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Air Force medical leaders discuss necessary changes in face of great power competition during annual workshop

  • Published
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

Lt. Gen. Robert Miller, U.S. Air Force Surgeon General and Chief Master Sgt. Dawn Kolczynski, Chief of the Medical Enlisted Force, Office of the Air Force Surgeon General, hosted the annual, week-long Air Force Medical Service Senior Leadership Workshop in Leesburg, Virginia, Dec. 5-8, 2023. This year’s theme was “preparing for great power competition… this is the way.” More than 460 past and present medical leaders came together to discuss the organizational and cultural changes within the AFMS amid great power competition.

“The theme for this year’s conference actually was pretty easy to come up with,” said Miller. “It is the reason we exist … the reason that you have an Air Force Medical Service is that readiness mission.”

Conference planners established a specific daily focus to shape discussion on how AFMS is posturing for the future, including the stand up of the Air Force Medical Command, or AFMED; readiness; partnerships; and resiliency.

On Tuesday, December 5, several leaders discussed AFMED focusing on why the new organizational structure is necessary and the way forward in fully standing up AFMED. Maj. Gen. John DeGoes, U.S. Air Force Deputy Surgeon General, explained the need for AFMED to meet future readiness demands and the process on shifting the organizational structure. 

“We must be ready to fight tonight, but it’s going to take several years to refine the structure and supporting process,” said DeGoes.

AFMED presentations also included discussions from Maj. Gen. Jeannine Ryder, AFMED Agency commander, and Maj. Gen. Thomas Harrell, Defense Health Network Central director, on how the first days of AMFED have been since reaching initial operational capability on October 1, including challenges that were addressed and lessons learned. Senior leaders identified the process and emphasized the need for AFMED planners to continue their deliberate, measured approach as they work help the organization achieve full operating capability.

Day two centered on readiness, which kicked off with a presentation from former U.S Air Force Surgeon General, retired Lt. Gen. Dorothy Hogg and former CMEF, retired Chief Master Sgt. Steve Cum. The two shared experiences during their tenure and how they addressed the many challenges, including the transition of military treatment facilities to the Defense Health Agency, the COVID-19 pandemic, and AFMS efforts to ensure medical readiness.

Brig. Gen. Leigh Swanson, Air Mobility Command Surgeon, also set the stage on what it will mean to be a ready medical force in the face of great power competition.

"[Great Power Competition] is now a fully acknowledged dominant paradigm of interstate relations and the driving force behind changing the Air Force and the [Department of Defense] as we know it,” said Swanson.

Other presentations included a panel discussion on what is required to meet the Secretary of the Air Force’s priorities and lines of effort, as well as what medical readiness will look like in the context of increasingly challenging contested environments.

"When we talk about a sense of urgency, our pacing challenge is not waiting for us ... and, our teams see the pacing challenge and are preparing for it,” said Chief Master Sgt. Charles Wortman, AFMED Chief of the Medical Enlisted Force.

On Thursday, December 7, presenters focused on partnerships, highlighting the advances the AFMS has made through relationships with Veterans Affairs, the line of the Air Force and with hospitals and universities.

Col. Justin Rowberry, the Developmental and Behavioral Family Readiness Center director, discussed DBFRC, which was developed in 2019 to increase access to specialized care for families enrolled in the Exceptional Family Member Program, highlighting the partnership across the Military Health System and the line of the Air Force.

“The Developmental and Behavioral Family Readiness Center program was created to provide developmental and behavioral medical capabilities where there are deficits in those capabilities in constrained locations, and it's done in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner,” said Rowberry.

While partnerships have helped improve access to care, they also have had a positive impact on medical readiness. The Center for the Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills, or C-STARS, represents one of the Air Force’s premier medical training partnerships. Through C-STARS, the Air Force Research Lab’s 711th Human Performance Wing works with civilian training hospitals to provide military medics with advanced operational medical training not readily available in the military healthcare system. During this year’s workshop, a panel of speakers highlighted the importance of their unique partnership with their civilian hospital. Each C-STARS partnership focuses on a specific specialty necessary to ensure Air Force medics remain ready for the high-end fight. These specialties range from advanced trauma care and infectious disease control, to critical care air transport training.

The last day of the workshop centered on resiliency, where presenters discussed mental health and programs that support resiliency across the Air Force and Space Force.

One of the significant pushes towards improving resiliency support is the integration of the True North and Operational Support Team programs into True North Plus. With this integration, Wing and Delta leaders will have resources they can temporarily embed into units to deliver a spectrum of resiliency to units that need them most, tailoring care and addressing concerns before they can impact readiness.

“It’s important that our Airmen and Guardians are spiritually, physically and mentally ready for the future fight,” said Brig. Gen. James Parry, Medical Operations acting director.

Emphasizing the key role of nutrition in resiliency and readiness, Col. Mary Anne Kiel, Air Force Lifestyle and Performance Medicine working group chair, provided updates on the future direction of Lifestyle and Performance Medicine.

"The Lifestyle and Performance Medicine specialty is rapidly growing ... and serves as a framework approach of how we use evidence-based, therapeutic lifestyle interventions as the primary modality of not only preventing disease from happening, but actively treating it and even sometimes reversing it,” said Kiel.

Throughout the week, attendees also listened in on several keynote speakers, including Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, and Dr. Jason Womack, Development Branch chief, U.S. Space Force. In addition, senior medical leaders also listened as Benjamin Hall, a Fox correspondent, who shared his story of when he was wounded while covering the war in Ukraine in March 2022 and how Air Force medics played a critical role in saving his life.

“You save lives, said Hall. “You bring people home. You took me back to my family, and, every single time I am with them, I think of the people who saved me and that's you guys; so, thank you for what you do."

SLW 2023 was the final workshop hosted by Miller and Kolcyzynski. Both discussed the importance of each of the day’s presentations and what they hoped medical leaders will share with their teams back at their home stations.

“SLW is really special,” said Miller. “During COVID, it was virtual. It was good, but it was not the same as being in person. It’s the importance of sharing information, communication, reconnecting with folks, building relationships, meeting new people. It’s such a unique and valuable opportunity that I will be surprised if anyone left at the end of the week not feeling that it was value added, they are smarter and proud to be an Air Force medic.”