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Astoria man dreams of serving in U.S. Army as medic

For Pvt. First Class Thomas Christopher Church, nothing comes more naturally than to play the part of the hero.

A member of the Army Reserves since 1999, Church works as a professional emergency medical technician on an ambulance stationed in Brooklyn, a post he began training for less than a month after Sept. 11.

“Working on an ambulance is probably the most natural thing I’ve done in my life,” Church said during a recent interview in his apartment on Crescent Street in Astoria. “I have a peace and a calm and a focus when it comes to ... having people’s lives in my hands. It’s just a natural instinct for me.”

But his ultimate goal — to be a combat medic in the U.S. Army — has been stymied by an isolated heart flutter he experienced last year that threatens to cut short his military career. He has been fighting for the past year to stay in the reserves and advance to full-time service.

“You’ve got a patriot here who wants to serve my country,” Church said. “I just want to get a chance to do it.”

Church is 38 years old and hardly shows it. The brawny Astoria resident has arms like dumbbells and a chest Popeye would envy, a physique he has maintained since he was a 19-year-old body building champion at his local gym. He still can bench press 315 pounds and runs two miles a day.

And though Church had no problem keeping up with 19-year-olds in training, he isn’t getting any younger. If he loses his spot in the reserves, he fears he will never get another chance to serve his country.

“Once you’re on the out, getting back in at 38 is very tough,” he said.

Church’s troubles began when he suffered chest pains in April 2001.

“I felt sort of like a percolating in my chest,” Church said. “I was in excellent shape — that’s what really saved me from passing out.”

Although he spent a week and a half in the hospital for tests, doctors did not turn up any chronic heart condition. The episode was a fibrillation — meaning his heartbeat was misfiring and sending too little oxygen through his body — but it appeared to have been an isolated incident.

To play it safe, though, Church forwarded his medical records to the Army and heard nothing from his superiors — until Sept. 11.

“They hit me with a bombshell the next day,” Church recalled. One “overzealous sergeant” dipped into his files and discovered he had been placed on medical stay, meaning his service was stopped until his heart problem could be further assessed. “It came as a huge shock, a total shock.”

Church was the second reservist to arrive at the Lexington Avenue Armory Sept. 11. He had been driving along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway that morning when he heard radio broadcasters describing a plane crash into the World Trade Center.

He thought it sounded like a movie scenario, but within moments he caught a firsthand view.

“I came over the Kosciusko Bridge and everybody stopped. I just stood there and stared like it was a movie,” he said. “I saw the two towers in flames.”

Church put his vehicle in reverse and backtracked to the preceding exit, rushing home to call his Army supervisor and get his orders.

“He said, ‘Church, get your gear and go!’” Church recalled.

So he got his gear and went, grabbing a ride with a taxi driver who saw Church’s Army fatigues and drove him down to the Queensboro Bridge, which by then was teeming with people making their way back to Queens.

“The whole bridge started erupting in cheers as I was running over the bridge,” he said.

Church helped set up the armory for the anticipated flood of wounded victims that never came. Although his comrades ultimately began patrolling the area around Ground Zero the following day, he was sent home before he could join them.

But the experience changed him. Having already established a career as a successful salesman, he dropped everything and enrolled in an EMT training course at LaGuardia Community College.

“If any other disaster was to happen, I didn’t just want to stand there with a rifle in my hand,” he said. “I wanted to do more.”

Still, even that wasn’t enough. He could not get away from the scent of burning rubble that drifted over to Astoria and enveloped the neighborhood in the days after the attacks.

“You smelled it every day, and I’ll never forget that smell,” he said. “So who am I roll over and go back to sleep and forget anything ever happened? I can’t.”

Although the state surgeon decided not to request a medical waiver to give Church another chance to serve, a superior disagreed and decided he was not given due process.

“I was tenacious. I didn’t take no for an answer,” Church said.

Now it’s up to the military doctors, who will examine him Sept. 21 and determine whether he is fit to serve.

“If I pass, I’m in the Army forever,” he said.

For Church, his struggle calls to mind a saying that his father, a one-time candidate for state Assembly in Astoria, often repeated: “‘You’re not brave if you just fight the fights you know you’re going to win,’” Church said, repeating the words of his dad. “‘True bravery is entering a fight where the outcome is uncertain.’

“Without a certain outcome,” he added, “I’m fighting ‘til the end.”

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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