Paul Salem: A Moral Imperative to Heal

Paul Salem: Hard work, preparation and moral purpose.  Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography
Paul Salem: Hard work, preparation and moral purpose. Photo by Jon Gardiner/Duke University Photography

As the oldest member of the Class of 2012 and its only combat veteran, former U.S. Marine Paul Salem arrived on campus with a clear sense of purpose. After a tour of duty that included counterinsurgency operations as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Salem came to Duke determined to become a physician.

In addition to a premed curriculum, he volunteered with Duke EMS, Duke Hospice, and the extended care and rehabilitation center at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Last summer, he worked at a community clinic near his family's home in California.

Salem also took some time out of his premed schedule to explore topics that intrigued him, including a classics course and a class on the Old Testament.

Through a forensic-anthropology course his sophomore year, he met paleontologist Steven Churchill, who became a mentor and adviser. The two worked together on Churchill's research into how the development of Stone Age projectile weapons contributed to human evolution. He also became engaged to classmate Mona Xiao '12, whom he began dating freshman year.

Coming out of the military, Salem had considered specializing in emergency or trauma medicine. But his experiences at Duke have broadened his perspective.

"As a Marine, you're trained to take action and accomplish the mission at hand,” he says. "My hope in doing the volunteer work I did in hospice and the clinic setting was that I would learn to be a more compassionate caregiver.

I've had to consider that hard work and preparation, while necessary, are not sufficient for living with clear moral purpose. I hope that learning to become a physician will allow me to combine the discipline and perseverance I learned in the military with an appreciation for the beauty of human life.”

This fall, Salem begins the next leg of his journey when he matriculates at the Mayo Medical School in Rochester, Minnesota. At this point, he says, he has no idea what area of medicine he'll specialize in. "I just want to take care of human beings in the most satisfying way possible.”