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Air Force medics deliver diverse deployed care

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Deployed medicine is often understood in the context of severe injuries on the battlefield, however trauma care is only one aspect of the Air Force’s deployed requirement and capability.

Deployed medicine consists of both trauma and primary care. Trauma makes up approximately 30% of the care delivered in deployed environments, meaning the other 70% of deployed medicine is primary care offered at military treatment facilities outside the combat zone.

Every deployed medic is equally important to readiness and combatant commanders’ mission success.

“We sustain the warfighter through public health, primary care, and services like pharmacy, mental health, dental, physical and occupational health therapies,” said Col. Matthew Hendell, Commander, 934th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Minneapolis - St. Paul Air Reserve Station. “These critical assets ensure deployed personnel remain healthy and mission capable.”

This was true for Lt. Col. Julia Bradley, 71st Medical Group chief nurse, Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma, who was recently deployed as the infectious disease team lead for Force Protection Package 4, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Her other deployments include humanitarian missions in Cyprus and Haiti.

“When I deployed, I treated a broad range of non-combat related concerns, from nausea to bone fractures,” said Bradley. “For example, I often saw medical issues related to dehydration. Many service members would exercise but not drink enough water, and dehydration would affect their kidneys. Medical teams have to remain ready and be able to treat a variety of health concerns.”

The goal is to keep service members healthy and in the fight throughout the length of their deployments.

Dentists and dental technicians, for example, are equipped to provide the same high-quality care service members receive at home station. According to Col. Robin E. Fontenot, expeditionary dentistry consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General, by having this capability available, there is a decreased chance dental health will be a reason why someone needs to redeploy for care.

“We offer cleaning and exams, especially for those service members who have been deployed for a longer time,” said Fontenot. “We also do extractions and restorations when needed. Our dentists and dental technicians have seen service members come in with an infection around a wisdom tooth. Wisdom tooth extractions are easy, so that member may be sore for a few days but is right back in the fight without needing aeromedical evacuation.”

Deployments are a significant event for some Airmen, which is why mental health care is a crucial capability. Deployed mental health care providers help Airmen through difficult stressors.

“Airmen can face significant challenges being half a world away from loved ones, and some Airmen need support navigating deployments,” said Col. Scott Sonnek, Director of Psychological Health, Air Force Medical Readiness Agency. “Our deployed mental health professionals keep these Airmen engaged in the mission, and can make the difference between an Airmen being able to complete their deployment or having to go home prematurely.”

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has widened the aperture of deployed medical care. Safely flying infected patients requires a wider range of medical specialties usually only seen in a clinic.

“During aeromedical evacuations, I worked with specialties that don’t normally fly so we could meet the same standards we have in a treatment facility,” said Lt. Col. Benjamin Stermole, Infectious Disease Chief, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, and Infectious Disease Team Lead for Force Package 2, Ramstein Air Base, Germany. “Using personnel like bioenvironmental engineers in a new environment improves our health care capabilities and allows the mission to continue during the pandemic.”

Having a wide range of medical specialties not just in the air, but also deployed on the ground, ensures warfighters can remain in theater and get the mission done.

“The Air Force Medical Service is highly flexible,” said Col. Colin Smyth, Director, Expeditionary Medical Policy and Operations. “We were able to rapidly develop a COVID Theater Hospital force package with associated personnel and equipment to meet specific needs.

“Our medics support combatant commanders by maintaining the medical readiness of every deployed member, and the readiness of the medical force. Air Force medics have validated this capability, as seen by our ability to quickly respond to new requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic and keep the downrange mission going.”