Utzinger was working on his master’s at DU when classes started for the PT program at CU Boulder. After a 10-mile run along Cherry Creek, he returned home to find his phone ringing. It was the secretary for Boulder’s physical therapy department.
“She said, ‘Hey Ken, it’s Cheryl. You made it,’” Utzinger recalls.
“Someone had been accepted but decided not to go. It was the first day of classes and he just didn’t show up,” he adds. “So, they went down the list, and the first person to answer the phone and say they can be there in an hour was getting into school.
“I got into [the] school by the hair of my chinny chin chin,” he says.
Utzinger earned a bachelor’s in physical therapy from the University of Colorado School of Health Sciences Center in 1990 and began a new career as a physical therapist in the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He completed his master’s in sports sciences and physical education from DU in 1994.
Utzinger likes the way the Army does physical therapy, describing it as a unique patient care setting. He left active duty in 1995 but stayed in the Army Reserves.
Utzinger moved to Odessa, Texas, to teach at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center and opened a physical therapy clinic. He met his wife and settled down. Then came September 11, 2001.
“After the twin towers fell, and they were planning Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Army National Guard in Washington state wanted to take their own physical therapist. I submitted a packet and actively campaigned to get that position. The Army had never sent a physical therapist into a combat zone before,” Utzinger says.
In 2004, at the age of 54, Utzinger went to Iraq as a physical therapist at a military base with 18,000 troops from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. He was there for 367 days. “It was simultaneously the worst year of my life and the best year of my life,” he says.
“There was enough business to keep five PTs busy full time. We had one PT, one PT assistant and one part-time massage therapist to help us. And we saw 50 patients every day,” Utzinger recalls. “It was machine gun therapy. We worked 7 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. (because chow hall closed at 7:00) six days a week and eight hours on Sunday.”
His job was to keep soldiers with injuries that didn’t require hospitalization from leaving Iraq. “Most injuries in a combat zone are people loading up a truck and dropping something on their foot. Or lifting something and hurting their back.” Before, no one treated sprained ankles, and soldiers were sent back to the states for treatment, he says.