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Diverse experience in Air Force leads to career in global health engagement

  • Published
  • By Marisa Cole
The path taken by Lt. Col. Ruben Matos demonstrates just what it takes to build a career in global health engagement in the Air Force Medical Service. He is a native of Puerto Rico, fluent in Spanish, and recently assumed the Deputy Director position of the AFMS’ International Health Specialist program. His career path is a strong example of how a diverse experience in the Air Force contributes to a successful career in the type of work that IHS team members do.

Matos calls his entrance into the service somewhat “atypical” since he earned his bachelor’s in Biology and master’s in Health Policy Management prior to joining the Air Force.

He joined the Air Force Reserve, launching what would be a diverse career for Matos as a Medical Service Corps officer, filling roles such as: Aeromedical Evacuation Liaison Team officer and Aide de Camp, Deputy Commander, U.S. Special Operations Command.  His experiences in the Air Force Reserves made him realize he wanted to make a career out of his military service, so he applied and was selected to transfer to active duty status.  Soon, he was on his way to new positions ranging from administrator of the Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine to chief of Health Professions Recruiting.

The highlight of his military career came in February 2003 when  he deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Matos served as the Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron Commander and Administrator at the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group at Tallil Air Base in Nasiriyah, Iraq, where he confirmed how critically important it is for all of the Services to work together. IHS team members are sometimes called to work across the different Services, as well as with various civilian government agencies, non-governmental organizations and most importantly with Partner Nations. The ability to build strong relationships is the core of what IHS team members do.

Matos got his first true taste of what it takes to be an IHS team member when he returned from his deployment to the Office of the Command Surgeon at Headquarters, U.S. Southern Command as the Air Force Medical Planner. In that position he worked side-by-side with IHS team members planning missions, exercises, and contingencies throughout the year. He often went on missions to Central and South America, working with Partner Nations and their Ministers of Health, evaluating their healthcare systems. These assessments were sometimes week-long missions in which Matos would make site visits to hospitals, talk to healthcare professionals, work with local Ministers of Health, and review the military medical system as well as the civilian healthcare system. He would sometimes brief the senior U.S. representatives in the partner nations on his assessment and produce a medical evacuation plan.

“The highlight of my time at SOUTHCOM was being part of the rescue and repatriation of the three hostages that the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] had in Colombia at that time, as well as our role in Operation Continuing Promise, in which the storied USNS Comfort provided medical care for local populations of Partner Nations. It again highlighted to me the importance of working well across the Services with my fellow Army and Navy medical planners.”  He also said his experience in SOUTHCOM demonstrated the importance of having a working knowledge of the cultural nuances of Partner Nations and fluency in their language and customs.

Before coming to the IHS program, Matos was the Deputy Surgeon at Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), where he helped establish a command Aid Station to provide primary care Services to personnel stationed at SOCSOUTH without them having to make the 40 minute drive to where medical Services were available.  It was a process that also required building relationships with local hospitals and doctors, since there is no military medical infrastructure in the South Florida area.

“All of these different positions I’ve held were truly the building blocks to my career – they gave me the chance to do different things at different places, giving me a broad range of experiences.”

This is something Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, Director of the Defense Health Agency, recently said about global health engagement in the military to attendees of the Global Health Strategies for Security Course at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in downtown Washington, D.C.:

“When helping other countries, you have to have a much broader understanding of what kind of environment you’re dealing with, what other pieces are in play, and understanding what types of contributions would be meaningful. I’ve had a great opportunity to work in a variety of jobs, and these experiences have given me a real strong sense of appreciation for where some of the opportunities are for military medicine.”

While not all the roles Matos served in had the words “international” or “global” in the title, all of the different experiences and skills he acquired in his various positions enhanced his ability to build relationships at the individual level, across the Services and across international borders – all to the greater goal of building partnerships that advance the health security goals of our nation.

***The IHS Program was established in 2000, foreseeing the need for Air Force medics to be on the cutting edge of global health issues in order to keep pace with evolving military strategy. Full-time IHS staff support global health engagement at Combatant Commands, Major Commands, and Air Force Component Commands. These IHS professionals enable another 300 Special Experience Identifier (SEI) Airmen at military treatment facilities around the globe, applying demonstrated language skills and cultural experience to respond to global health engagement assignments and humanitarian assistance and disaster response. Since the inception of the program, more than 400 Airmen have been trained and participated in hundreds of IHS missions that positively impact partner nations’ civilian and military personnel.

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