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Celebrating 60 years of Air Force medical service.

Remarks at the Air Force Medical Service 60th Anniversary dinner, Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, June 25, 2009

Thank you for the kind introduction. I cannot overstate my appreciation for this opportunity to address such a special group of professionals, and to join you in celebrating the 60th anniversary of the venerable Air Force Medical Service. In my view, the medical profession is one of the noblest endeavors to which generous and motivated individuals devote themselves. The ethical foundation of serving others and keeping them "from harm and injustice" fosters the selfless efforts that you undertake daily, to serve humankind faithfully. Committing oneself to the profession of arms is also in the finest traditions of answering a higher calling. For choosing to serve both as military and medical professionals, you have my utmost praise, respect, and admiration. As members of the Air Force Medical Service, you have my gratitude and thanks.

Rich History, Enduring Legacy

As we commemorate this occasion, we would do well to consider the rich history and enduring contributions of the Air Force Medical Service, as it can inform how we think about its future and that of the United States Air Force. Since its creation in 1949, the Service has responded to countless disasters--manmade and natural, in peacetime and during conflict--courageously answering the call to provide relief, comfort, and life-saving medical care to warfighters and to innocent noncombatant men, women, and children who happen to be caught in harm's way. In 1975, when President Ford ordered the U.S. Air Force to evacuate orphans from Saigon, medics and nurses of the 9th Aeromedical Evacuation Group, from Clark Air Base in the Philippines, cared for these infants during the dangerous non-combatant evacuation. A quickly planned and heroically executed operation of thirty C-5 missions resulted in over 3,300 infants and children being evacuated safely to the United States and other countries. When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck in 2005, Air Force medics immediately responded, providing life-saving care while ensuring the safe evacuation of 2,609 patients. On one particular day, the third of September 2005, our joint medical team moved 580 litters and 300 ambulatory patients--the largest single day of transport since World War II; an impressive accomplishment, to be sure, and one of which you should be proud. I could go on and on with more examples of heroic efforts by our medical professionals. Suffice it to say, these and numerous other accomplishments throughout the Service's 60-year history serve as laudable examples of the spirit and valor of our courageous and competent Air Force medical professionals.

The Innovative Spirit

The Air Force Medical Service has also been at the leading edge of innovation, seeking ways to improve processes, procedures, and techniques across a diverse set of missions, and spanning the full continuum of operations--among them: caring for the wounded, ensuring a physically fit and able fighting force, and serving the families of our service members. For instance, owing to the tireless efforts of the Service, the aerospace medicine function achieved the imprimatur of the American Medical Association as a distinct medical specialty, thus recognizing the unique and vital contributions of aerospace medicine professionals to the broader medical community. This has paved the way for constructive efforts between the Medical Service and civilian, academic, and other government medical organizations--efforts that have paid significant rewards across a wide variety of medical competencies. Collaborating with the University of California at Davis, for example, members of the 60th Medical Group at Travis Air Force Base have expanded their knowledgebase and experience in trauma care, as well as that of their partners in the local civilian community. The Medical Service also has collaborated with NASA, ensuring a proper understanding of the physiological effects of G-forces, high-altitude operations, and cosmic ray exposure, and applying such knowledge in developing protective equipment and measures for our astronauts.

Perhaps most profound in terms of direct support to current conflicts is the innovative spirit of the Service in the area of aeromedical evacuation. A concept that emerged in the 1930s, and whose techniques were further developed during World War II as a critical life-saving capability, air evacuation caught the attention of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, then the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who remarked that air evacuation "has unquestionably saved hundreds of lives--thousands of lives." So impressive were the results that, in September of 1949, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson publicly stated his preference for aeromedical evacuation as the primary method for long-distance casualty evacuation for the U.S. Armed Forces.

Since then, the Air Force Medical Service has made long-range rapid aeromedical evacuation distinctly an Air Force capability, with C-17s flying non-stop missions to deliver intensive care capability while simultaneously carrying heavy patient loads. This capability is unrivalled by any other organization in the world, and is vital to a 97-percent survival rate for the causalities seen in our deployed and Joint theater hospitals. Technical innovations, such as the newly operational High Deck Patient Loading Platform, will serve to improve further the quality of care, so that patients, often with life-threatening conditions, can remain in climate-controlled, less disruptive environments while enplaning and deplaning high-deck platform airframes.

