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Air Force Association 2012 VA Employee of the Year

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Image of Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force; Award Recipient Lt. Col. David F. Tharp; S. Sanford Schlitt, Air Force Association Chairman of the Board; General Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff

L to R: Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force; Award Recipient Lt. Col. David F. Tharp; S. Sanford Schlitt, Air Force Association Chairman of the Board; General Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff

By Maggie McCarthy and Barbie Christian
Wednesday, September 19, 2012

What motivates a family man with two young children and a busy career as a clinical research psychologist to volunteer for a tour of duty on the frontlines of a war zone?

A chance to make a difference.

Dr. (Lt. Col.) David Fay Tharp knew his skills as a mental health professional along with his experience in the Air Force were in demand by a growing number of service personnel serving in Afghanistan suffering the scars of war.

Little did he know when he took on the assignment in October 2010, he would see and serve so much. Stationed at Kandahar Airfield (KAF), the world’s largest and busiest NATO base, he would devote long days and nights in the epicenter of much of the action for war casualties. As the Medical Advisor to the commander of Kandahar Airfield (COMKAF), Dr. Tharp was responsible for 28 countries’ medical assets, including medical response to rocket attacks.  He also served as an advisor to the US Army mental health team.  His unique talents of a mental health professional, computer engineer, hospital chaplain and strategic management liaison enabled him to make active contributions to the war effort. He had even arranged the logistical coordination with Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe (SHAPE) for the first mobile MRI to be located at KAF.

During deployment, Dr. Tharp developed a health condition known a transverse myelitis, which created a serious compression of the spinal cord resulting in nerve pain and damage. Despite his own personal health problems, he managed to remain in theater fulfilling his ten-month tour before he returned to Central Texas.  Back home, his wife, who is a medical student at Texas A&M College of Medicine, did triple duty attending to her course work, managing household activities and caring for their two young sons.  Dr. Tharp’s Skype visits with the family would be the highlight of his days, a half a world away!

He currently serves as a clinical and research psychologist at the VA Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans located on the historical campus of the Waco VA hospital.  His work supports research on veterans’ health care issues, particularly in the area of mental health challenges for returning Veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

His courage and service were recognized recently by the 2012 Air Force Association (AFA) for the most outstanding performance of duty as a VA employee.  For Tharp’s tireless efforts to NATO, the Air Force and our country, he received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the third highest Department of Defense award given.

Said Tharp: “The casualties of war are costly – it’s the ultimate price we pay for freedom.  I’m a health care provider.  It’s what I do.  I see young men and women returning from war zones, suffering from wounds that aren’t always visible.  It’s my honor and privilege to care for these young Veterans as they return home and how best to care for them than to experience what they do?  We must come up with better treatment for these young people and in an effort to help me help them, I went to war.”

Dr. Tharp has been a licensed clinical psychologist at the VA Center of Excellence since 2009, while also holding the rank of Major in the US Air Force Reserve.  August and September 2012 were months of celebration for Tharp, as he was promoted from the rank of Major to Lieutenant Colonel in the US Air Force Reserves and was awarded the Air Force Association 2012 Department of Veterans Affairs Employee of the Year Award on September 17, 2012, in Baltimore, MD!  Congratulations to VA’s Dr. David Tharp – a warrior who is dedicated to serving those who served!