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Mitchell High School grad Max answers call to service as ROTC cadet, future medical student

Former Kernels, Jackrabbits athlete aims for career in medicine, military service

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Carson Max, a student at South Dakota State University, is bound for a career in medicine and the military after taking part in the school's Reserve Officers' Training Corps program.
Submitted Photo
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BROOKINGS — At one point, Carson Max had to make a choice.

As a student at South Dakota State University, he was feeling a little stretched thin. That’s understandable considering his workload. He was studying as a major in human biology with minors in chemistry, microbiology and aerospace studies. On top of that, he was also a Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) cadet and a member of the Jackrabbits baseball team.

Something had to give. So he stepped away from baseball.

“It was really hard to balance my class schedule and baseball. Athletics just evaporates so much time,” Max told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview. “Sports are great, but at the end of the day it’s just a game, not my identity.”

It wasn’t necessarily an easy choice, but it was one that had to be made, Max said. The 2019 Mitchell High School graduate found that his time at SDSU had solidified his desire to pursue a career in medicine, and his time engaged with the campus ROTC program had invigorated a desire to be of service to his country.

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“I’m glad I had the opportunity to (play college baseball), but at the end of the day — we talk about this in ROTC — what’s your reason why? My reason has continuously gotten stronger and developed in college,” Max said. “(Baseball) was not fulfilling that ‘why’ as much. You get a lot of great experiences, but at the end of the day I’m losing out on a lot of other things I enjoy.”

As a successful high school athlete in wrestling, baseball, football, track, cross county and powerlifting, switching out a baseball uniform for an Air Force uniform took some getting used to. But it’s a switch that he’s glad he made, as it has helped him along his path to help others by serving his country in the Air Force and serving his fellow man by pursuing a medical degree in orthopedic medicine.

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South Dakota State University student and Mitchell High School graduate Carson Max transitioned from college baseball to the Reserve Officer's Training Corps and is looking to pursue a military career as a doctor.
Mitchell Republic File Photo

Now with graduation approaching, he has an application in at several medical schools, and he’s looking forward to achieving a goal he set for himself before he was even a teenager.

Early inspiration

“I was 12 years old, and I had a wrestling injury and had to go to an orthopedic doctor. And I walked out of there and told my mom I wanted to be a doctor,” Max said. “When I was 12. I wanted to practice medicine in some way. I just wanted to give other people the same experience I had.”

That inspiration led him to seek out relevant classes when he attended Mitchell High School. It was there he focused on science, math and STEM classes. He credits those with preparing him for the rigors of college academics and easing his transition into what some students find to be an intimidating workload.

As it came time to consider colleges, he initially had Augustana University in mind to study and play baseball, but he was approached late in the process by SDSU. He switched his choice and headed to Brookings in the fall and ended up falling in with the ROTC program, something he had been interested in for some time.

“My sophomore year of high school I considered the service academies because of the desire to serve. I found ROTC my senior year of high school and thought, hey, this is my chance to serve,” Max said.

The Reserve Officers' Training Corps is a college program offered at more than 1,700 colleges and universities across the United States that prepares young adults to become officers in the U.S. military, according to its website. In exchange for a paid college education and a guaranteed post-college career, participants, or cadets, commit to serve in the military after graduation. Each service branch has its own take on ROTC.

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So he joined the Air Force ROTC and balanced its program with his academic and athletic studies. It made for a very strenuous first two years of college, and eventually, he reevaluated the balance in his life and elected to stick with ROTC and forgo his remaining time on the baseball team.

“(ROTC) teaches you a lot about who you are and what you’re good at. How good are you in one-on-one situations? How you handle a stressful environment? Can you receive feedback and criticism? It builds you up and breaks you down,” Max said. “I’ve seen so much growth from it.”

Completing the ROTC program means Max will officially begin his service in the Air Force following graduation as a second lieutenant with a four-year obligation of service. But at this point he figures he will be dedicating more than four years to the military. Through ROTC, Max got involved with the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which will pay for his four years of medical school to any medical school to which he can gain admission. The four-year medical school program would add another four years of commitment to his service time, something he is fully prepared to do.

“They’re willing to pay for medical school in return for military commitment. I’m doing it through ROTC, so I went in front of a board that evaluates cadets. They will pay for four years, I’ll be commissioned as a second lieutenant, and my sole job will be to do well in medical school,” Max said. “So my job continues with more school.”

Future service

He has already been accepted to one school and also has an application in at the University of South Dakota, which is an appealing option considering it is in-state, close to home and would make life easier for him and his fiance as they plan for the future.

Regardless of where he ends up, he knows he’s on a path he will find fulfilling.

“I'm excited about it. The way I like to describe it is that it’s an opportunity to be a doctor, I get to serve people who are serving our country while I serve our country. It's a great call to serve the people and putting someone and something above oneself,” Max said. “I want to put myself in a role where I’m serving others.”

He will soon continue that service in yet another role — when he assumes the position of wing commander for the ROTC at SDSU next semester.

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It’s been a challenging road, but one he is glad to have navigated with the base education he received at Mitchell High School and the backing of supporters along the way. He is quick to thank his detachment commanders and active duty officers who lobbied for him and his scholarship, as well as Dr. Martin Christensen, a retired Mitchell doctor, former ROTC cadet and veteran, who has served as a mentor as he looks into medical school options.

Longtime Mitchell physician Dr. Martin Christensen recently retired, following more than 30 years of medical service to the area. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Longtime Mitchell physician Dr. Martin Christensen.
Republic file photo

Christensen agreed that the ROTC can provide excellent guidance and build character, and that Max fits right in with its principles.

"Carson brings a lot of things. He’s a great leader," Christensen said. "You build character and morals (with ROTC), and hard work pays off. He’s just an example of that. Going forward he’s really motivated. I think he’ll do well."

Of course, the teachers and programs at Mitchell High School and the Mitchell Career & Technical Education Academy played important roles in his development, as well. He said students there can find the same opportunities if they study and focus on finding out who they are and why they want to pursue their dreams.

Put Mitchell High School fraternal twins Carson and Carter Max side-by-side and it isn't hard to decipher their similarities and differences. Carter is three hours older, compassionate and slightly bigger. Carson is more agile, blunt and intense....

He recommended students challenge themselves with difficult courses — even if it results in a slightly lower GPA, pushing yourself will help prepare you for the academic challenges of college. Have a primary plan but also a plan to follow as a backup.

And, perhaps most importantly, know why you want to do what you want to do. He said once he had that part figured out, the rest was easy.

“Try to find your ‘why.’ Why do you want to go into a certain career field? Just try to find that ‘why.’ It helps orient your life in such a way as to know what you want and how to get there,” Max said. “(For me), at the end of the day it’s for others. And there’s nothing I would want elsewise.”

Erik Kaufman joined the Mitchell Republic in July of 2019 as an education and features reporter. He grew up in Freeman, S.D., graduating from Freeman High School. He graduated from the University of South Dakota in 1999 with a major in English and a minor in computer science. He can be reached at ekaufman@mitchellrepublic.com.
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