FALLS CHURCH, Va. (AFNS) —
When most people think of the Air Force Medical Service they probably imagine staff in the various clinics at the local military treatment facility, and they would be correct.
Whether working behind the glass barrier of the pharmacy, the private room of the mental health clinic, or in the lab, medics take care of the vital mission of keeping beneficiaries healthy and service members ready.
However, there is much more Air Force medics do.
“Air Force Medicine exists to protect our nation,” said Surgeon General of the Air Force Lt. Gen. Robert Miller. “In addition to providing medical care to military and non-military beneficiaries, Air Force medics play a key role in humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and, of course, combat missions, delivering much needed medical and operational support to warfighters, the nation, allies and partners.”
Humanitarian assistance missions push medics out of their comfort zone and force a new level of collaboration and coordination in challenging circumstances. These missions lay the groundwork to build and maintain positive connections with allies and partners, while strengthening other nations’ medical capabilities.
An International Health Specialist Program was established more than 20 years ago as part of the AFMS’s Global Health Engagements efforts by former U.S. Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Paul K. Carlton Jr., with a goal to extend the operational reach of the joint forces.
International health specialists apply regional expertise, cultural competency and foreign language proficiency to effectively engage with partner nations to build meaningful relationships.
One of the many advantages of IHS missions is they often create the opportunity for cooperation that may not have previously been on the table. In some cases, sharing much needed medical expertise and knowledge sets the stage for other types of military engagements going forward. These small wins support the nation and the overall National Defense Strategy in ways typical military or diplomatic efforts may have never achieved. As a result, peace and stability are enhanced.
For example, a humanitarian medical mission with Laos in 2007 eased tensions between the two countries which dated back to the mid-1970s. Air Force medics paved the way for more bilateral engagements, marking the first time in nearly three decades the Department of Defense had engaged with the Laotian military.
A shift in focus from just performing routine medical care to influencing a bigger portion of the operational mission is a huge takeaway for many Air Force medics.
“Air Force Medicine is built on the foundation of commitment to our mission and caring for our patients. This is true on the battlefield, the flooded streets of our coastal communities, in humanitarian missions with partner nations, and in our everyday practice.” Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, Surgeon General of the Air Force
“Being an international health specialist requires adaptability, open-mindedness, resourcefulness and big-picture thinking. Through big-picture thinking, we can develop whole-of-government solutions when unexpected global crises strike,” said Master Sgt. Mouhamed Gadiaga, International Health Specialist Program manager.
“When I became an international health specialist, it all came together. It was the first time I could really see how my actions, and the actions of my fellow nurses, really contribute to our national security strategy,” said Col. Donna Hornberger, international health specialist.
In the wake of devastation, or in underserved areas of the world, the unique capabilities Air Force medics bring to the table are critical to saving lives. These highly trained professionals remain ready and prepared to deploy in whatever size package the mission calls for, and often deploy with limited equipment and supplies.
Once mobilized, support can range from aeromedical evacuations, patient staging, and any level of care in mobile medical clinics, to bioenvironmental engineers checking for hazards and everything in between.
While these missions make a positive impact on those receiving support, Airmen also benefit by sharpening their skills and treating injuries that are difficult to simulate in a training environment.
“When we work in garrison, we have additional doctors, technicians and machines available if something goes wrong,” said Capt. Kimpreet Kaur, 59th Medical Wing anesthesiologist. ”These limited conditions [in disaster relief missions] help prepare us for what we might see if we deploy downrange in the future, which in turn will help us save countless lives.”
Air Force medics have been involved in disaster relief missions since the early days of the AFMS, as part of the Air Force Disaster Assistance Team. In recent years, Air Force medics have responded to everything from hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, to the ongoing pandemic.
Most recently, a Disaster Assistance Response Team deployed to Haiti to assist in the aftermath of an earthquake there Aug. 14.
“Responding to natural disasters is distinct from the warfighting mission in that [for combat deployments] you typically know when your unit is deploying months in advance, it involves quite a bit of planning, and you have time to train,” said Lt. Col. Amanda Hill, 140th Medical Group commander. “Compared to natural disasters which are not … predictable, you need to be able to respond within a few hours and deploy your skills effectively in the most challenging of circumstances.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic threatened the nation, medics found themselves on the frontlines using their skills in an unprecedented fashion, and augmenting civilian counterparts to fight a novel virus that there was not much information on initially.
The adaptability of Air Force medics was especially important as they deployed around the U.S.
Between April and June 2021, the 375th Medical Group from Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, deployed 39 medics to the Community Vaccination Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the Minneapolis-Saint Paul , Minnesota area in support of the Federal Emergency Management Agency response, vaccinating thousands of people.
“The number of people vaccinated is surely impressive, but one of our greatest accomplishments is the lasting positive impression we forged with the community,” said Capt. Richard Larson, 375th Health Care Operations Squadron nurse practitioner. “This community will know that when their people were suffering and needed help, our military answered their call.”
Since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in 2020, hundreds of Air Force medics have deployed, and thousands remain on standby, supporting communities in need all over the U.S.
Lessons learned from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, combined with formal education, training and partnerships with civilian hospitals, prepare Air Force medics to save lives in combat, both on the ground and in the air.
On Aug. 26, three C-17 Globemaster III aircraft with aeromedical evaluation crews and Critical Care Air Transport Teams launched to evacuate injured U.S. service members and Afghan nationals following the bombing at Kabul’s airport.
Air Force medics cared for multitudes of sick and injured personnel in the air and at every stop back to the U.S.
“In medicine, we sometimes get isolated behind the four walls of the medical treatment facility. But medicine is not just about seeing patients or clinical work. It’s bigger than that,” Miller said.
No matter where Air Force medics go, they bring with them unique capabilities and experience to seamlessly coordinate and execute successful missions.
The Air Force’s ability to flex for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and combat missions makes for a well-rounded trifecta providing trusted and reliable care wherever the nation calls them.
“Air Force Medicine is built on the foundation of commitment to our mission and caring for our patients. This is true on the battlefield, the flooded streets of our coastal communities, in humanitarian missions with partner nations, and in our everyday practice. Every medical Airman should be proud of their ability to support these commitments,” Miller said.