JUNE 26, 2006 | Cecil Piazza was one semester away from a bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine imaging sciences at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) back in May 2004. That was when his Louisiana Army National Guard unit was notified of deployment to Iraq.
Two years later, after returning from a year in Iraq just in time for his unit to deploy to help his home state recover from Hurricane Katrina, Piazza completed his degree and graduated from UAMS with a bachelor’s degree in nuclear medicine imaging sciences.
“Cecil is a very dedicated young man who knows what he wants to do,” said Martha Pickett, director of the Division of Nuclear Medicine Imaging Sciences in the Department of Imaging and Radiation Sciences of the UAMS College of Health Related Professions.
Of course, the 29-year-old wasn’t able to attend the May 20 UAMS graduation ceremony – he had Guard duty.
“On behalf of the College of Health Related Professions, I congratulate Mr. Piazza for his dedication in completing his career objective while also serving his country under very dangerous circumstances,” said UAMS College of Public Health Dean Ronald H. Winters, Ph.D. “I also commend program director Martha Pickett and our faculty for again demonstrating their commitment to our students.”
Piazza said he was an undergraduate studying kinesiology at Louisiana State University when he got interested in nuclear medicine technology. He was already a member of the Louisiana Army National Guard at that point. Upon graduation from LSU, he went to work with a mobile nuclear medicine company, assisting a nuclear medicine technologist by providing stress testing on patients as part of a cardiac scan.
He found out about the UAMS nuclear medicine imaging sciences program, which serves as the senior year of a Bachelor of Science degree program. The UAMS program is split between classroom instruction and clinical experience.
The nuclear medicine technologist uses radioactive tracers to diagnose and treat a wide variety of abnormal conditions – such as heart problems.
He began classes via distance learning and online instruction in the fall of 2003.
In March 2004, he received, as he referred to it, “the phone call.” The first lieutenant’s Guard unit would be deployed to Iraq for a year following training set to start in May.
His education was put on hold as his focus shifted to preparing himself and those in his command for the deployment. By October 2004, he had arrived in Iraq, where he served as an operations officer in a combat engineer company.
“My company had two primary missions in Iraq,” Piazza said. “First, we provided security escort for the Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team – basically the Army’s bomb squad. Our second mission was to conduct IED (improvised explosive device) sweeps through the brigade’s area of operation to ensure safe mobility of friendly forces.”
During the deployment, the team found more than 60 IEDs, diffused more than 240, “and it’s hard for me to remember how many IEDs found us.”
It was tough work, which was profiled by the Department of Defense in a story about Piazza’s unit. The Louisiana-based brigade lost 22 soldiers in Iraq and many more were wounded, he said. At the same time, the citizen soldiers faced being away from home on birthdays, the birth of a son or daughter or the death of a family member.
“We had to deal with the stresses of home and put on our gear, get in our [Humvee] in the 140-degree heat and go out there and look for IEDs and get shot at from day to day,” Piazza said, summarizing the experience. “Iraq felt like one long day.”
Pickett stayed in touch with Piazza via email. The nuclear medicine technology program sent a “care package” that included Girl Scout cookies.
“I’m glad he stayed in touch, since it let us know he was safe,” she said.
Piazza’s unit returned home in September only to be deployed to its home state as part of the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. He said he hadn’t forgotten about his education while he was deployed.
“I was faced with many challenges throughout the deployment, but I knew I had another obligation to fulfill – and that was my nuclear medicine technology degree,” he said.
He re-enrolled to finish his last semester in the spring of 2006.
“Because our program is available online, we were able to offer him some flexibility and the chance to finish the program upon his return,” Pickett said. “In almost any case, I think we would try to re-admit a student in similar circumstances.”
Piazza passed the national registry exam from the Nuclear Medicine Technology Certification Board. He took his registry exam on May 18, 2006 – two years to the day after he deployed to Ft. Hood to begin training for Iraq.
He’s since returned to work at the company he was with previously, only this time as a certified nuclear medicine technologist.