I elected to pause my training after completion of a transitional year internship to enter active duty service as a United States Air Force flight surgeon. While it is a less-than-traditional pathway, it allowed me to serve a greater mission. It was a stressful transition that required meticulous coordination but every step along the way, I was supported by many teams and individuals so that I could focus on my flight surgeon training. As a military physician, I care for the men and women who put their lives on the line for freedom. It is truly humbling, and it is humbling to think of all the support we received.
A flight surgeon is part of the support staff and also serves as the primary care physician for pilots and flight crew. A flight surgeon ensures that pilots are healthy enough to fly. To accomplish this, we combine primary care with occupational medicine and public health. The flight surgeon’s role is vital in carrying out the mission of the Air Force at home and also while deployed. I am presently assigned to a pilot training base where approximately 500 new pilots train annually. Therefore, my contribution to the mission is ensuring continual training of new pilots by keeping student and instructor pilots healthy. This feeds the mission of the Air Force as it faces a shortage of pilots.
However, even the flight surgeon is part of a larger interdisciplinary team. I work with a team of optometrists, dentists, aerospace physiologists, public health professionals, bioenvironmental engineers, behavioral health providers and other ancillary staff. All of these specialists have their own teams that contribute to keeping pilots in the air. We are collectively known as members of team aerospace: just one of the teams that contribute to the mission.
Keeping this in mind, for every hour that a pilot flies, many more hours are spent in preparation and direct support. Before a plane can take off, mechanics have spent hours servicing the plane while flight equipment teams maintain life support and survival gear to ensure the safety of the pilot in normal flight and in case of emergency. Meteorologists monitor the weather, and air traffic controllers direct for safety in the sky and on the ground. Team aerospace is involved to keep pilots healthy and educated on safety performance.
Nevertheless, as my wife and I learned, staff are dedicated to supporting the support — families of active service men and women. An entire force of its own supported my family so I could focus on my training. We had less than three weeks from arrival on base to my departure for flight surgeon training. When I left for training, we were still living in a hotel awaiting availability of base housing, leaving my wife to orchestrate the rest of our move. On that note, I will highlight some of the support my family received during this transition and training.
The first source of fabulous support came from the first sergeant called the “Shirt”, whose responsibility is personnel support. He directed us to our resources and assisted in working with other departments. The first paycheck takes time when beginning military service and our savings were running low. With the Shirt’s assistance, the finance department was able to help speed up our reimbursement and establish my salary. The base legal team prepared our power of attorney paperwork to allow my wife to be able to sign for our house without me. Base security forces assisted my wife with preparing our reports of missing belongings not delivered by the movers.
My wife was adopted by multiple groups to make sure she was welcomed during my extended training. My medical group ensured that she had friends and support. A “key spouse” individually assures that the needs of spouses are met. There is a community group for spouses new to the base. Additionally, there is a support group for spouses to assist when their loved ones are deployed or away for training. One may wonder why there is such an emphasis on spousal support. During training, my biggest concern has been for my spouse and her well-being. Knowing that countless people were working to support my wife helped me concentrate on learning how to be the best flight surgeon possible. The peace of knowing that families are cared for allows service members to focus on their job responsibilities while deployed.
As a civilian physician, I always felt like I was a part of the patient care team. I enjoyed working with physicians, nurses, and other professionals to provide the best care for patients. During this experience of transitioning into the U.S. Air Force, I felt grafted into a much larger team outside of medicine. In the Air Force and the rest of the military, physicians and others have a clear connection to accomplishing the greater mission. While the civilian population thinks of the pilots flying, there are many more people involved to keep the pilots in the air. To keep them in the air, it takes an Air Force.
Author’s note: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Image courtesy of Captain Tyler Bates, DO