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Face of Defense: Veterinarian Reflects on Unconventional Career Journey

Military Health System

WASHINGTON, June 23, 2017 — Just out of high school and unsure of what to do with his life, a young Ohio man went to a bus depot, handed a ticket agent almost all of the money in his pocket, and said with a smile, "I'll go wherever this takes me." So begins James "Nick" Koterski's unconventional journey to becoming an Army colonel.

Army Col. James "Nick" Koterski, a veterinarian and microbiologist, took an unconventional route toward joining an elite cadre of Army medical research scientists. Courtesy photo
Army Col. James "Nick" Koterski, a veterinarian and microbiologist, took an unconventional route toward joining an elite cadre of Army medical research scientists. Courtesy photo

Landing in New Orleans, he spent the rest of his cash on a good meal. Shucking oysters nights and on weekends to earn money, he worked toward an undergraduate degree from the University of New Orleans, and eventually completed his doctorate of veterinarian medicine in 1989 from Louisiana State University.

Koterski worked in a regular clinical practice for a few years. "It wasn't for me," he said, so he found a food inspector position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A couple of years later, a colleague in the Army Reserve suggested that his adventurous nature would make him a good fit for the Army.

His first assignment sent him to Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, where he primarily conducted food inspections for the commissary and exchange. He said what made the assignment really satisfying, though, was providing for the medical needs of all the working dogs for the Port Authority of New York and the Coast Guard.

When he was next stationed at Camp Hialeah, situated at the southern tip of South Korea, he continued his food inspection role for all Defense Department installations and vendors.

Continuing Education

Koterski returned to New Jersey after his stint in Korea and earned a doctorate in microbiology from Rutgers University. Those credentials led him to join an exclusive group of medical research scientists, who account for about six percent of the 400 Army veterinarians.

Koterski joined DoD's lead lab for medical biological defense research, the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. The institute's core mission is to protect service members from biological threats, and so it investigates disease outbreaks and threats to public health, especially those that can be used as weapons.

One of his first expeditions with the institute involved working with local public health researchers at various Native American reservations in the "four corners" area -- Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. He worked on a new test for plague, which naturally occurs in prairie dogs and other rodents in the area.

He had another memorable assignment with Inuit natives in Canada's Northwest Territory on Great Slave Lake, sampling tissues of wildlife to find bacterium similar to anthrax, but not as highly lethal.

Koterski returned to Fort Detrick in 2005, this time with the U.S. Army Medical Materiel and Development Activity, to develop new drugs for biological defense threats not common enough for drug companies to invest in yet.

Monkey Pox

Koterski said one of his most challenging assignments, however, was the year he spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he helped collect blood samples from patients and charted the natural course of a rare disease called monkey pox, similar to smallpox.

In 2012, Koterski deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, as part of a forward assist science and technology team investigating products to enhance combat safety and medical efficiency. "It was interesting and rewarding," he recalled.

He gathered direct input on a noise-cancelling stethoscope intended for use on medevac helicopters. "We also spent a lot of time talking to infantrymen finding out what did and didn't work in pursuit of new items like ballistic and blast-resistant undergarments," he said.

Since May 2015, Koterski has been the medical countermeasures director in DoD's office of the assistant secretary for health affairs. He works closely with the departments of State, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, ensuring the national stockpile of countermeasure vaccines and drug treatments is maintained.

Koterski, who is retiring in the fall after 22 years of service, said no single role or assignment stands out as his favorite. "You know, it really isn't about what I did or where," he said, "it's about appreciating each and every person I've had the great fortune to spend time with on the journey."