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“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there” is Zac Rhyner’s advice to veterans who want to return to school. He’ll graduate from Carolina in May. (photo by Kristen Chavez)

A life of service

Carolina senior and decorated military veteran Zac Rhyner urges students to step outside their comfort zones in pursuit of their dreams

Decorated military veteran Zac Rhyner ’19 is the recipient of three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and the Air Force Cross. He has been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan six times and been involved in humanitarian relief efforts in Haiti. He’s also a dad and a Carolina biology major who urges students to step outside their comfort zones in pursuit of their dreams.

Before enrolling at Carolina, Rhyner spent 11 years serving in the military. His interest was sparked by his close relationship with his grandfather, who served in World War II.

“I just knew at a young age that I would join the military because of who he was and what he meant to me,” he said.

Competition was an integral part of Rhyner’s childhood. From his participation in team sports to daily backyard football games with his four siblings in his hometown of Medford, Wisconsin, Rhyner was driven to challenge himself physically. He knew he wanted to belong to a community of highly motivated individuals, so he enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 2004 with the intent of going into special operations. He deployed to Afghanistan in 2008, where he took part in the Battle of Shok Valley. For his actions, he received the prestigious Air Force Cross and is the first living combat controller to receive it.

The award citation reads: “Despite a gunshot wound to the left leg and being trapped on a 60-foot cliff under constant enemy fire, Airman Rhyner controlled more than 50 attack runs and repeatedly repelled the enemy with repeated danger close air strikes, several within 100 meters of his position.”

Rhyner said winning the Air Force Cross was a humbling experience.

“No one serves in the military expecting or aspiring to achieve medals,” he said. “I don’t think that my actions were necessarily extraordinary in relation to any other combat controller that would have been assigned to the mission.”

Rhyner was also awarded a Purple Heart for his heroic actions in Shok Valley. His second Purple Heart was from an explosive device in August 2009. He received a third Purple Heart from a gunshot wound that shattered his right femur and hip during his deployment to northern Afghanistan in 2013. His story has been featured in national media outlets including NBC’s The Today Show.

After sustaining wounds in 2015 that resulted in a permanent injury below the right knee, Rhyner medically retired from military service. That’s when he found a new calling based on two years of intense physical therapy: He decided he wanted to go back to school to help others suffering from debilitating injuries.

After earning an associate’s degree from Sandhills Community College, Rhyner transferred to Carolina in fall 2017 because of the strength of its biology program.

While many Carolina students enjoy socializing and spending time on Franklin Street during their free time, Rhyner balances his academic career with his responsibilities to his family — his wife, Jillian, and sons, Wyatt, 4, and Jameson, 2. After coming home from classes, he spends time with his boys. He wakes up early to study before class.

“I love it, and I wouldn’t change it, but I definitely have some unique challenges that most students don’t have,” he said.

Rhyner encourages veterans to go back to school to pursue or finish their college education.

“The first step is the hardest, but don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” he said.

When he walks across the graduation stage in May, Rhyner will accomplish another step in his journey of serving others. He’ll begin the Duke University Doctor of Physical Therapy Program in August.

”You can really change people’s lives by enabling them to do incredible things despite their limitations,” he said.

By Lauryn Rivers ’21