At the forefront: 137th AES commander reflects on lessons learned during major wartime, disaster and pandemic aeromedical responses

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Brigette Waltermire
  • 137th Special Operations Wing
Col. Darcy Tate grew up around the military, specifically the Army. Her father was a veteran of the Korean War and her brother retired as a colonel, plus she had two uncles and a cousin also in the Army. She was the first of her family to break the branch mold as well as the first woman in her family to join, enlisting in the Air National Guard in 1988.

What she never expected was for her career to take her to the forefront of some of the most major military and aeromedical response events in recent U.S. history.

“I’m done with these once-in-a-century big events,” she reflected. “There have been too many throughout my career, but there are a lot of lessons I’ve learned to improve those operations every time that I use to help my Airmen and their patients.”

In March of 2020, two members of the Oklahoma Air National Guard were involved in a rocket attack in Iraq. Stationed at the 138th Fighter Wing in Tulsa, Oklahoma, were Tech. Sgt. Marshall Roberts, who was killed in the attack, and Tech. Sgt. Ariel White, who was injured and evacuated. White was taken from Iraq to Germany and then brought back to the U.S. on an aeromedical evacuation flight with members of the 137th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Oklahoma Air National Guard.

Capt. Stephenie Tatum, a flight nurse with the 137th AES, was assigned to that flight.

“A personal friend of mine was with Ariel during the attacks,” Tatum said. “He specifically asked me to make sure she was okay if at all possible, and I happened to be part of the crew to fly both the mission to Iraq and then on to Andrews Air Force Base.”

On the flight from Germany to the U.S., Tatum personally delivered a message and a morale patch from the aeromedical squadron to White on behalf of Tate.

“I was deployed as the Commander of the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight based at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and wanted her to know we were all supporting her without overwhelming her with visitors,” Tate explained. “On this deployment rotation, the 137th AES had deployed members to Ramstein, Bagram Air Base and Al Udeid Air Base. I believe that people are in certain places for a reason, and I am very grateful that the members of my squadron were in the right places at the right time to be able to care for our fellow OKANG Airman.”

This deployment involved more than just combat casualty response crew rotations for Tate. She was the commander of a squadron tasked with standing up the Negatively Pressured CONEX at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic for use in global Air Force operations.

“That was a challenge for sure,” Tate said. “We had to respond to an unpredictable situation which demanded we do the best we could at the time, and then refine our practices and procedures once we had time to develop them for an active, high-paced response plan. I tell all of my new flight nurses that they have to know the standards that the Air Force requires of us, yet we also have to be prepared for those regulations to be rendered moot by the circumstances that we respond to. Know the standards, know the why, and then start using that to adapt the practical response to the overall intent.”

These lessons were hard-won throughout major disaster experiences. Tate was a flight nurse who responded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, moving over 1,200 patients within 72 hours in the final days her several weeks helping in New Orleans. Working eight-hours-on, eight-hours-off shifts with limited resources in the city’s airport-turned-hospital required the aeromedical crew to make do with whatever was at hand.

“It was an amazing example of every medical responder doing their best to make the best decision to the best of their ability with the best of intentions,” Tate said. “The rulebook doesn’t apply in those situations, so you have to rely on your professional training in decision-making. I think as a force we are looking to empower our people to do that in the future and step away from a model where our people typically learn from following a checklist.”

She saw the difference those training and readiness lessons could make from a new perspective as a commander during the 137th AES response to Hurricane Harvey. Her experience in these natural disaster operations stateside showed her it was just as integral to developing stronger aeromedical evacuation processes for the Guard as combat operations. But no matter what the response, the most important thing is seeing the patient through the flight.

“She taught me to never be afraid to advocate and speak up for your patients, your crew, and yourself,” said Tatum about lessons she had learned from Tate in the 14 years they have known each other. “Those leadership strategies are what take people from uncertainty and self-doubt to strong and confident. She has always embraced that in me.”

For all the impact she has had as a commander and leader, Tate nearly did not have a career in aeromedical evacuation. Her career in aeromed started in 1996, eight years after her initial enlistment in the Air Force, because she wanted to fly. She wanted to work on an aircraft; but at the time, the C-130 Hercules aircraft at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base were used in tactical capacities. It was difficult for women to be approved as loadmasters or crew chiefs when they were not allowed in combat.

“One of the crew chiefs suggested I look into aeromed. I signed up, and when I was in training to become an inflight medical technician I had a light-bulb moment,” she said. “I knew after that training that I wanted to be a flight nurse, so I commissioned. We weren’t very active at the time as a squadron, but I loved the job.”

Up until 9/11, she said the 137th AES mission was more of a concept to the base’s C-130 flight crews, who did not work with them regularly. However, once they began flying patients throughout the desert rather than running exercises in Oklahoma City, it took the aeromed response capability from “being a concept to people doing real, hard work.”

Her career has seen her at the forefront of major wartime, disaster and pandemic aeromedical responses. While these moments played a huge part in her growth as an Airman, her biggest lessons in leadership have come from the people around her who supported that growth and helped her succeed when those opportunities came along.

She is now one of two women who are commanders at Will Rogers Air National Guard Base. Her time at the base and in the military showed her the potential she had to succeed in a career she loved, and now she can support others, especially women, in doing the same.

“Not only am I watching women coming through the ranks into command positions, whether in enlisted capacities or commissioned capacities, but I am especially seeing them come through what might be considered male-dominated paths,” she said. “The women who I work alongside as commanders and the women I work with in my squadron are continually improving the base, and seeing how the force is changing and developing along with those who will step into my shoes is a very exciting shift to witness.”