May 17, 2010

Virginia Medical Command supports GWOT, one Soldier at a time

By Sgt. Andrew H. Owen
Virginia Guard Public Affairs

RICHMOND, Va. — When Soldiers in the Virginia Army National Guard get deployed, it is usually at the company, battalion or brigade level surrounded by peers with whom they have developed strong camaraderie and esprit de corps. But this is seldom the case for the Soldiers who augment these deployments as healthcare providers.


Lt. Col. Robert Mancini looks into the mouth of an Iraqi villager during a Medical Civil Affairs Patrol in Iraq in Feb 2005. Mancini is one of 11 Virginia Guard healthcare providers who have deployed overseas to suport military operations. (Courtesy photo). Click HERE to download a high resolution version of this photo.

The Virginia Army Guard has deployed 11 healthcare providers overseas since January 2009 and several more are scheduled to be deployed this year. Only three of them were attached to units from within the Virginia Guard.

The doctors, dentists, physician assistants, flight surgeons and many other healthcare providers of the Virginia National Guard deploy as individuals, meeting up with their units overseas, where they must assimilate into the units in a short period of time. Often times, they are attached to other units from other states or active duty units where they know almost no one.

“The challenge for us is that we are with the unit for such a short period of time. The unit is really set in place by the time we arrive,” said Col. Thomas McCune, the Virginia Guard state surgeon who recently returned from his third deployment to Balad, Iraq with the Indiana-based 38th Combat Aviation Brigade. “We’re asked to join the unit and become part of the unit very quickly, do our mission as best we can during that time and then we get pulled back off the mission.”

“Deploying as a healthcare provider means being attached to whatever unit needs a doc. Sometimes that’s your own unit, sometimes it’s another Guard unit from your state and sometimes it’s a unit you’ve never heard of,” said Lt. Col. Robert Mancini, a flight surgeon from Virginia who has been deployed four times. “No matter who you are assigned to, you always deploy as an individual – you never deploy with the unit, you meet them in theater.”


Virginia National Guard Soldier Lt. Col. Robert Mancini treats an Iraqi Soldier who was severely injured in a motor vehicle crash in the aid station of Forward Operating Base Cobra, northeast Iraq, in February 2005. (Courtesy photo) Click HERE to download a high resolution version of this photo.

The typical deployment period for these Soldiers with unique skills sets is 90 to 180 days, according to 1st Lt. Natalie Olson, operations officer for the Virginia Medical Command. Doctors and dentists are usually deployed for 90 days and physician assistants 180 days, compared to the average 12-month schedule for traditional Guard Soldiers.

Another difference in the deployment cycle is the mobilization period of the doctors, dentists, and PAs. The provider’s mobilization period is seven days, while the average Soldier will spend approximately one to two months at a mobilization station somewhere in the United States preparing for combat before heading overseas.

“The pre-mob training is a one-week process at Fort Benning [Ga.],” according to Mancini. “It involves equipment issue, qualifying on the shooting range, a Soldier Readiness Program to get your family, financial and legal affairs in order and medical screening including vaccines. It also involves a lot of briefings relevant to the theater you’re deploying to.”

“The demobilization process is simply the reverse; equipment turn-in, medical screening and briefings on benefits.”

As with every Soldier that deploys overseas, the health care professionals also leave their civilian jobs and businesses behind. When they return it is important to integrate the experiences they had overseas into their daily lives back home in Virginia.

“The most it [being deployed] has done,” said Mancini, “is to help put things in perspective; no matter how bad a day it is at work today, it beats being shot at. It has made me a calmer, more mature and more confident person. “

“I’m more likely to deal with stress and the decision-making process in a professional manner and less likely to get caught up in the rat race.”

Virginia has continually provided able-bodied Soldiers to fill these roles for the last 10 years and will continue to meet mission requirements until the mission is complete.

“Most of our MDs have deployed at least once since 9/11. Several have deployed three times and one deployed for a total of 18 months,” said McCune.  “We have supported all but one of the in-state medical deployment requirements. Our MDs have mostly supported the medical needs of other states’ National Guard units. Several of our dentists have deployed and our PAs are deploying at increasing rates.”

“The majority of the health care providers in the military are out of the Reserves and the Guard,” McCune added. “You can’t have the full mobilization of America without the medical assets of the Guard and Reserve.”

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