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Thomas Riney became the latest Washington County resident commissioned into the United States Army at the 1816 Courthouse building in Springfield on May 28.
Though many have taken the same oath through the generations, Riney’s journey to that point is very much his own.
Riney, 22, is the son of Billy and Jerri Riney of Springfield. He graduated as Bethlehem High School’s salutatorian in 2010 and received magna cum laude honors as he completed the undergraduate program at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio last month.
Now he embarks on the challenge of medical school at the University of Louisville, and he’ll be doing so with the support of the U.S. Army at his back.
Riney found out just three weeks ago that he’d been accepted into the F. Edward Hébert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which covers his full tuition and other expenses, plus a monthly stipend of $2,200.
His obligations for fulfilling the scholarship requirements include four years of medical school with basic officer leadership courses starting in summer 2015, at least four years of residency at one of 10 U.S. Army medical centers and the same amount of time serving in the Army as an active duty captain in the medical corps.
To get a grasp of how Riney reached this monumental point in his life, you have to go back a few years, all the way to second grade to be exact.
Riney has had the mentality of a medical professional his entire life. He can’t point to a specific moment when he decided to move forward with becoming a doctor, but it was clearly a part of who he was, even as a kid.
“In Lori Graves’ second-grade class, we had this thing called ‘carpet time,’ where we would all sit in a circle on this carpet and she would ask us questions,” Riney said. “One of the questions one day was, ‘What’s your favorite animal?’”
It’s a pretty straight-forward question for a classroom of seven-year-olds, but while the others named their favorite zoo animals, Riney went another direction.
“I always knew my favorite animal was the human,” he said. “Humans are so fascinating, because we’re so weak and feeble, but at the same time, we’ve erected huge buildings and developed mentally. That love for humanity combined with some personal experiences — coming pretty close to losing my life —really made medicine the right fit for me.”
“They saved me”
That close call came in July 2008, when a freak accident led to Riney being run over by a truck at his home in Springfield.
“Somehow, after the truck stopped, I stood up. I guess it was pure adrenaline,” he said. “I stood up and I just remember screaming. I started falling back down and my dad caught me before I fell and drove me to Lebanon.”
Riney said he remembers very little about the incident after that, but that his injuries were severe enough that he had to be rushed to the trauma center at the University of Louisville.
“They saved me,” he said. “University of Louisville has always kind of been a No. 1 choice medical school for me because they saved me. It’s always been a top choice for me.”
“Hillbillies don’t go to college”
Riney took a shot at singing for the first time in Sarah Haydon’s after-school YMCA program at St. Dominic in either the first or second grade. He flourished with his newly discovered talent and parlayed that into an eventual scholarship at Xavier.
“I remember being on a picnic table and her telling me to sing something,” he said. “I was just singing parts of mass from St. Dominic Church.”
Riney was a natural.
Before he knew it, he was taking lessons to play the organ at mass, which he followed through with until his freshman year of high school.
He kept with his love of music, but turned to the country genre as a high schooler. Tom Riney, as his extra-rural persona was known, performed at fairs, state conventions and other venues. That is, until he happened upon a couple of students at one convention who had recently been awarded music scholarships.
“I asked them how I should go about applying for that, and I remember one of them turned around and said, ‘Hillbillies don’t go to college,’” Riney said.
With that, “Tom” Riney was no more.
He began taking more serious piano lessons and was accepted into the Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, which opened his eyes to classical music.
He used the skills he learned to audition for colleges, earning the Mother McAuley scholarship from Xavier, which is given to two incoming students each year (one male and one female).
Riney said Xavier was the right fit for him because it offers a liberal arts program and is a Jesuit school, providing for the study of theology. The facts that his tuition was paid for — half on an academic scholarship and half on the McAuley scholarship — and that he fell in love with Cincinnati almost instantly were just icing on the cake. Four years later, he’s graduated with bachelor degrees of both science (natural science) and arts (music performance).
He said analytical skills from his music theory classes, teamwork skills from working with ensembles and leadership skills from conducting large performances are the biggest things he’ll carry with him in his career as a medical professional and active duty serviceman.
“As far as using music in the future, I’ll probably have a church job during medical school, but honestly, the things I’ll use most from music are those skills I’ve learned,” he said.
Riney was accepted into UofL medical school in January, and only five days later he received an email from SSG. Ryan Blas, a U.S. Army health care recruiter. Blas informed Riney that he had the qualifications to apply for a unique scholarship program.
Riney wasn’t so keen on the idea at first.
“The Army? No, no...no,” he recalled thinking at the time.
Then he got a phone call from Blas, who was adamant that not many of the scholarships are awarded and that Riney was exactly the type of person they were looking for.
“I returned his call, he told me more information about it and I told him some information about myself, and it just seemed like it was a great fit,” Riney said. “Everything he said about the program really resonated with me as an individual.”
Still, after researching how exhaustive the application process was and how few scholarships were available, he wondered if it was even worth the trouble. Blas, however, pointed out that after completing two majors and more than 220 credit hours in four years, Riney was more qualified than he realized.
“He said, ‘You can handle stress. You are incredibly qualified for this position because of the amount of stress you can handle,’” Riney recalled.
So, he applied for the scholarship. Only then did he inform his family of his decision. He said he knew his announcement was going to “come out of left field.”
“I sat down and I said, ‘I’m applying for this scholarship in the Army.’ My mom’s face…,” Riney said, breaking into laughter. “My mom’s very well put together, but she just had this blank look on her face. My brother actually laughed at me, because when you think of the Army, you think of the commercials with someone parachuting out of a plane or something like that.”
Riney was able to quell any concerns about his safety by ensuring his family that by military standards he’d be well out of harm’s way. He told them about the benefits of the program and how his medical school would be paid for, but for him, the most important aspect is the residency at one of 10 Army hospitals, which present him with an opportunity for exposure in the medical field that he may have never had otherwise.
“I’m going into this thinking this isn’t a way to pay for medical school, this is a way for me to be exposed to the best training possible,” he said. “That type of attitude, I’ve been told, is going to really help me rise in the Army.”
That rise will likely be a quick one, as Riney enters the armed forces as a second lieutenant, a status many servicemen never reach during their military career. Upon completing medical school in four years, he’ll make his first move up the ranks, being commissioned once again, this time as a ranking officer with the title of captain.
Serving as class president for two years in high school, as well as two years in the honors program at Xavier, leadership is engrained in Riney, and the Army has taken notice. He said he could see a political career in his future, and a background in the medical field, as well as the military, would go a long way toward building on those leadership skills.
For now, he’s just focusing on getting started with medical school until his first training session — which has been fondly referred to as “death by PowerPoint” — starts up next summer.
Though he said it still hasn’t quite sunk in that he’s enrolled in the United States Army, the reason behind his decision struck him during his college graduation.
“I cried once at my college graduation. It was at the very beginning, when our men’s a capella group sang the national anthem,” Riney said. “I was standing there with my hand over my heart and I was thinking about my family sitting behind me and my friends sitting beside me, and I was thinking, ‘I’m not doing this for me. I’m doing this for my friends. I’m doing this for my family. I’m doing this for my country. I’m doing this for the greatest country in the world.’”