January 10, 1968, in South Vietnam: Specialist fifth class Clarence Sasser and his battalion are conducting an air assault while on reconnaissance in Dinh Tuong Province. Without warning, they begin to take heavy enemy fire and one of their helicopters goes down. In minutes, 30 men are killed and several more are wounded. Without hesitation, Sasser, a medical aidman, runs across an open rice field through a hail of enemy fire to aid his fallen countrymen. After moving one man to safety, an exploding mortar shoots shrapnel into Sasser’s left shoulder and two additional shots from enemy soldiers immobilize both his legs. Despite these agonizing wounds, he drags himself through the mud, calling orders for others to move to safety as he aids more wounded soldiers.

It took several months of rehabilitation in Japan before Sasser regained use of his legs. Upon his return to the United States in 1969, Sasser received the Medal of Honor from President Richard Nixon for his life-saving acts of valor, which were deemed above and beyond the call of duty. He was later recruited to attend Texas A&M University on a scholarship personally offered by the late Gen. Earl Rudder, who was then president of the university. While life circumstances prevented Sasser from graduating, he remained an Aggie at heart, and in 2014, he was presented with an honorary degree from Texas A&M.

From left: John Espinoza, first year medical student and first-ever Clarence Sasser Scholarship recipient; Clarence Sasser, Medal of Honor Recipient; Brett Giroir, M.D., CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center.

From left: John Espinoza, first year medical student and first-ever Clarence Sasser Scholarship recipient; Clarence Sasser, Medal of Honor Recipient; Brett Giroir, M.D., CEO of Texas A&M Health Science Center

In recognition of his selfless service – a quality that those in the health care professions demonstrate on a daily basis – the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine created the Clarence Sasser Scholarship this year, a $25,000 scholarship initially made possible by the generous contribution of an anonymous donor and slated to be awarded annually to entering medical students who demonstrate the same dedication that Mr. Sasser personified on the battlefield.

“Excellence, integrity, leadership, loyalty, respect and selfless service – these are the values that define Texas A&M, and we seek to instill each of these in the physicians we educate,” said Paul Ogden, M.D., interim dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine. “Clarence Sasser embodies all of these traits, as witnessed in his courageous acts in Vietnam and throughout his life. I cannot think of a better example of the type of physician we’re striving to produce.”

“As an army medic with aspirations of becoming a doctor, this is truly an honor to be recognized in this manner,” Sasser said. “I hope the scholarship will be a ticket for future medical student hopefuls to achieve their goals of becoming Aggie physicians.”

One of those hopefuls, Johnny Espinoza, is now well on his way to becoming an Aggie physician thanks to the generous scholarship.

Espinoza, the first-ever Sasser Scholar, began classes at the Texas A&M College of Medicine in July. Prior to joining the ranks of future Aggie doctors, he served for more than eight years as an Army veterinary food inspection specialist, while he earned dual bachelor’s degrees in chemistry and biology from the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton, Texas. During those eight years he served a tour in Iraq, a decision he made so one of his soldiers wouldn’t have to go alone.

“Another unit was deployed, but they had one soldier who was unable to go, so they pulled a soldier from my unit. I was a higher rank, so they didn’t need me, but I didn’t want her to go alone, so I volunteered,” he said.

After the military, Espinoza worked for a pharmaceutical company and then began applying for medical school. When he interviewed at Texas A&M, he says it just felt right.

“The students at Texas A&M seemed like they had really close relationships with their professors and could always ask them for help when they needed them. The atmosphere felt very genuine,” he said.

After completing medical school and residency, Espinoza plans to work in medically underserved areas in rural regions of the U.S., but says he would ideally like to serve as a Navy surgeon so he can travel and help those in third-world nations where access to medical care is scarce at best.

Espinoza had the privilege of meeting Clarence Sasser at a scholarship award ceremony held on the Texas A&M Health Science Center Bryan campus this summer.

“It was a real honor to meet a living recipient of the Medal of Honor,” he said. “I hope if I am ever in Mr. Sasser’s situation that I will have the courage and fortitude to press forward and assist my patients as he assisted those with whom he served.”

— Lindsey Hendrix

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