If you ask any Gannon community member, past or current, why they chose to be a part of Gannon University you will notice similarities in the responses you receive– you may hear about the engaging environment, Catholic Identity, supportive people or prestigious academics. While Lt. Col. Drew Contreras ’96, ’98M DPT, SCS, would have had a similar response at the time he was a student, it was not until after graduation that he realized the gravity of the impact those characteristics of Gannon truly had.
Contreras admits that the classes he took as a physical therapy student at Gannon did not come to him as easily as it seemed to for his classmates. “It wasn’t easy for me, I had to work really hard; there were times I questioned if I was doing the right thing,” he said. But Contreras was no stranger to the hard work, perseverance and commitment it took to achieve his goals.
The four-year ROTC cadet was an active member of the Pride of PA Battalion, the Pre-PT Club and Pi Kappa Alpha, all through which he was introduced to those he now considers mentors and lifelong friends, and learned traits that have shaped who he is today.
“The relationships you form with people– professors, advisers, people with similar interests– is the way that Gannon grooms you to be successful in life,” he said. “Being in ROTC gives you a sense of discipline as far as balancing things and it teaches self-discipline, something I’ve found certainly pays off in the future.”
Contreras received his Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1996 and his masters degree in physical therapy in 1998 from Gannon. Shortly after, Contreras married his wife, Roseann, on Aug. 4, 2001. He later continued his education, earning a doctorate degree in physical therapy in 2008 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
After graduation, he was first stationed with the U.S. Army at Fort Benning in Georgia, where he spent a large portion of his time treating injuries for those undergoing basic training. However, after the events of September 11, 2001, Contreras’ role quickly changed when he was relocated to Fort Bragg in North Carolina and re-assigned as the first Brigade Physical Therapist to the 82nd Airborne Division. Identified as a vital asset to the unit, he was then deployed along with the soldiers for 15 months of service in Iraq.
“Being in the Army healthcare system, it’s a little different because these are the people you’re with all the time,” he said. “You’re really into making them better; it’s very easy to be willing to give that little bit of extra effort.”
“It was a very professionally rewarding experience, but it was hard on the family when I was gone for that long,” he said. “But, I am in a different place now.” Contreras and his wife have since had two children, Gabriella, 13 and Andrew, 10; and he has since taken on new roles in new locations.
Upon returning from Iraq, Contreras’ assignment officer selected him to be the Director of Physical Therapy and Wellness at the Pentagon in northern Virginia, where he thought he’d stay for just two years and return back to the Army. Little did he know, that those two years would quickly turn into eight, and he would soon find himself working from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
“The relationships you form with people– professors, advisers, people with similar interests– is the way that Gannon grooms you to be successful in life."
Contreras ran a clinic at the Pentagon, where he remained very busy, lending a hand to the White House Medical Unit from time to time, too.
“The best way to describe it was becoming a victim of your own success. One person tells another, and then everyone wants the help,” he said. “Part of my success was because I had a PT professor that used to say, ‘If you treat everyone the same no matter who they are, and do your best, you’ll be satisfied with that.’”
This mindset led Contreras to his current position, which was created specifically for him, as the White House Physical Therapist. In this role, Contreras treats patients on the White House complex and oftentimes travels with different people of the White House Administration.
“It was kind of overwhelming at first, but eventually it turns into just what you do,” he said. “Yes, I go to the White House to work, but my focus is on the people – you don’t lose sight of that.”
Just as humbly as he fulfills his position, Contreras stood with his family in the Oval Office as President of the United States, Barack Obama, promoted him to Lieutenant Colonel in December 2015.
“It was a way of people thanking me and saying they appreciate everything I do and how much I give,” Contreras said. “Everyone that works there makes sacrifices – you miss a lot because it’s not a typical job. So, it was really special to have my family there to get that thank you too.”
The people who’ve taught and guided him, the people who’ve supported him like family, the people he diligently serves and cares for, all contributed to Contreras climbing the ranks and achieving success.
“The instructors I had at Gannon were very influential in the type of officer I am now,” he said. “You learn your morals and values from the people you are around, and I always felt that the things I received from Gannon, as far as navigating life, were just as valuable as the education I received.
“Gannon showed me how to keep life in perspective and maintain the things that are important.”