Heroes Serving Heroes

All of this has the attending effect of boosting the confidence of our brave men and women in uniform, who know that--should misfortune occur, and they or their teammates sustain any injuries in combat--Air Force medical professionals will be there to safely evacuate them to advanced care, transport them to medical facilities while continuing life-saving measures, and ensure a proper transfer to medical personnel in fixed facilities. Our heroes deserve nothing less, and our all-volunteer force depends on it, because the reality is, when our troops stop believing that we will leave no stone unturned to mitigate their injuries, they will stop volunteering. I am comforted that they are being cared-for by the equally intrepid heroes in this room. In fact, behind every story of determination in recovering from combat injuries, there are courageous and dedicated medics who help our combat heroes make it happen, and essentially enable the acts of valor that we honor and celebrate.

Take, for example, the story of Sergeant Matt Slaydon, who, while on a Joint mission in 2007 with the 10th Mountain Division in Iraq, was seriously injured while attempting to disarm an improvised explosive device. Delivered from the clutches of what would have been nearly certain death, back to the warm embrace of family and friends, he and many other brave wounded warriors are leading productive lives today--all with gratitude to the likes of Staff Sergeant David Velasquez, a med tech who, on eight separate occasions, exhibited exceptional courage while his convoy was under direct attack. Braving IEDs, rocket-propelled grenades, small arms fire, and secondary explosions, David repeatedly left his vehicle and, under withering fire, extinguished flames, stabilized broken bones, treated severe shrapnel wounds, removed victims to relative safety, secured the area as best he could, waited for assistance, and skillfully treated his patients until all survivors were evacuated. Eight separate and serious attacks, to which David says ever so humbly, "I was only doing my job--nothing special." Incredible.

The Thanks of a Grateful Nation

Courageous and dedicated medical professionals, like Sergeant Velasquez, who saved lives--who helped pull the wounded off the battlefield, treated them en route, and provided sophisticated life-saving treatment and rehabilitation--underpin each of these incredible stories of survival. Our wounded warriors inspire us all, with their exceptional strength of character and determination to continue to approach life with vigor, optimism, and enthusiasm; but, without your actions, wherever performed, they may not have survived to be here today. Take some time to think about the positive impact that you make daily, due to the continued contributions of those you have saved. I mention Sergeant Slaydon again as but one example, who, despite the loss of sight and of his left arm, continues to master new skills and enthusiastically contribute to numerous outreach activities, including public appearances and assisting wounded service members.

In that sense, your efforts are equally impressive and indicative of the unbreakable human spirit--that when the obstacles seem insurmountable and odds are against survival, both warfighters and medics summon that extra measure of mettle that is revealed only when all hope otherwise would be lost. I thank you for delivering our brave fighting men and women back to us; they thank you; their families and friends thank you; and, a grateful nation thanks you.

In short, the Air Force Medical Service has amassed an impressive record of accomplishments of which we all can be proud. Without such efforts, the Air Force could not have fully realized its distinct contributions to the Joint fight. The speed and flexibility of today's medical service trace directly to the initial inherent advantages of airpower, and its development has shared the same glide path as the Air Force's leveraging speed, range, and flexibility into precise, lethal, and game-changing combat effects. As air and space technologies and techniques advanced, so too did the Medical Service evolve, thus maintaining its standing as an indispensible element of modern military operational support. From developing the embryonic concept of air evacuation in the pre-World-War-II era, to revolutionizing it into an aeromedical evacuation capability that is unparalleled today, the Air Force Medical Service remains a critical component of the Air Force's Global Vigilance, Reach, Power, and Engagement. From a nascent concept of aviation medicine, to the AMA-sanctioned specialty of aerospace medicine, the Air Force Medical Service served as the linchpin to advances. Indeed, the history and impressive accomplishments of the Air Force Medical Service stands the U.S. Air Force in good stead as we look forward to the future.

But, perhaps more importantly, I see evidence every day that the Medical Service is "All In," faithfully executing its mission in the heat of the fight, in direct support of the warfighter, and of families back home as well; and, while the worthiness of one's contribution to the mission is not measured by proximity to the fight, it is noteworthy that, as Dr. S. Ward Casscells, the past Assistant Secretary of Defense of Health Affairs, recognized, our medics and corpsmen have in fact been in the thick of hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001, coming under direct serious fire some 30,000 times. "Knowing full well that the enemy has little regard for the red cross on the sleeve," he further noted, medics and corpsmen routinely faced the difficult decision of "whether to stand when others are diving for cover. For 219 of them, it was the last decision they made." Thus, it is no surprise to me that, in 2007, the U.S. Air Force and the Air Force Association selected expeditionary medics as the Team of the Year, bringing deserved attention to the medical community's deployed mission, and to the direct effect that they have on saving lives during this time of war.

It has been my distinct honor and privilege to have shared this time with you. Suzie and I stand in admiration of your commitment, and thank you for your faithful service to your Nation.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz
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Author:Schwartz, Norton A.
Publication:Air Force Speeches
Date:Jun 25, 2009
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