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Air Force celebrates 20 years of International Health Specialist program

  • Published
  • International Health Specialist Program
Over the past 20 years, the U.S. Air Force’s International Health Specialist program has played a key role in transforming global health engagement, giving it a new structure and purpose. As the program has matured, its impact on global health engagement has grown.

Prior to the program’s launch, global health engagement consisted of large humanitarian assistance events where U.S. military medics delivered care to populations of partner nations.

Founder of the International Health Specialist program and former U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, retired Lt. Gen. P.K. Carlton, said a key component of his vision was to create specialists with deep geopolitical and cultural skills who could drive more meaningful and long-term engagement with partners and allies.

“These specialists would be able to lead engagements that not only influence the entire world medically, but also support National Defense Strategy objectives within regions around the globe,” said Carlton. “The mutual benefit to the United States and its partners and allies persuaded the Department of Defense to invest in this program.”

International Health Specialists began to shift the paradigm of global health engagements. They created long-term plans with partner nations that focused on building military medical capabilities through a wide variety of exercises and exchanges. They were able to lead this change because the program professionalized the role, establishing qualification criteria and developing training curriculum.

Shortly after the program’s launch, International Health Specialists were placed at the Department of Defense’s geographic combatant commands and corresponding U.S. Air Force component commands. In these positions, International Health Specialists developed global health engagement activities and investments to support regional strategic objectives for the Department of Defense and the U.S. government.

“When you place International Health Specialists at the combatant commands, you are able to harness the full potential of these specialists,” explained former U.S. Central Command Surgeon and Joint Staff Surgeon, retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Robb. “They are able to structure diverse global health engagements across an area of operation to support the combatant commander’s strategy in the region. But more importantly, they are able to influence the entire joint perspective and approach to medical planning and security cooperation.”

One of the strategic advantages of global health engagement is it creates space for cooperation where there otherwise may not be one. It serves as an initial platform for combatant commanders to establish a new partnership. Because of this, International Health Specialists are often at the helm of enabling military-to-military relationships.

“For years, we only had a pragmatic relationship with Laos, which was limited to bringing Americans home who were prisoners of war or missing in action,” said U.S. Air Force Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg. “But we were able to get our International Health Specialists in there to provide training, and this opened the door for more bilateral, military-to-military engagements.”

The training with Laos took place in 2007 and was the first time since the mid-1970s the Department of Defense had engaged with the Laotian military beyond repatriation efforts. Despite a tense historical context, the medical engagement event helped to pave the way for a more robust relationship.

Access to partnerships combined with an inherent contribution to regional stability makes global health engagement a powerful tool for combatant commanders to proactively shape regional dynamics. Former director of the International Health Specialist program, retired Col. Mylène Huynh, compared global health engagement to preventive medicine, explaining that it focuses on prevention rather than treatment.

“Global health engagement is a great way to build relationships with not only our allies, but also neutral parties to shape the environment. By achieving our objectives through a weighted emphasis on collaborative measures, we can win the battle without risking our service members’ lives,” said Huynh.

Another strategic advantage of global health engagement is it increases interoperability and compatibility with partners and allies. Using a variety of mechanisms, International Health Specialists have continually integrated interoperability into engagements whether it is the immediate goal or the stretch goal. By doing this, U.S. forces can work seamlessly with allies and partners in contingency operations, which increases operational readiness.

“Our primary mission as Air Force medics is readiness; readiness to go to war, ensure the health and safety of our troops, and bring our service members home safely and quickly.” said Hogg. “International Health Specialists play a crucial role in accomplishing this mission, enabling us to develop the relationships and interoperability with our allies.”

Because of the program’s successes, Hogg is looking for ways to replicate the program’s approach across the Air Force Medical Service. When describing her vision for the “Air Force medic of 2030,” Hogg says she would like to see aspects of the International Health Specialist training experience incorporated into the professional development of every Air Force medic.

“The program helps medics sharpen their strategic outlook,” said Hogg. “Air Force medicine is more than just clinical care; it is bigger than that. International Health Specialists working side-by-side with other countries, including our joint partners, opens their eyes to the many ways military medicine supports the broader Department of Defense mission. The skillset of International Health Specialists adds to the capability of our medics."

The International Health Specialist program will continue to push to be advocates for the Department of Defense’s global health engagement and medical security cooperation.

“The future of the International Health Specialist program will continue to evolve by developing innovative solutions to address current and emerging threats, shaping global health engagement through the professionalization of the role, and working with partners to support the Department of Defense and national security,” said Col. Wesley Palmer, current International Health Specialist program director.