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Giving Back: Ukrainian Refugee Becomes an Army doctor

Dmitriy Treyster (right) receives his Doctor of Medicine diploma from Navy Capt. (Dr.) Eric Elster, interim dean of USU’s Hebert School of Medicine, during the University’s commencement ceremony, May 15. (Photo by Thomas Balfour, Uniformed Services University)

By Ian Neligh

When Army Capt. (Dr.) Dmitriy Treyster was in elementary school, he and his family fled from Ukraine as refugees to the United States. 

It was a harrowing journey they risked to begin their lives again in a new country. Recently, Treyster completed another journey: from Army medic to physician assistant, and finally on May 15, he became a doctor. Treyster earned his M.D. as part of this year’s Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) graduating class.

For Treyster, motivation comes from a desire to help others and to give back to the country that gave his family a second chance.

Extortion and fear

Treyster remembers everything about his time growing up in Ukraine. 

It was the early 1990s, and the country had declared itself an independent state from the former Soviet Union just a few years before. But life was far from easy. 

“I feel my parents did a good job of trying to shelter us from the hardships of living there,” Treyster said. 

There were extreme economic difficulties, rolling blackouts, and intermittent running water. 

“We lived downstream from where the Chernobyl incident happened. We were a few hundred miles away so we were exposed to quite a bit of pollution as well.”

Army Capt. (Dr.) Dmitriy Treyster as a child in Ukraine. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dmitriy Treyster)
Army Capt. (Dr.) Dmitriy Treyster (center, standing) as a child in
Ukraine. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dmitriy Treyster)
The country saw a rise in anti-Semitic groups in the early ‘90s. His family is Jewish and was forced to identify by their religion in official documents often to their detriment.

“My parents were professionals, but we had threats to our livelihood almost regularly,” Treyster said. He also experienced anti-Semitism in school — but as an eight-year-old then he couldn’t understand it.

His parents had tried to immigrate to the United States for several years, but the process had become what he described as stagnant. As they were looking to get refugee status in Israel or Australia, they suddenly received the green light to come to the U.S. with refugee visas.

“We did have to keep it a secret,” Treyster said, adding there was always the threat of possible retaliation. “I remember my parents got upset because I told one of my neighborhood friends that we were going to the U.S.”

His mother sold off some of their small appliances and household items at a local market to get as much currency for the trip as they could. The family kept her trips to the market a secret, otherwise risk retribution or the assumption that they had a lot of money in the house. 

“I remember my mom splurged one time, and she bought me and my sister a banana,” Treyster said. “Which was like this exotic fruit where we lived, so that was a very fun memory.”

When it came time to leave for the U.S. his family had to decide between flying directly from Ukraine or traveling across the border and flying out of Moscow. 

“We could fly directly from Ukraine but anecdotally we heard it was more or less sketchier — there was more extortion, people were getting robbed and violently beaten and assaulted in the process,” Treyster said, adding his family decided on crossing the border into Russia. However, that route wasn’t free of obstacles either.

“It was almost a guarantee the Russian border guards were going to sell you out to these paramilitary vigilantes who were going to meet you in Moscow,” Treyster said. 

“They’re going to ballpark what you have on you and try to extort as much as they can under the guise of giving you a ride to the airport from the train station. And it went exactly like that.”

When they arrived at the train station, he described several “burly-looking men” walking them over to the area of operations. While Treyster and his sister sat in a van, their father negotiated, eventually handing over several hundred dollars, leaving them with almost no money.

Moscow to Connecticut

Treyster and his family arrived in Connecticut, where his grandmother’s sister lived. They got an apartment with the help of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, Jewish Family Services, and state and federal services.

“It was just incredible walking into this beautiful apartment, opening a fridge, and just seeing groceries there,” Treyster said. 

On the day they arrived, it was also his cousin’s ninth birthday and he saw a bottle of soda on a table for the first time. 

“I was like ‘oh my God this is soda,’ this is what we saw in Hollywood movies, ‘I’m living this life, it is just incredible,’” Treyster recalled. 

Air Force Col. (Dr.) Pamela Williams (left) and Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ashley Maranich (right) adorn Dmitriy Treyster, a 2021 graduate of USU's F. Edward Hébert School of Medicine, with his Doctor of Medicine academic hood. (Image credit: Courtesy of Army Sgt. Cory Long, USU)
Air Force Col. (Dr.) Pamela Williams (left) and Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ashley Maranich (right) adorn Dmitriy Treyster, a 2021 graduate of USU's F. Edward
Hébert School of Medicine, with his Doctor of Medicine academic hood. (Image credit: Courtesy of Army Sgt. Cory Long, USU)

An elderly American host family and their children would help them network and different organizations helped his parents get jobs.

“With the help of various sources of aid, and a variety of good people, we were able to stand on our feet,” Treyster said. He said coming to the U.S. went well beyond his expectations.

“It was crazy these strangers just opening their arms to us,” Treyster said. “It sounds so cliche, but it was the incredible generosity that helped us become as successful as we’ve become.”

A calling

No one from his family had ever served in the U.S. military, but for Treyster it was something he wanted to do after graduating high school. His parents initially talked him out of it as his father had been conscripted in the military during the Soviet Union, which hadn’t been a pleasant experience.

Army Capt. (Dr.) Dmitriy Treyster poses with Shetland the USU live-in facility dog at Treyster's graduation on  May 15th.
Army Capt. (Dr.) Dmitriy Treyster poses with Shetland
the USU facility dog at Treyster's graduation on 
May 15th. (Courtesy photo)
Regardless, he ended up enlisting when he turned 21 as an Army medic. 

“I embraced the job, and I enjoyed it,” he said. While working as a medic he became inspired by the physician assistants he worked with. It soon grew to be his dream to become one himself. 

“I ended up applying and getting into the military’s PA program… and in PA school I started working alongside physicians,” Treyster said. The physicians that influenced and motivated him were all graduates of USU.

“‘Wow, these guys are on a whole other level and it would be amazing to be like them’ but it was like, ‘me a doctor? I’ll dream but I don’t think it’ll ever happen.’”

All the same, he started exploring the possibilities. 

“Sure enough I made a path, made a plan for myself, did the prerequisites, and fortunately enough, with the help of other mentors got accepted to USU and so here I am,” Treyster said.

Treyster added while his family was initially very concerned about his joining the military, their opinion changed with each significant milestone he reached. He said his parents are proud of the journey he’s undertaken to become a U.S. military physician.

“I had a calling,” Treyster said by way of explanation. “I wanted to give back to the country that gave us everything.”