Always there: Air Force Reserve strengthens a ready medical force

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Balancing military and civilian roles, Air Force Reserve medics enhance Air Force Medical Service capabilities.

“The great thing about our reservists is that they bring their civilian experiences with them,” said Col. Kristin Hillery, medical forces reserve advisor to the Air Force Surgeon General. “They have experiences that the active duty unit wouldn’t normally have, and they have a diverse skill set that we can tap into when needed.”

A medical reservist’s civilian role not only adds to a varied skill set, but also helps them maintain their readiness every day through their civilian roles, upholding the Air Force Reserve’s “always there” vision.

“We are right there with them,” Hillery said. “Our reservists have a wide range of civilian roles – engineers, mechanics, sheriffs, and medics – which serves as a tremendous asset to the AFMS.”

Here are several remarkable medical reservists who exemplify that vision.

From Airmen to astronauts

For Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Josef Schmid, reserve mobilization assistant to the Air Force Surgeon General, leaving his active duty role was a difficult decision, but he could not pass up the opportunity to take his medical skills to the skies.

“I took a civilian position as a NASA-sponsored Aerospace Medicine Resident physician, which was the hardest and easiest decision I had to make,” said Schmid. “The hardest because I was leaving active duty, which I loved, and the easiest because I am pursuing my dream of working in space medicine.”

Schmid refined his medical skills through both his civilian and reservist positions. While he was an aerospace medicine resident physician at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, he also served in the 433rd Medical Squadron in San Antonio, Texas. He then commanded the Aerospace Medical Squadron, and later served the command surgeon at Air Force Space Command as an individual mobilization augmentee. As a result, he has provided care to both Airmen and astronauts, maximizing his capabilities.

“We practice full spectrum primary care and flight medicine at NASA,” said Schmid. “Our standards are derived, built, and adapted from Air Force standards. I try to bring what I learn from my job at NASA, namely providing medical care to astronauts and their family members, medicine in extreme environments, and exploration and new technologies, back to the Air Force.”

As both a senior ranking medic in the Air Force Reserve, and the senior reserve medical advisor to the Surgeon General, Schmid also stays well informed on the changes taking place in military medicine.

“As a reservist I do my best to understand the changes to the military treatment facilities, and how they can affect training and readiness of our 80,000 air reservists,” said Schmid. “I also advise the Surgeon General on the incredible capability and capacity our citizen Airmen bring to the Total Air Force.”

Schmid’s Air Force Reserve and NASA positions came together when he was promoted to major general, Dec. 2, 2017.  His new rank was pinned on by retired Lt. Gen. Tom Stafford.

“I was 10 years old at the time of the Apollo Soyuz Test Project, which was commanded by Lt. Gen. Stafford,” said Schmid. “That mission is one of the main reasons I came to NASA. To have Lt. Gen. Stafford and my wife pin on the new rank, well it brought absolutely everything together.”

Not just a weekend a month

“It is not just one weekend a month,” said Lt. Col. Debora Lehker, reserve commander at the 752nd Medical Squadron at March Air Reserve Base, California. “It’s throughout the month. People don’t always realize it’s a huge commitment as we try to balance our reserve expectations along with our civilian jobs.”

And far more than one weekend each month that Lehker applies the skills necessary to deliver combat trauma care. As a civilian nurse, she regularly provides patient care in the intensive care unit, and works as an educator teaching other nurses at Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center in Phoenix.

“I often work in the simulation center teaching nurses and medical assistants many of the life-saving skills I use when deployed as a reserve nurse,” said Lehker. “Every day I am teaching them how to put in IVs, do wound care, apply negative pressure wound therapy, correct blood pressure, and other hands-on skills. This carries over into my military role when we actually train our medics to ensure they have those same skills.”

Lehker’s trauma care skills were tested when she joined a critical care air transport team as a reserve nurse. Transporting critical patients in a challenging environment pushed her to think on her feet and outside the box.

“In the civilian world, you have everything at your fingertips” said Lehker. “As a CCATT I learned to overcome that challenge when you don’t have what you need and are forced to find another way to benefit the patient at that very moment.”

Her dedication to her reserve and civilian roles serve as a great resource for AFMS medics when she deploys, bringing her trauma care experience with her. She has deployed to Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan, each time providing effective trauma care.

“We are not just reservists,” said Lehker. “We are dedicated as we bring our civilian skills and reserve training together to ensure patients have the best outcome possible.”

I’m used to it

In 2011 Maj. Robert Simmons, a reserve medical service corps officer currently assigned to the 45th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan. He remembered seeing service members who sustained massive combat wounds that bothered some medics. But for Simmons, he was used to it.

As a civilian Simmons was a corporal for the sheriff’s department in Riverside, California, retiring on Veterans Day 2017. During 20 years of patrol work, Simmons encountered many traffic collisions requiring him to quickly gain control of the situation, while dealing with traumatic injuries. This prepared him to deal with severe combat trauma on the battlefield.

“Working in the sheriff’s department I had to deal with some horrific accidents almost on a weekly basis, so seeing combat trauma did not get in the way of doing my job,” said Simmons. “When you’re dealing with major traffic accidents, you have to be able to quickly do multiple things at once, and do them well.”

One tragic accident stood out in particular. In July 2017, during his monthly reserve training, having just finishing a self-aid and buddy care refresher course, he observed a severe accident that caused two cars to flip backwards, leaving one driver with a life-threatening puncture wound. 

Bringing his experiences as a patrol officer and his Air Force training together, Simmons jumped out of his car and attended to the severely injured driver, while recruiting bystanders to help, and directing traffic away from the scene. Because of his ability to control an otherwise chaotic situation while administering CPR and other life-saving care, he was able to resuscitate the driver, who recovered from the incident.

Simmons’ efficient multi-tasking capabilities are critical to his role as a reserve MSC officer, a job he has done for almost 16 years. Simmons has done nearly every job that an MSC officer could do, aside from commander, and is currently building on his skills working in aeromedical evacuation.

“We know how to track projects, run programs, and organize the unit,” said Simmons. “That administrative ability is not something that everybody can do. You have to remain organized as you handle many different programs and tasks simultaneously.”

Doing more than you could imagine

As a reserve division chief with Air Force Reserve Command at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, Col. Lisa Banyasz-de Silva serves as the principal advisor on medical readiness and contingency planning for medical units. As a civilian nurse, she is able to bolster the capabilities she brings to the mission.

“I see it as an asset to have my feet in two places,” said Banyasz-de Silva. “Having an advanced business degree and a clinical degree provides me with the knowledge to make executive decisions that are in the best interest of the enterprise without jeopardizing patient care.”

In her reserve capacity, Banyasz-de Silva also develops policy, administration, and training to enable medical units to produce combat ready Airmen. Many of the skills she needs are reinforced by her role as a nurse.

“As a civilian nurse, I have developed and exercised evacuation plans for healthcare facilities for events such as natural disasters and mass casualties, and have been a part of disease and emergency response teams,” said Banyasz-de Silva. “These experiences assist me in posturing our forces and enhancing training provided to our Airmen.”

Banyasz-de Silva is like other Air Force reservists, figuring out ways to balance a civilian career, military career, and family. While this can be challenging, she is honored to be part of the medical community treating and returning service members.

“As an Air Force reservist, you will be pushed to do more than you could imagine,” said Banyasz-de Silva. “It is challenging, but it’s a great feeling when all missions sets for the Total Force come together to meet our nation’s needs.”