SOUTHWEST ASIA --
People may be familiar with aircraft needing constant maintenance to keep up with the requirements of such a high operational tempo, but pilots and weapon system officers also require physical care to perform at their peak.
In a deployed environment, especially for fighter pilots, the physical strain from prolonged combat sorties can take its toll.
“What a lot of people don’t realize, unless they’re intimately involved in flight medicine is the physical strain that are on these aviators,” said U.S. Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Rory Stuart, 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group emergency medicine physician. “A lot of people think they’re just sitting in a jet flying around, ‘how bad that can be?’ Not only are the mental tasks saturating, it’s also very physical to sit in a jet for the number of hours that they do, on top of the raw weight of the equipment they’re carrying.”
Soon after Stuart deployed to Southwest Asia, he and fellow members of the 332nd EMDG spoke with pilots and flight surgeons to find out what health issues they were facing due to the operational tempo, which usually consisted of flying anywhere between four to eight hour missions.
“They talked about a lot of neck, shoulder and back problems,” Stuart said. “Here in the clinic we’re fairly limited with the amount of treatments we can give for musculoskeletal pain, some good old ice bags, pain relievers and rest. Well, with these guys, that doesn’t really work because they’re flying so often. We were trying to look at ways to effectively help them.”
That’s when a coalition partner stepped in.
“At the same time we had a relationship with the Belgian medical team who was here,” Stuart said. “We had a conversation about how their fliers deploy with physical therapists who specialize in cervical strain, particularly in high performance aviators. Because of the good relationships we’ve been developing between the medical teams over the last rotations they agreed to loan us their physical therapist.”
Over the last five months a Belgian Medical Component physical therapist has visited the 332nd EMDG clinic once or twice a week to treat U.S. Air Force aviators.
“Basically we’re trained to help pilots get rid of neck pain and lower back pain or overall pain through exercising, stretching, massaging and other techniques,” said Belgian Medical Component 1st Lt. Olivier a physical therapist. “I think that American pilots and WSOs are thankful for what we do for them.”
Thankful only begins to describe the aircrew’s appreciation for the Belgian medical team. The program not only helps pilots who currently suffer back and neck issues, but also teaches newer pilots how to take better care of their body to prevent those issues.
“For me as a young guy, the Belgian physical therapy program has been great as far as preventative techniques,” said a U. S. Air Force F-15E Strike Eagle pilot assigned to the 332nd AEW. “Just from my first deployment I can see how 15 years of flying duty, especially various combat deployments, can wear down the body and maybe cause issues down the stretch.”
“The fact they’re taking time out of their busy schedule to do this for us, out of their good will, has been amazing,” he added.
This is just one example of how our coalition partnership works and trains together to enhance our operations and capabilities to support Operation Inherent Resolve.
“This is my first deployment,” said Olivier. “Besides this I don’t have any experience working with other nations, but my colleagues have worked with Germans, Netherlanders and others. We basically try to help people around the world and we can see how others operate to improve and build our own experience.”
The program has been so successful the 332nd EMDG is projected to receive a fulltime U.S. Air Force physical therapist.
“The flying squadron has really bought into this whole heartedly and helped us leverage the Air Force to look at this as a potential best practice for deployed flight ops,” Stuart said. “We owe it to our aviators to not only treat the injuries they have, but also prevent these injuries from happening.”