USAFA reservist takes home national award

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- An Air Force Reserve clinical psychologist with the Peak Performance Center here recently received with the 2014 Disabled American Veterans National Commanders Award for the top Veterans Health Administrator.

The Air Force core values affect everything Lt. Col. David Tharp does, and he credits them not only with his recent recognition, but with his continued career in the Air Force Reserve.

"All my life," Tharp said, "through football and working as a hospice chaplain - including watching my own mother die of cancer - I have learned what it takes to never give up, to never quit. I believe that trials don't just build character, they reveal it. I believe strongly in serving God and country. Although I strive for perfection, I make mistakes. But one thing is for sure, integrity is at the center of it all."

Tharp's career with the Reserve was put in jeopardy after he became ill on a deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. He volunteered for the deployment to experience serving in a combat zone.

"As a psychologist, I had to ask myself, 'How do I really know how to help military personnel if I've never been there?'" said Tharp, who is the Psychosocial Residential Rehabilitation PTSD Veterans Affairs program manager in Waco, Texas, when not on Reserve duty.

While in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Tharp suffered a spinal cord illness affecting him from the chest down, making even walking difficult, but insisted on completing the last month of his 10-month tour before being medevac'd out.

"It's called transverse myelitis," he said. "This experience changed me forever, but in a positive way. I truly believe you cannot live until you've faced death. I might as well live my life with intense passion and sacrifice while I am here."

Tharp believes his illness and experiences better allow him to truly empathize with his patients at the VA.

"One veteran looked at me square in the face," he said, "and said, 'That's nice, Doc, but you've never been there!' Little did he know where I had been, or what I had done."

It was when Tharp met David Reeves, a Disabled American Veterans National Service Office supervisory national service officer, that he was first considered for the 2014 DAV National Commanders Award for the top veterans health administrator.

"He listened to my story as we discussed the injury I sustained in Kandahar," he said. "I guess David saw something in me that matched the heart of the DAV and he pursued this relentlessly. He is why I am recognized in this manner."

Tharp will be officially recognized for his award at the DAV National Convention in Las Vegas Aug. 10.

Tom Berry, Center for Character & Leadership Development deputy director here, believes the recognition is well deserved. Berry respects Tharp for his dedication to cadets.

"His job is to help cadets through difficult times," Berry said, adding that Tharp was strongly encouraged to retire from the Reserve due to illness after his deployment. "This is a man who knows difficult times."

Tharp fought to remain in the service and returned to his Reserve duty this month. He now uses his deployed experiences to help prepare cadets at the Academy.

"My return to duty will allow me the opportunity to work with cadets I might not otherwise have been able to until they become veterans," Tharp said. "If I cannot take them to Kandahar, I do the next best thing and that is take them in pictures and stories. I believe ultimately this helps our cadets prepare for what they may face in the future. And being prepared is pivotal."

Helping cadets maintain positive mental health now and in the future is one of Tharp's goals at the Academy.

"During incredibly difficult and stressful times, one's core beliefs and courage begin to reveal themselves," he said. "Cadets are all about our core values and living them. I've just had the opportunity to do that in a war zone and through personal sacrifice. We have a choice to live by our code or not. I am about living it."

Tharp believes cadets exemplify the core values necessary to survive in difficult situations.

"I love cadets because they are the heart and soul of our nation," he said. "They know what it takes to sacrifice, to put others first and work to their fullest potential. Cadets not only believe in our core values, they live by them."

To Tharp, recognition by the DAV -- while an honor -- was never his goal in his work with the VA or the cadets.

"Personally, it's about service and sacrifice," Tharp said. "It's about touching people's lives in a way that makes a difference. Honestly, this award is about service, sacrifice, caring, encouragement, hope and people. The recognition pulls together both ends of the military spectrum - from cadets to veterans. I get excited beyond measure when I see people move beyond their stuck points in life. If, at the end of my life, I can make a difference, I will have been successful."