A healthy dose of ‘flight’ medicine

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Eydie Sakura
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs Office
You may not know them, in fact, you might not even recognize their faces, but they are an integral part of the 341st Missile Wing's mission and wear a variety of hats to take care of the people who operate, maintain, support and secure the weapon system at Malmstrom. 

Whether they are jumping out of helicopters to save stranded hikers; managing the personnel reliability program (PRP) and assessing health issues with missile combat crew members, pilots, fire fighters and their families; or exercising mass casualty scenarios, the people in flight medicine juggle an assortment of roles and responsibilities to ensure the wing is mission-ready. 

"We are 'human weapon specialists' and our job is designed to provide indispensible medical guidance, treatment and support for in-garrison and deployed operations," said Capt. David Oettel, 341st Medical Operations Squadron flight surgeon. "Flight medicine is not just a normal clinic with nurses, technicians and providers; we provide essential mission support to the critical programs within the wing." 

Flight medicine is just one area of aerospace medicine which is made up of public health, bioenvironmental engineering, aerospace physiology, health promotion, air evacuation, medical readiness and optometry. 

"The goal of aerospace medicine is to 'sustain and improve the health and performance of personnel assigned to operations functions, to prevent disease and injury in the work force, and to protect the environment,' and at Malmstrom, flight medicine plays a key role in two major programs [called] PRP and grounding management," the captain said. 

Grounding management has oversight of the space and missile operation, and people on flight status, such as pilots, flight engineers, flight surgeons and static line jumpers. A flight surgeon would have to make an aero-medical disposition, or determination, as to whether or not people can perform their operational duties, such as flying. 

The other critical aspect of flight medicine is PRP, which is ultimately a commander's program. 

"Within PRP, a flight surgeon serves as a competent medical authority, and provides medical recommendations to assist the commanders in making their determinations," Captain Oettel said. 

Flight medicine currently is comprised of the chief of aerospace medicine, two flight surgeons and one flight nurse, one Senior NCO, two NCOs and three Airmen. 

Senior Airman Ben Spittler, 341st MDOS aerospace medical service technician, said their primary focus is to facilitate PRP and secondly the health care to members assigned to the flight medicine clinic. 

"I serve as one of the many gate-keepers who ensures PRP accuracy," he said. "We also play a large role in the process of initially qualifying potential members seeking flight status or other special operation duty jobs, such as [jobs] in the missile field." 

The medical service technicians also assist the flight surgeons with assessment and the administrative aspects of temporarily disqualifying flyers or missileers for medical conditions. Another responsibility includes the maintenance and proper inventory of necessary medical supplies and the ability to respond quickly and effectively to a variety of mishaps that are exercise-related or real world. 

"[Technicians'] skills also include emergency medicine treatment and cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, as well as involvement in [patient] diagnoses," Airman Spittler said. "We're also involved in several common procedures such as specimen collection, liquid nitrogen treatment, ear irrigation and throat cultures." 

Flight medicine is the authority for healthcare that is specific for specialty care required to ensure the success and safety of specific operators, said Lt. Col. Martha Johnston, 341st MDOS commander. 

"You will not find a more qualified, knowledgeable, supportive staff to the 341st Missile Wing than the members of flight medicine," the commander said. "They understand the nuclear mission and maintain the excellence required of such an important mission. In a year of manpower reduction due to three of their staff deploying, leaving only five to carry on the mission, they demonstrated tremendous innovation, energy and high morale." 

The flight medicine team showcased their efforts in a myriad of activities throughout the year to include supporting the air show and open house as well as search and rescue missions; performing on-call duties for medical care for a visiting Russian team; showcasing their skills and duties to inspectors during the Operational Readiness Inspection and Nuclear Surety Inspection; and winning several individual and team awards. 

"They truly are a remarkable team and they have my greatest support," Colonel Johnston said. 

Flight medicine members include Lt. Col. Marcel Dionne, Capts. Mitchell Parrish, David Oettel and Holli Bellusci, Master Sgt. Renee Hewitt, Tech. Sgts. Johnette Schubert and Sherry Stearns, Senior Airmen Kenvin Keophakdy and Ben Spittler, and Airman 1st Class Malaya Movido.