Following a Pathway: From Navy SEAL Dreams to a Career in Healing

By Mallory (Hedlund) Bottoni ’14, Assistant Director for Marketing, Communications and Content

The pursuit of dreams, tested determination, a movie-like love story – Isaac Ungersma’s journey is nothing short of an extraordinary and resilient adventure.

Imagine a young, 9-year-old boy with boundless energy, fixated on the thrilling appeal of the Navy SEALs. “All I wanted to do since I found out about them was join,” he recalled.  

Fast forward to today, and you’ll meet a man who has been transformed from a budding Navy SEAL into an aspiring physical therapist. Following a military path that both his grandfathers lived out before him, this childhood dream was the compass that guided him through many of the twists and turns of his early life. 

He enrolled in the Running Start program in high school in Bellingham, Washington, to earn his high school diploma and an associate degree simultaneously. This jump-started his military career. He knew his next step was to enlist and become a Navy SEAL.

Ungersma began this new venture with bootcamp in Chicago followed by a grueling yearlong SEAL training in San Diego, California, where he was a student in the Basic Underwater Demolition Scuba program. The program exposed him to the arduous mental and physical demands of being a Navy SEAL – demands that, for him, also came with injury. 

Isaac Ungersma by Helicopter

Ungersma posed with a helicopter on-board the aircraft carrier where he was deployed in 2013.

“After the end of my fourth class in San Diego, they finally medically dropped me [from combat training] after several injuries,” Ungersma said. These injuries – knee surgeries, concussions and neck issues – later required extensive physical therapy after his time with the SEALs, experiences that would inspire his path toward becoming a physical therapist.

Ungersma’s path there was far from ordinary, though. 

Following the shift in service, he was stationed on the USS Nimitz CVN 68, an aircraft carrier in Everett, Washington, where he met his wife, Kelsey. From there, he was sent across the country for weeks at a time to various schools for trainings that oftentimes involved classified experiences. He revealed that one of the most intensive training periods was in Virginia, where he focused on subsurface warfare and submarine hunting for about 11 weeks. 

He then spent two years traveling and practicing war drills at sea before his deployment began in early 2013, during which time he traveled to places like Hawaii, Korea, Thailand, Dubai and more.

Isaac Ungersma in Lockerroom

In the barracks before starting one of the toughest weeks of training, Ungersma was ready to take on the challenge ahead.

“Almost all my military career, I never had a house,” Ungersma said. “I lived in the barracks or on the ship; I basically had everything I owned in a military duffel bag. You kind of feel like a nomad, I guess.”

After his honorable service came a significant transition to civilian life for Ungersma. 

He briefly worked in construction and then as a welder for a truck company in Washington. Ungersma enjoyed the work but witnessed numerous colleagues enduring injuries on the job. It was then that he decided he would focus on building a family and furthering his education. 

“I knew I wanted to move forward, work on my undergraduate degree and eventually get into a Doctor of Physical Therapy program,” Ungersma recalled. 

However, life had its challenges, and in 2015 he and his wife, Kelsey, faced the loss of their first child, adding even greater emotional depth to their journey together.  

While contemplating their next move, Ungersma applied to a physical therapist assistant program in Washington and worked as a PTA from 2017 to 2019. This took an unexpected turn, though, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the clinic to close.

The couple was now ready to explore new horizons and opportunities. “We’d always had it in our minds that we’d head south eventually. … We really looked at Florida and Texas,” he shared.

His academic goals accelerated after he was accepted into Eastern Washington University and graduated in 2022 with a bachelor’s in exercise science and a minor in personal training. Next, he applied and was accepted into several Doctor of Physical Therapy programs across the country, ultimately choosing Gannon University’s Ruskin Campus. 

With his military background, Ungersma was fortunate to apply funds from his G.I. Bill toward part of his education.

Embarking on a cross-country move, Ungersma and his family arrived in Ruskin, Florida last May. He is now in his second year of Gannon’s DPT program and is expected to graduate in May 2025.

Issac Ungersma and Family at Ruskin Campus

Ungersma is pictured with his wife, Kelsey, and their two children Levi and Jaden, ages 5 and 3.

The motivation behind Ungersma’s transition into the field of physical therapy was deeply rooted in his love for fitness and for helping others. “I’ve always loved seeing the progress in people. When friends and family have aches and pains, it’s a question of what can I do to make things better and help them.” Pursuing his DPT is, in his words, “nerding hard” in a field he’s deeply passionate about.

He aspires to work with athletes in outpatient settings after graduation. But his academic pursuit carries an additional layer of complexity. Not only is he a student and a husband, he is also a father to Levi and Jaden, ages 5 and 3.

Ungersma emphasized the importance of having a strong support system in place. The tight-knit community on Gannon’s Ruskin Campus has proven to be instrumental in this adventure, offering an environment where everyone knows his wife and children. “It feels like a family here,” he said.

His advice for aspiring physical therapy students is straightforward but powerful. He encourages them to be prepared to study, put in the work and invest the hours because obtaining a doctorate is no small feat. “It’s definitely worth it,” he shared. “Once you get into clinicals and work with people, everything makes so much more sense.”

Ungersma’s story is an inspiring adventure, a testament to the incredible power of resilience and determination. His journey from child to Navy SEAL, to family man and aspiring physical therapist is nothing short of exemplary for those who aspire to transform their lives and pursue their dreams and true calling. His story is a call to action, reminding us to embrace the possibilities that life presents. 

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Gannon Magazine is published bi-annually by University Marketing and Communications.

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Doug Oathout
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Mallory (Hedlund) Bottoni ’14
Assistant Director for Marketing, Communications and Content

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