experience.
Nam Yong Cho: From combat comes a passion for trauma care
Of all the choices a third-year medical student could make, Nam Yong Cho has selected one of the toughest career options: trauma surgery. It’s front-line duty that isn’t for the faint of heart. Cho, known for a calm, steady demeanor, is drawn to it.
The Army veteran served as a combat medic in Afghanistan, where a strike left an interpreter with a severe shrapnel wound that nearly severed his Achilles tendon. Cho was the first to respond, performing triage and evacuating the wounded service member to a field hospital. The intervention was the reason the man was later able to walk.
“It’s gratifying helping to bring a soldier back to their loved ones,” Cho said.
His tour of duty in Afghanistan set a future course for the soldier, who was born in South Korea, a nation that has also suffered invasion and occupation. His earliest years were spent in Seoul, where he was raised by his grandparents, before he immigrated to the U.S. in 2005 to be with immediate family in Irvine.
Though the cultural assimilation was difficult, Cho was accepted to UCLA in 2012 and began studying chemical engineering. Though it’s hard to imagine now, Cho said he was unfocused in his studies during those initial years.
“I was young, I was lost and my family was going through tough times,” he recalled. “I didn’t want them to have to pay my tuition, so I joined the Army.”
Cho was first stationed with the 1-501st Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 11th Airborne Division, in Alaska. He learned to parachute with skis, carrying equipment that nearly matched his body weight.
His term of active service officially ended on a Sunday in 2019; the next day, he resumed his studies at UCLA, having switched his major to biochemistry and set his sights set on the Geffen School of Medicine. Cho was accepted into the medical program the following year and was named a Tillman Scholar in 2021.
While studying full-time and working at the UCLA Cardiac Outcomes Research Laboratory, Cho mentors younger medical students from military backgrounds. He also leads a UCLA chapter of Scrubs Addressing the Firearm Epidemic and a military and veteran student organization at the medical school.
(Watch Cho tell his story in a feature video from the Geffen School of Medicine.)