Capt. Grant Tong (BS ’10) was a senior at Pearl City High School on the island of O‘ahu, Hawaii, when he had one of those “ah ha” moments. It had nothing to do with typical teenage conundrums, like who he’d ask to prom or what beach he and his buddies should body surf at the next weekend. Instead, it came following a distal fibula injury he sustained when he threw his opponent onto his foot during a judo match – which he still won.
The injury landed him in a course of physical therapy. It was during those sessions that Grant had a realization of what his career path would look like – he’d become a physical therapist.
“I was amazed at how knowledgeable my therapists were about the human body, how it heals and how it was supposed to move,” Grant says. “I fell in love with what physical therapists do through my own experience and wanted to be able to also help people.”
For a kama‘aina (local) from O‘ahu, the journey would comprise thousands of miles and a doctorate of physical therapy (DPT) degree. Grant says that he was never the smartest or the brightest but that he knew how to work hard. And so he set high goals – and went for them.
First step of the journey: Oregon State University
When he began looking at colleges, Grant was impressed with what he learned about Oregon State University’s academic strengths in science, business and engineering. The latter was his second choice to physical therapy, so he decided Corvallis was a good place to begin his future. As an added bonus, two of his friends from Oahu were also headed to OSU and he heard there was a large Hawaii network in Corvallis and throughout the Beaver State.
“Having a large Hawaii population at OSU made the transition easier for me,” he says. “However, there were definitely days that I wondered why I was putting up with 20-degree weather instead of lying on the beach in 70-degree weather!”
Although homesick at first, Grant and his friends pushed through and supported each other. He says that his best memories of OSU involve the wonderful people he met and how they all positively affected his life.
“My time at OSU is when I really came out of my shell and I learned responsibility, a work ethic and how to enjoy the moment,” he says.
The journey continues
With his undergraduate degree in exercise science (now Kinesiology) in hand, Grant packed his belongings and two of his friends into his 2000 Toyota Camry and drove 1,688 miles from Corvallis to Omaha, Neb. He’d been accepted to Creighton University and would be spending the next three years of his life completing his DPT.
“Creighton was hard work,” he says. “I remember being a freshman at OSU and thinking how long or even impossible the journey to my DPT felt. All and all, it was a seven-year process.”
Grant had steadfast determination and commitment, and he kept his eyes on his goal. Through the process, he had some amazing experiences. He rode a horse for the first time and took two long road trips, one from Omaha to North Carolina and the other to Colorado Springs during the four months he was working on his clinical rotations.
In the end, the long road was worth it when Grant had his doctoral degree in hand.
“It was an amazing feeling to know that my ohana’s (family, teachers and friends) investment in my future had paid off,” Grant says. “I was the first person in my entire family to go away for college, and the first to get a doctorate degree. I felt like I made my family proud, and that my success was also theirs.”
After completing his doctorate degree in 2013 and working in the field for nearly a year, Grant joined the U.S. Air Force. When he was growing up, he admired family members who were a part of the 442nd Infantry Regimental Combat Team. He always wanted to give back in some way to the veterans in his own family and to the soldiers fighting for his country.
Serving in the Middle East
Grant is currently an officer in the Air Force and is stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Solano County, Calif. He serves as director of one of the largest training facilities for civilian physical therapy students in the Air Force, which he’ll soon give up because he’s planning for his second deployment to the Middle East.
His first experience deploying to the Middle East left a lasting impression on him, and he feels it was a great experience.
“I was very fortunate to support some of the most elite warriors our country has to offer,” he says. “Being embedded in a SEAL team, Army special forces and other Navy special warfare/special ops teams brings a huge appreciation for what they do for our country and how much they sacrifice.”
Grant didn’t just serve his country and follow in his uncles’ footsteps by serving in the military. Helping soldiers though rehabilitation therapy, his hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. His dedication earned him an Air Force Medical Services Award (AFMS) for his air mobility command. He’s also being considered for a larger award for all commands of the Air Force, which will be announced in February 2017.
“I was in shock when I learned I’d received this award,” Grant says. “I also couldn’t believe I was being considered at the ‘big Air Force level.’ It feels like I got a win for Hawaii, OSU and Creighton. It feels great to know that I was able to represent my home and these schools in the most positive way.”
This accomplished man from humble beginnings has some straightforward advice for young people. “Be persistent and flexible while still keeping a smile on your face,” he says. “If you have a dream, don’t give up. When things don’t go as planned, think of it as an opportunity. Failures, setbacks and roadblocks will occur, but if you stay flexible and keep smiling it only makes for a better story once you reach your goal.”