Eglin doctors give special operators jumpstart back to service
By Sara Vidoni, Team Eglin Public Affairs
/ Published October 20, 2014
EGLIN AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Fulfilling the duties of U.S. Air Force Special Tactics Airmen is no easy task. Every day, these operators put their bodies through extremes to accomplish their mission: enabling global access, precision strike and personnel recovery, anywhere, anytime.
However, this constant strain often leads to injuries, requiring operators to be temporarily removed from the fight. That's where two 96th Medical Group doctors come in.
Dr. Garry Powell, a neurosurgeon, and Maj. Jason Capra, a pain specialist, focus on treating spinal and back injuries for all beneficiaries at Team Eglin. When a Special Tactics operator comes in from training or a deployment with a debilitating back injury, Powell and Capra are brought in to find a solution to ending their pain.
"These guys are exceptionally motivated to get back out there," said Powell. "I'm often surprised some of them can even walk in the condition their bodies are in when they arrive for treatment. This is a testament to their character and drive for success."
The Special Tactics Airmen are brought to the Eglin team by medical specialists at the 23rd Special Tactics Squadron, 24th Special Operations Wing, at Hurlburt Field. These Airmen are the U.S. Special Operations Command's tactical air and ground integration force, and the Air Force's special operations ground forces, which means a high deployment cycle and high risk for injury for Special Tactics Airmen. Due to the demand for their specialized skill sets, many of the injured operators cannot follow the standard timeline for acutely wounded warriors.
"The operators' teams rely on their special skills and need them back as quickly and as safely as possible," said Powell. "As soon as I get a phone call from their team, I get the ball rolling in terms of diagnostic studies and treatment plans. Given the sacrifices these operators make through their service, we are willing to stay late or come into the hospital at odd times to make sure we get them back to the best they can be."
The typical treatment plan for these operators includes identifying and documenting the extent of the problem, then deciding how best to implement the treatment with careful consideration to their mission, according to Powell.
"Our goal is to have our guys come home and recover as soon as they are able," said Maj. Danielle Schnitker, a physical therapist for the 23rd STS. "There is a narrow window of opportunity for them to get the proper care they deserve, and thanks to Dr. Powell and Maj. Capra, we are able to make it happen."
According to Capra, most of the operators they see deal with injuries to the cervical and lumbar spine, including disk herniations and conditions where the spine becomes unstable, causing pain and weakness.
One such case involved a Special Tactics Airman who came to the Hurlburt team in August 2013 with low back pain and symptoms in his leg.
"Due to significant findings on the MRI and the patient's symptoms, we sent the Airman to consult with Dr. Powell right away for possible neurosurgery treatment," explained Schnitker.
The operator underwent a successful surgery just two weeks later, then immediately returned to physical therapy. Only two months later, the Airman returned to full-duty status to include jump operations, and by January he was ready to deploy again.
"This operator has made a full recovery and is in as good of shape now as he has ever been," Schnitker said. "Without the relationships established between Hurlburt and the 96th MDG, this Airman's treatment would have taken months longer, which would have prevented him from being able to get back to his job."
Since 2012, the doctors have helped treat more than a dozen special operations patients with spinal injuries.
"Dr. Powell and Maj. Capra have gone above and beyond to treat our Airmen's injuries as quickly as possible and with great success," said Schnitker.
Powell and Capra contribute the success of their efforts to the Airmen themselves, who often deploy and embed with U.S. Navy Seals and Army Special Forces for some of the most dangerous missions the U.S. military performs.
"Their motivation and resiliency is incredible," said Powell. "If I could have just 10 of these patients, I could conquer the world. It's an honor to do what we do, and see that we can get them back in the fight."