AF medics celebrate 60 years of providing world class health care

  • Published
  • By Maj. (Dr.) Jennifer Chow and Maj. David Eisenach
  • 52nd Medical Operations Squadron
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the Air Force Medical Service. Air Force general order number 35 was signed July 1, 1949, which established the AFMS. Before this date, all medical operations in the newly-formed Air Force were still under the command of the U.S. Army.

Today, 40,000 officers and enlisted Airmen, with an additional 20,000 members in the Air Force Reserves and National Guard, provide care for more than 2.6 million beneficiaries worldwide.

The AFMS is led by the Air Force surgeon general and comprises five corps: the Medical Corps, the Dental Corps, the Nurse Corps, the Biomedical Sciences Corps and the Medical Service Corps.

The AFMS Corps broken down:
· The Medical Corps consists of physicians, which either have a Doctor of Medicine or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree.
· The Dental Corps consists of commissioned officers who hold a Doctor of Dental Surgery or Doctor of Dental Medicine degree.
· The Nurse Corps consists entirely of commissioned officers who at least hold a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.
· The Biomedical Sciences Corps is the most diverse AFMS Corps. It consists of commissioned officers in 17 different career fields, including Physical Therapy, Optometry, Podiatry, Physician Assistant, Audiology, Speech Pathology, Psychology, Social Work, Occupational Therapy, Aerospace Physiology, Biomedical Scientists, Clinical Dietitian, Bioenvironmental Engineers, Public Health Officers, Entomology, Pharmacy, Medical Lab Officers, and Health Physicists.
· The Medical Service Corps consists of members who perform hospital administration duties. MSC officers usually hold a Bachelor's or Master's Degree in Healthcare management, economics, finance, operations research or business administration.
· Enlisted medics hold positions in almost every medical career field in these five corps in the Air Force. The enlisted medics are the backbone of AFMS.

No matter what corps Air Force medics are assigned to, all medics have proudly earned the title "combat medics" due to the AFMS's distinct combat history. Recently at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, 3,300 medical personnel operated in the combat zone. It was a dramatic improvement from the Korean War, which started with 30 doctors and 30 nurses serving all Air Force members in Korea, Japan, Guam and the Philippines. Trains and ships first evacuated the Korean War casualties, but by war's end, aeromedical evacuation became the preferred method. The wounded were transported by C-47s and C-54s to floating Naval hospitals and to land-based Army hospitals.

The Air Force had its own clinical facilities in the Korean theater made of shells and Quonset huts. These stark, barebones facilities highlighted the need for better hospitals. Elmendorf, Travis, Andrews and Lackland Air Force Bases were detailed to construct major hospitals during the 1950s.

By the Vietnam War, the Air Force moved to field hospitals constructed of modular steel boxes. Cam Ranh Bay Air Base, Vietnam, was the 2nd largest hospital in the Air Force with 475 beds manned by 1,900 medics. At this point, rapid evacuation from the field by helicopters saved many lives. The first specially designed aeromedical jet, the C-9A, moved casualties from Vietnam to Clark Air Base, the Philippines, or Yokota Air Base, Japan.

During this time, the Air Force pioneered the medical field of aviation medicine. Physicians researched the effects of high altitudes on the human body, looking for ways to prevent fatigue on long flights and reduce hearing loss from loud noise. Today, the Air Force leads the way in aerospace medicine.

The Air Force continued to evolve its medical facilities in the field, improving deployable capabilities with the use of tents and attaching medical units to tactical fighter wings. The Air Force has also prepositioned medical supplies in major foreign theaters. By the start of the Gulf War, the Air Force medical personnel arrived just two days after combat units and had facilities capable of performing surgery and surviving chemical warfare. Air transportable clinics and hospitals were the essence of the ability to mobilize rapidly. In fact, hospitals could be built within 24 hours after arriving on site; and these hospitals had two surgery beds, X-ray machines and even a dental chair. Each air transportable hospital could meet the medical needs of a fighter wing of 72 aircraft and 4,000 people.

Throughout the 1990s, AFMS participated in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkan Peninsula to name a few of the missions. The goals of being even more flexible and responsive led to the development of special Critical Care Air Transport Teams, which could transport critically ill and injured patients to advanced medical facilities outside the theater. An operational success of the CCAT was when two teams on C-9 aeromedical aircraft evacuated injured Navy crewmembers after the bombing of the USS Cole. The team was able to perform emergency surgical procedures while airborne to save their lives.

In 1999, the Air Force developed the Expeditionary Medical Units. These were small rapidly deployable units designed to react quickly to crises and were made up of 25 medics and three cargo pallets. On Sept. 11, four EMEDS units and several CCAT aerovac teams were ready within 24 hours of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, which was the largest aerovac effort since Vietnam. Now, instead of dedicated airframes, aerovac equipment can be moved from one aircraft to another. With advances in medicine, the battle injury rate is at an all-time historical low in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As the AFMS reaches its 60th anniversary, Air Force medics continue to provide healthcare and health service support to military members and their families anywhere in the world at anytime.

Happy anniversary, AFMS!