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Sports medicine innovations improve TACP health, readiness

A 5th Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party Airman uses a cryotherapy chamber after a workout at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020.

A 5th Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party Airman uses a cryotherapy chamber after a workout at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020. The unit has invested in multiple types of recovery therapies that help ensure Airmen get the most benefit from their workouts while limiting the risk of injuries. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sara Hoerichs)

Members of the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron turned an unused vehicle bay into a unit gym at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020.

Members of the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron turned an unused vehicle bay into a unit gym at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020. This gym is conveniently located in their building allowing Airmen to maintain their fitness while at work. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sara Hoerichs)

Todd O’Mealy, chiropractor at Madigan Army Medical Center, makes a chiropractic adjustment to a 5th Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party Airman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020.

Todd O’Mealy, chiropractor at Madigan Army Medical Center, makes a chiropractic adjustment to a 5th Air Support Operations Squadron Tactical Air Control Party Airman at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., March 3, 2020. Chiropractic care is one of the types of treatment TACP Airmen can get in their squadron. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Sara Hoerichs)

JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- Tactical Air Control Party Airmen have a unique job. They embed with units on the front lines of battlefields to call in air strikes during a fight.

The TACP Airmen of the 5th Air Support Operations Squadron perform jobs that require some of the highest levels of physical fitness in the Air Force. With that level of performance often comes injuries both from the job itself, and from the physical training required to maintain that performance.

The risk of injury has always existed, but the way the military has dealt with that risk has changed over time. In the past, TACP Airmen often worked for as long as they could before injuries stopped them from continuing in their career field. Treatment of those injuries was reactive, trying to repair damage or manage pain.

Over the past two and a half years, the Air Force has changed its approach from reactive to preventative medicine, partnering TACP squadrons with medical professionals to bring medical care directly to Airmen in their units.

When David Friederich, a special warfare exercise physiologist, arrived at the 5th ASOS nearly three years ago, 35 percent of the unit was on a duty limiting condition profile. Now, not a single member is on a profile. The average time it took for a TACP Airman to receive care for an injury, including waiting for a primary care doctor’s appointment, being referred to any necessary specialists, and getting treatment, was 27 days. The average time to get treatment now is just two days.

“We work really hard to get them in, educate them and try to point them in the right direction,” said Todd O’Mealy, a chiropractor at Madigan Army Medical Center who cares for service members there, as well as the 5th ASOS, 1st Special Forces Group and 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. “We’ve come up with game plans for each individual to get them to be able to take care of themselves.”

The focus on ensuring Airmen having an active role in their own health has included bringing not only a well-equipped gym into the squadron building, but also a range of recovery options including cryotherapy, infrared heat therapy and even weekly yoga classes.

“It’s always great to be able to walk out of your office and have what you need to finish your workout for the day or burn off some stress,” said Master Sgt. Nicholas Altgilbers, 5th ASOS operations superintendent. “That’s just the first order effects. The second, third and fourth order effects are what it does for the younger guys. They see that the Air Force is investing in them and their wellness.”

The changing mindset around health hasn’t stopped at bringing medical care to the squadron. Physical training standards have evolved to reflect the need for overall fitness rather than a focus on either strength or speed. The TACP Airmen take the Tier 2 Operator Fitness Test which is designed to test the muscular and aerobic strength and endurance required for their career field.

"Back in the day, it was the tendency to go very heavy on the cardio or very heavy on the lifting,” said Reid Inman, 5th ASOS assistant director of operations. “Yes, we had some really fast guys and some really strong guys but the question was, are we really doing what we need to accomplish the job which is probably something more in the middle. As we’ve examined our own PT standards and gone to the tier two test, we’re helping bring everyone in toward that middle.”

From strength and conditioning, to preventing injuries and treating injuries that can’t be prevented, 5th ASOS Airmen are now, more than ever, ready to go anywhere, anytime.

“Our operators have a unique job, thus we try to be unique in how we go about providing care for them,” Friederich said. “If we can increase deployability, lethality and retainability , then we’ve done our job.”

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