LINCOLN, Neb. – Nebraska National Guard Maj. Erik Zingler, the optometry officer in charge for the 155th Medical Group, has helped change how U.S. citizens receive health care.
Zingler is a member of Innovative Readiness Training, a Department of Defense program exclusive to the United States and its territories. The program offers joint training to increase deployment readiness while providing services such as optometry to American communities with limited access to resources.
“It’s training because we are put in an austere environment, we are practicing what we would do without all of these comforts of being indoors, we have to transport our equipment in and out, and you are exposed to the elements,” Zingler said. “We set up clinics in a gym or some other building that’s not really meant for medical care.”
Services include optometry, dental and health exams, veterinary care and public health education. The missions are typically conducted as fairs and may last for several days or weeks.
“It’s very rewarding. You learn a lot about how to do things better,” said Zingler. “We always get to the end and we feel kind of bad. We wish we could do more and stay longer.”
Zingler has performed three IRT missions: at Crow Creek Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2015, Puerto Rico in 2019 and Alaska in 2021.
He is a strong supporter of these missions, which often struggle to get enough medical professionals, said Col. Patti Fries, 155th Medical Group commander.
Zingler said the communities always appreciate the services. For some citizens, this is the only way to get care.
At the Crow Creek Reservation, optometrists set up shop in the back of a trailer and cared for patients for two weeks.
“I enjoy the challenge of being asked to provide care in an austere environment and overcoming the challenge,” Zingler said. “And this provides us the opportunity to provide care to the local community and provide care to our own U.S. citizens. ... It just feels good.”
Zingler already has his next mission planned as the lead optometrist this summer.
“We have this opportunity to challenge ourselves in these roles that we have, whatever our role is in the Guard. That, to me, is what keeps me going and interested,” Zingler said. “I feel like I am giving a lot but almost selfishly getting so much in return.”