DANVILLE – Former Oakwood resident Lt. Col. David Tharp credits Danville Area Community College with making “a profound impact on my life.”
Dr. Tharp has been named as the Illinois Community College Trustees Association Distinguished Alumnus from Danville Area Community College for 2013.
After graduating from Oakwood High School in 1983, Tharp studied computer science at DACC, graduating in 1985. Tharp then went on to complete a doctorate and three master’s degrees.
He recalled that DACC provided him with “a huge start” in his pursuit for higher education and in his career.
“DACC was close in proximity to my home and it was financially feasible for my family, because at the time my mom was dying from breast cancer,” he said. “DACC allowed me to stay at home and pursue my educational goal.”
Tharp is an officer in the Air Force Reserve and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, as well as a psychologist with the VISN 17 Center of Excellence for Research on Return War Veterans in Waco, Texas. He also is an ordained minister and has worked in hospice.
Tharp was chosen as the Distinguished Alumnus for his service as a patriot and humanitarian who volunteered to put himself in harm’s way to better serve the combat veterans who depend on him for empathy, understanding and treatment.
“It was when my mom passed away I thought, ‘Do I want to work with computers or work with people?’” he said of his decision to pursue a career that would help others, specifically veterans.
“I feel like I’ve been blessed in making a difference,” he added.
To better understand the veterans he treats, Tharp volunteered to be deployed to Afghanistan a couple of years ago.
“Not a lot of (Veterans Affairs) psychiatrists have been deployed,” he explained. “It’s good to have that understanding of what they’ve been through.”
While in Afghanistan, Tharp was stricken with a debilitating neurological disorder – transverse myelitis – caused by inflammation of the spinal cord. Tharp experienced pain, numbness and weakness in his arms and legs while continuing to perform his duties.
He insisted on completing his deployment as medical adviser to the commander of Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, and supervising and coordinating 28 countries’ medical assets even as he personally struggled with his medical condition.
“Transverse myelitis is an autoimmune deficiency similar to MS,” he explained. “Something happened while I was in Kandahar, and I lost most of the use of my body from the neck down.
“Stress or a virus can trigger it. It affected both sides of my body and I could barely walk,” he said, adding he has since made a full recovery now that he has returned home.
For his efforts under difficult circumstances, Tharp received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal for Joint Deployment to Kandahar Airfield (KAF) Region Command South in 2011 and the 2012 Air Force Association Department of Veterans Affairs Employee of the Year Award.
While deployed, Tharp encouraged his wife, Katherine, to return to school to pursue a medical career, specializing in pediatric oncology. Despite his medical condition, when he returned stateside he assumed primary care of their two young sons, Joshua and Peyton, while maintaining his own career to help make her dreams a reality.
He also has started writing a book about his experiences in Afghanistan.
“I started writing it for my kids, and I have about 140 pages written,” he said.
Tharp is a strong proponent of community colleges and education in general. He has worked with officials at McClennan Community College near his home in Texas on post-graduation symposiums. As a member of the Military Officers Association of America, he also provides military and professional guidance to high school and community college students who are interested in ROTC programs or the United States Service Academies.
Still, Tharp is proud of his educational beginnings at DACC and is honored to have received the Distinguished Alumnus award.
“Anything I can do to publicize and lift DACC up,” he said. “When I visited DACC about two months ago, I couldn’t believe all the changes. They really are meeting the challenges of the global market.”