LOHATLA, South Africa -- Before Maj. Paul Auchincloss made the U.S. Army his current career, the South African native was a flight instructor on single-engine aircraft in Africa.
While he was happy being an aviator, life got in the way. He ended up falling in love with one of his students and later moved with her to the United States.
Now an award-winning physician assistant, the 42-year-old Soldier -- who married the woman and had a son together -- said he has no regrets with how his life has turned out so far.
'It was the best move I've ever made,' he said, while on his first trip back to his motherland in an Army uniform for the Shared Accord exercise. Held annually at different sites on the continent, the two-week exercise enhances peacekeeping capabilities of U.S. and African forces.
Born in Johannesburg but a proud American citizen today, Auchincloss said the exercise's opening ceremony in late July put his return to South Africa into perspective.
'It was the first time that I stood and recognized both national anthems back-to-back,' he said, calling it 'a surreal experience.'
In 1995, Auchincloss left Africa for America. He didn't waste time either because two weeks later, he and his future wife, Nikki, started a course to be certified as emergency medical technicians. For the next two years, he responded to calls in ambulances racing to save lives.
Helping people desperately in need of medical care, he said, was the greatest part of the job since he saw firsthand the fruits of his labor. As he treated more people, his passion for medicine grew.
'I always had an interest in medicine, but originally I didn't qualify for some of the medical schools out of high school, being a young and immature student,' he said. 'As I matured, I was able to focus my studies a little bit more.'
Expensive college courses, though, made it difficult for him. He then turned to the U.S. military and its educational benefits. While he had a strong desire for medicine, he still yearned to fly. So, he initially targeted his search on being a Navy fighter pilot.
'That was the first thing I looked at; however, at the time I wasn't a citizen and didn't have a college degree,' he said. 'You can't commission if you don't have a college degree and if you can't commission, you can't fly jets.'
He narrowed his search again on becoming an Army medic, but hit another snag when bonuses he hoped to get were not being offered for those jobs. His career goals took yet another unexpected turn when he decided to enlist as an E-1 private in the field artillery, where he'd go on to spend eight of his 19 years of service.
'I figured here was a country that had welcomed me in,' he said. 'I can do a couple of things: I can give back to a country that had welcomed me in and at the same time get money for college.'
BACK ON TRACK
Using his benefits, Auchincloss carried on his studies in the medical field. On a whim, he said, he applied for the Army's physician assistant program after being persuaded by his wife, who is now a nurse practitioner.
'My wife was the one who poked and prodded me to look into the PA program,' he said.
After he graduated from the master's degree-level program, he finally found his calling.
'For me, being a physician assistant is probably one of the best medical fields you can be in, in the Army,' he said. 'I still get to work with and train Soldiers ... and still get my hands dirty practicing medicine in the field and clinic environment.'
As a brand new physician assistant, he received a familiar assignment treating Soldiers in a field artillery battalion. He found satisfaction in surprising some field artillerymen who thought he didn't know what they went through in their demanding jobs.
'Coming in as their doc, I used to have a lot of Soldiers say, 'Sir you don't know how it is, you have no clue.' And I had the ability to say, 'Absolutely, I know how it is. I spent eight years doing your job,'' he said, smiling. 'It was kind of full circle.'
The major's most recent assignment is a dual-hatted position, where he serves as the U.S. Army Africa Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion's surgeon as well as the command's senior physician assistant.
His main role is ensuring Soldiers are physically and mentally fit to travel to Africa. He also travels around the continent to participate in training exercises and provide medical care to senior leaders. In his first assignment with USARAF in 2014, he briefly deployed to Liberia to help stem the deadly Ebola outbreak as part of Operation United Assistance.
Even after completing a tour to Afghanistan a few years before, the Liberia mission was eye-opening to the major as he ensured members of the joint task force surveying Ebola treatment sites remained healthy.
'It was a new experience, but I welcome new experiences,' he said. 'The rapid halt of the spread of Ebola was a result of a lot of things that were put into place by the joint task force and [non-governmental organizations].'
His travels have also taken him to Contingency Location Garoua in northern Cameroon, which is home to a small U.S. Army task force that supports the country's military in its fight against the Boko Haram terrorist group.
There, he modified a tracking tool he learned in Afghanistan to lower disease and non-battle injury trends to under 6 percent in most cases at the newly established outpost. Because of those positive results and his other work in medicine, the major received the Army Surgeon General's Physician Assistant Recognition Award this year.
'The nice thing about [the tracking tool] is that it gives us real-time identification of changes in the health of the force,' he said, 'that we can report back to the commanders and then apply interventions and different modalities to halt certain trends and improve health and welfare.'
Spc. Kassandra King, a combat medic with USARAF, was in Cameroon with Auchincloss. She also assisted him during the Shared Accord exercise, which ended last week.
Currently in her first duty assignment, King said she has relied heavily on the major to help improve her skills. During a recent training lesson where Auchincloss introduced South African soldiers to U.S. Army medical gear, the major put King on the spot asking her to perform an IV procedure on a volunteer.
'He likes to go over doing IVs, especially since in USARAF we don't get to do much of actual healthcare; we're more administrative,' she said. 'He's very informative and he loves to teach, so I learn a lot from him.'
One of the South Africans watching her was Maj. G.A. Ackerman, the officer-in-charge of nursing at the South African Army Combat Training Center's hospital.
'It's better to familiarize yourself with equipment of both countries so that we can help the patient quicker,' she said afterward.
While some of the equipment and procedures of both armies differ, Ackerman said they still have a shared duty. 'It doesn't matter which country you're from, the purpose is the same -- we serve the brave,' she said.
Using his ability to speak Afrikaans, one of the country's 11 official languages, Auchincloss also shared something more in common with his foreign counterparts, which helped break the ice.
'It feels like my brother from another mother is coming home,' Ackerman said, laughing. 'It's always nice to have somebody who was from here and then come back again. It just shows the person still has appreciation for South Africa.'
Auchincloss was also impressed with the exercise's unique training, which included treating mock casualties alongside the South Africans.
'We have some of the best medical equipment in the world,' he said of the U.S. health care system. 'I know South Africa has a great medical system, but some of it may not be available in these environments, yet they have great clinical acumen.
'Sometimes in the U.S. we lose sight of that because we have all these tests and the bells and whistles.'
As for calling South Africa his home again, the prognosis of that occurring anytime soon is bleak. He still feels compelled to stay in the U.S. Army, he said, serving the country that put him where he's at today.
'This is absolutely the American dream,' he said of his career. 'My wife and I moved over with very little. I came over with a suitcase and that was it. So being able to give back, that's what has kept me in.'