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Air Force embedded medics keep Airmen fit during pandemic

  • Published
  • By Peter Holstein
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed how we all live our lives and do our jobs. Even with those changes, essential Air Force missions continue, and embedded physical therapists are working as hard as ever to keep Airmen fit to fight.

Many jobs in the Air Force are physically demanding, and Airmen need to maintain high levels of fitness and performance to execute the mission. Base Operational Support Teams are teams of medics who rotate through squadrons at their installations to improve fitness routines, enhance workplace health and safety, and build relationships within the unit to make health care more accessible.

Because Operational Support Teams embed within the units they support, they cannot use the same protective measures used by base clinics to limit patient and provider exposure to COVID-19. However, their support remains critical to keeping Airmen on the job. Embedded medics are finding creative ways to accomplish their mission while still following Department of Defense and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“The COVID pandemic caused us to pivot and provide assistance to any unit that asked for it,” said Mr. William Goins, Base Operational Support Team director, Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea. “With the fitness center closed, we are emphasizing that part of resilience is getting creative to ensure we stay physically and mentally fit.”

For Maj. Samantha Warren, the Base Operational Support Team chief at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, adaptability is a big part of supporting operational units during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are embedded with the wing’s maintenance squadron, the 366th MXS,” said Warren. “Their mission didn’t stop when COVID started, so we are finding ways to keep them fit and performing optimally under challenging conditions.”

One big change was to the schedule. Maintenance teams started working staggered schedules to minimize large groups. The Operational Support Team did the same, with some members shifting to an alternate duty schedule. Because exercise is often easier with a social component, the team found ways to accomplish that without face-to-face interaction.

“We knew we had to avoid gatherings, so we started fitness challenges based on small groups of Airmen already working together,” said Warren. “We challenge each team to do more push-ups or squats than the last team, and share videos of the challenge once it’s complete. Our team takes precautions by wearing masks, maintaining distances greater than six feet, and taking more time between interactions to disinfect and wash hands.”

The Osan Operational Support Team also shifted procedures in response to COVID-19.

“We started limiting the number of people we allow in our Physical Training Leadership course to practice social distancing,” said Goins. “We keep it to just one individual per table, make sure that we have hand sanitizer available throughout the course, and wear masks for one-on-one work. Our work environment does not lend itself easily to following social distancing guidelines, but we make it work.”

Goins is encouraging the squadrons he works with to keep following existing routines when they do not conflict with COVID-19 guidance.

“In times of high stress, maintaining some routines can be key to mental and physical resilience,” said Goins. “It’s also a great time to add new healthy habits. I think the pandemic is really reinforcing the need to be healthy and fit all the time.”

Operational Support Teams across the Air Force are adapting to the new normal. The team at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona is embedded with the installation Security Forces Squadron, the 56th SFS. They were able to continue individual physical fitness classes after COVID-19 closed gyms on base by setting up exercise equipment outside.

"Our Security Forces have a high intensity mission, and they need to stay at the peak of physical performance," said Capt. Jeffrey Turner, Operational Support Team Flight Commander, Luke Air Force Base. We set up a tactical mobile fitness unit outside the Security Forces building and thoroughly sanitize it between uses. Maintaining their exercise routines empowers our defenders to sustain their physical and mental readiness, while protecting them from exposure."

Under normal operations, Operational Support Teams focus on the occupational health challenges of their host squadron, working with leadership to improve processes. They teach squadron members skills to sustain fitness once the team moves to another squadron.

“Airmen in our maintenance squadrons are constantly loading heavy munitions onto jets, crawling under jets and doing other physically tasking jobs,” said Warren. “We teach them about proper ergonomics and body mechanics, and show them stretches to keep them from getting injured. We work with squadron leadership to build those things into the daily routine, and it all has a real impact in preventing injury.”

These benefits are only magnified now, as medical resources focus on fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Critical operations continue every day, pandemic or not,” said Warren. “Because we interact outside of the traditional clinic setting, we are positioned to keep Airmen on the flight line in top shape, while keeping our patients and ourselves protected from COVID-19 exposure.”