Air Force International Health Specialists needed for whole-of-government solutions

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Mouhamed Gadiaga
  • International Health Specialist Program Manager
U.S. Air Force International Health Specialists are known for our geopolitical expertise and health diplomacy, but we are also skilled in facilitating whole-of-government operations.

I began my Air Force career as a bioenvironmental engineer technician. Transitioning to an International Health Specialist gave me a better understanding of how the Air Force Medical Service fits into the larger Air Force and Department of Defense missions. I went from performing industrial hygiene and occupational health surveys for a local commander to supporting my combatant commander’s strategy in Africa.

My first assignment as an International Health Specialist was as a team member at United States Air Forces in Europe - Air Forces Africa at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. I began each day with an open-ended team discussion to brainstorm how world events might impact or inform our collaboration with partner nations. Many of our discussions led to projects of different kinds and shapes. We were empowered to create projects and initiatives and build programs from the ground up, sometimes with very little precedent and no benchmark to model. We worked to overcome funding requirements, coordinate challenges within the joint and interagency community, and decide who should be on what team.

I developed five-year plans with West African partner nations to increase their military and civilian medical capabilities. For this activity, systems thinking was important to identify and evaluate all variables that might impact outcomes. Creating policy and concepts of operations were critical steps in establishing new programs that were components of this long-term engagement. Through all of this, I learned to be flexible and willing to adjust my plans.

As an International Health Specialist, I engaged with a variety of professionals of different backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives. I often found myself at a conference table full of Surgeons General and Ministry of Health leaders from partner nations in the region. I regularly coordinated with Security Cooperation Office high-ranking personnel at U.S. embassies and learned my expertise was valued and more important than my branch of service or rank.

To be successful, I learned how to shift perspectives so I could “speak their language,” and communicate in a way to meet the needs of my counterparts around that conference table. I learned to recognize my own biases and not let them get in the way of progress. Understanding how to meet people where they are is as important in a multinational context as it is in a joint and interagency context.

International Health Specialists master several core competencies essential to their job, such as health diplomacy, joint operational planning, and interagency coordination. However, these core competencies are a valuable component of professional development for any Air Force medic. 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.

One such crisis was the Ebola pandemic in West Africa. I collaborated with the U.S. Army, U.S. embassies, the African Union, non-government organizations, and sister services of partner nations to develop a program and build a capability that did not yet exist. In Accra, Ghana, we used the Kofi Annan International Peacekeeping Training Center as a platform to launch the West African Disaster Response Initiative. This program enabled West African nations to effectively respond to the Ebola pandemic as well as future pandemics. My experience as an International Health Specialist was critical to my success in this role.

Similarly, I witnessed my colleagues facilitate a whole-of-government response when they were called to support Task Force-Southeast, which was set up to coordinate domestic COVID-19 pandemic response activities. They worked in support of U.S. Army North and the Federal Emergency Management Agency filling positions at headquarters, to include deputy surgeon of the task force. They used their joint operational planning and civil-military operations expertise to facilitate a total force response to the crisis. They were able to provide support because of the preparation and training they received as International Health Specialists.

The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the next global crisis could be novel and unexpected. I am confident the DoD and the world can rely on Air Force International Health Specialists to provide whole-of-government capabilities in support of national security objectives.