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Mayo Clinic doctor dons uniform, helps 332nd AEW fight Coronavirus during deployment

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Jefferson Thompson
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Russell Tontz, the oldest of 10 siblings, finds his way to the wing through a circuitous route.  

After graduating from the University of Idaho he joined the Air Force as a family doctor, essentially a military primary care provider with plans to serve for four years and then transition to private practice in rural Idaho.

Although Mountain Home, Idaho, is rural, the base is one of the most active in the world, says Tontz. He recounts a visit one day at his family medicine clinic where wing leadership asked him to take over flight medicine. Upon realizing this would allow his to fulfill a childhood dream of,  “flying in fighter jets”, he found himself at Brooks Air Force Base in the Basic Aerospace Medicine Course and on his way to becoming a flight surgeon—just 10 days later.

“I deployed shortly after being introduced to ‘operational medicine’ as a Red Tail with the 332nd in Al Jaber and it was then that the mission hooked me,” he said. “I found it fantastic!”

Since then he’s deployed several times, went to Harvard for a year working toward a master’s of public health, and went to the Resident Aerospace Medicine (RAM) Program. There he became the 975th RAM, a number dating all the way to the earliest days of the Air Force, the Army Air Corps.

Another deployment followed and it was then he received bad news—his son was diagnosed with a brain tumor that required long-term treatment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Eventually, his son’s condition meant he needed to transition from active-duty and find more stability, considering they had moved five times in seven years. He joined the staff at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. There his son receives treatment and he is a practicing doctor of occupational medicine. He loves serving in the military and joined the 114th Fighter Wing out of Sioux Falls, S.D., which means he continues to wear the uniform.

He said the “the transition from Active Duty to Guard went smoother than expected,” and that his duties as a civilian mirrored his previous role in the service—balancing mission accomplishment and keeping people safe.

It’s a role that’s intensified greatly as COVID wreaked havoc on business as usual in the U.S. and around the globe. Now his primary focus is developing return to work protocols for a host of organizations, not least of which is his own employer, the Mayo Clinic.

Now, during an overseas deployment to an undisclosed location in the Middle East, he finds himself doing the exact same thing—preventing the spread of COVID-19 at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing.

“Honestly, it is amazing how life works and how I am back in the desert doing a very similar job, he said. “This population is unique from back home in that most everyone is healthy to deploy, yet the mission is ‘full-time, no fail’ and how do you balance the risks of COVID in a ‘very small town’ like the LSA?”

He says one answer to that question is a vaccine created in an unprecedented 11 months. “We have a tool now,” he said, “to attack this virus, stop this virus along with continuing preventive measures that have slowed the spread. It’s pretty historic how we were able to go from something so new—the advances in science, apply it—and no-kidding ten months later put shots in the arm in a deployed location.”

His arm was among one the firsts to receive the Moderna vaccine here at the AEW. “As a healthcare worker to say that ‘I trust it’, I’m going to demonstrate that I trust it and at the same time I think it makes me safer to see patients, it makes me safer to be an Airman here in this deployed location,” said Tontz.

“It is very natural instinct that if something is new, we as human beings are curious yet also apprehensive.” he said. “The vaccine is not mandatory and everyone has to make up their own mind, but we as 332nd Medics have the responsibility to translate the data and research out there to educate our population and try to answer any questions with the latest research and updates…as best we can, with what we have.” 

“I personally feel very reassured and 100-percent confident it’s making me a safer, more protected asset, not just for the military patch on my chest but for the Tontz family back home,” he said.