Former IHS Director used twenty years of medical experience to further program goals

  • Published
  • By Marisa Cole
How does one find their way into a career as an Air Force Medical Service International Health Specialist? For Col. Alan Chambers, the former IHS program director, he knew at the young age of twelve that he wanted to work in the international health care realm. At least, he knew he wanted to make a difference in the world through medicine. He was inspired by the meaningful mission work his aunt was doing in Africa as a nurse midwife. He wanted to help others and live a life of fulfillment like she did.

Chambers realized his goals through the Air Force ROTC in college and was commissioned after graduating. He received his medical degree and master’s degree in public health and tropical medicine from Tulane University and completed a general surgery residency in Texas. 

“Surgery appealed to me after taking an anatomy course from a professor who was originally from Ghana,” Chambers said. “He impressed upon me the impact of surgery in the developing world. I also read an article on surgical work in sub-Saharan Africa that fueled my interest, as well as the ability of surgery to take on a problem and resolve it – that powerfully appealed to me.”

Chambers traveled extensively with the Air Force Special Operations community, deepening his Spanish, Portuguese, and French language skills. At the same time he was working with AFSOC, the IHS program was established. “I was one of the first people to get a Special Experience Identifier. I was thrilled to be in that group.”

After 9/11, Chambers deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan. During these deployments, he saw a tremendous need for reconstructive surgery in the civilian and military communities. This is what led him to do a general surgery residency followed by a plastic surgery residency. He then completed a hand surgery and microsurgery fellowship, an advanced training beyond residency, in the orthopedic surgery department at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard University. During that time, Chambers traveled with a non-governmental organization to China and worked as a surgeon in a Chinese air force hospital in Beijing in 2010, treating burn victims. This was a period when the U.S. was not really engaging with China on a military-to-military level.

Chambers saw how the humanity of healthcare provided a conduit to open the doors of dialogue on a military level. He went on to write about this experience in an article in Military Medicine, outlining the need for an enhanced relationship between the U.S and China to further mutual understanding and promote cooperation via military medical relations.

Through his research for that article Chambers worked closely with the then-director of the IHS program Col. Mylene Huynh. When Chambers was selected for promotion to colonel, Huynh asked him to take on the Director position for the IHS program. His work on the Military Medicine article about China and his extensive experience abroad were not the only items that made Chambers well-suited for the job. He also worked on a number of missions for the Defense Institute for Medical Operations while a reconstructive surgeon at San Antonio Military Medical Center. Additionally, he wrote another article on military medical relations with Brazil, published in Air and Space Power Journal.

When looking back on his time as the IHS Director for the past few years, he immediately picks out the time of October 2013 as being significant for the program. “That was when General Travis requested that all the Air Force component commands at the Surgeon General level brief Global Health Engagement activities and that we needed to develop metrics to support that. So, in January of 2014, we developed metrics at the AF component level to articulate how GHE meets line commander security cooperation objectives in theater.” Briefing on GHE activities at the Surgeon General level and providing metrics placed a much higher level of importance on global health engagement within the AFMS – something that is happening across the Department of Defense.

Chambers is also looking forward to seeing how the AFMS IHS program continues to interlink more closely with the Army and Navy after more deliberate partnering between the services occurred in 2013-2015.

Building partnerships are at the center of what the IHS program does. Those relationships are built on dialogue, which is something Chambers has done for over twenty years.

“Twenty years ago, if you wanted to do international health, there just wasn’t a whole lot of room for sub specialty care. Now we have a lot of countries trying to become more self-sufficient, so they are benefiting from dialogue in areas in such specialties like mine – plastic and hand surgery. With any health related expertise, though, we can find a dialogue.”

It is just this kind of dialogue that Chambers has been engaging in for the past twenty years that builds the relationships that advance the health security goals of our nation – and what every past, present, and future IHS team member does on a global scale every day.

***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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