There wasn’t much to do in Paul Holzer’s small Gulf Coast hometown, so he went to the beach everyday after school. “It’s also where I spent my summers—swimming, surfing, scuba diving, water skiing, and lifeguarding,” says the first-year Geisel student. “And after graduating from high school there were even fewer options—you either went offshore to the rigs, went to jail, or joined the Navy.”
Intending to become an undersea construction diver Holzer joined the Navy.
“I enlisted to see the world, have an adventure, and make some money,” he says. “But as soon as I completed my training, I was selected for a commissioning program. My attempt to escape college didn’t work out as planned.” Unafraid of a challenge, he viewed this change as an opportunity and embraced it.
Holzer spent his first years of active duty at the University of Florida studying mechanical engineering and teaching scuba diving. Ready to serve as a Navy engineering diving officer after graduation, his life took another, more drastic turn in fall 2001.
“It was Tuesday morning, when I normally taught scuba class, that I saw the Twin Towers fall and I made a decision right then and there to become a SEAL,” Holzer recalls.
Known for both athleticism and determination, Holzer’s diving teammates supported his decision and encouraged him to apply to the SEAL program. Although he knew little about the program at the time, he did know that entering the program as an officer wouldn’t be easy—many volunteer but few are selected for training. “That year, I was one of seven officers selected Navy-wide to enter the SEAL program,” Holzer says. “I felt blessed.”
Navy SEALs are highly trained, small elite teams who conduct special operations on sea, air, and land. Their rigorous training includes combat paramedic instruction, which Holzer liked so much he took the class twice, is among the most physically demanding programs in the military with fewer that 30 percent of the highly screened candidates who begin the program graduating.
Fresh out of training, Holzer’s first assignment was as mission commander of a six-man mini-sub, also known as a SEAL Delivery Vehicle, which can be deployed anywhere in the world to transport SEALs during clandestine missions. Technically challenging and physically demanding, the often complicated and dangerous missions can last up to fourteen hours in water so cold divers must wear dry suits rather than wet suits. And divers must possess a clear understanding of diving medicine—which includes the effect of breathing gases and their contaminants under high pressure—in order to keep themselves safe. The calm and focused Holzer thrived in this environment, loving the psychology, physiology, and medicine of diving.
He describes his mini-sub experience as surreal. “Launching from a submerged nuclear submarine in a stealth craft with your closest friends on the way to assault a beach or to infiltrate a harbor in the black of night—there nothing like it,” he says.
During his nine years of active duty, Holzer self-trained as a Navy linguist and became fluent in Arabic in order to serve as a tactical interpreter alongside fellow operators and medics during missions in Fallujah, Ramadi, and Baghdad, Iraq.
“To be able to effectively communicate during critical times was one of the most powerful tools we had. Interacting with people within the communities had such an incredible impact,” Holzer says. “Simple acts like providing aspirin, dressing wounds, or sharing basic supplies was more effective than kicking down doors. Without a doubt it saved lives—theirs and ours.” Translating for and assisting the medics was an inspiring experience that stuck with him.
Recognizing his increasing interest in science and medicine, Holzer thought about becoming a physician and realized he had reached a crossroad—although he enjoyed his SEAL lifestyle, he missed the rigor of academia and began thinking seriously about medical school. Deciding to give medicine more thought, he pursued a graduate degree in mechanical engineering.
Still on deployment, he applied to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and was initially turned down. Not willing to side step an obstacle, Holzer traveled, uninvited, to Cambridge hoping to persuade an advisor at the school to meet with him and to sponsor him in a redesign and optimization of the mini-sub he’d commanded.
The tactic worked. He was admitted to MIT in 2009.
During his two years there, it became clear to him that his passion was medicine. While pursuing his graduate work, he concurrently completed the necessary prerequisites for medical school. But he was unexpectedly called back to active duty and quickly sent to Afghanistan for his fourth combat deployment. Medical school would have to wait. “I received my diploma in June and my orders in July,” he says.
And it was during this deployment that a suicide vehicle hit his unit. The event was catastrophic. As a paramedic, Holzer saw the devastating effects of burns on the men in his unit. It changed his life. “I was ready to commit to medical school when I returned from Afghanistan,” he says.
His course changed again—he entered a pre-doctoral fellowship in plastic surgery.
“My commander was having scar revision work done at Massachusetts General Hospital and he introduced me to his physician,” Holzer says. “The doctor had an opening in his lab, which focused on graft material for burn treatments, and he asked me if was interested. I was.”
The following two years were spent working in the hospital’s surgery department where he performed skin grafts, authored a paper on graft preservation, and lead a seven-man response team to the Philippines after 2013’s devastating typhoon.
And this year, with his mentors at Massachusetts General Hospital, Holzer founded a startup company—Xeno Therapeutics—that in 2016 will conduct the first human clinical trial of the skin graft material he helped develop based on his combat experience.
A self-described problem solver, it’s the thread running through all of Holzer’s experiences—becoming a Navy diver, learning Arabic to bridge the gap between the people and the mission, pursuing an advanced mechanical engineering degree to improve the mini-sub design, completing a pre-doctoral fellowship in plastic surgery, starting medical school, and developing an effective and readily available alternative treatment for burn victims.
Applying what he learns in class in real time, Holzer is reveling in his first-year of medical school, which given his past is unsurprising. What began as a desire to change his life, he’s now changing many lives.
“I feel that it’s my duty to get promising technology off the lab bench and into the hands of teammates and patients who need it the most—and who need it now,” he says. “I have had all of these good experiences in isolation, but being here at Geisel I feel everything has finally come together.”