SNOWBIRD, Utah - Readiness Frontiers 2006 gave departing Air Surgeon Col. (Dr.) Randall Falk - who steps aside Sept. 1 - another chance to take in the big picture of the Air National Guard Medical Service he has led for six years.
What Falk saw was a landscape transformed.
"What gives me the most satisfaction is seeing the Air National Guard Medical Service develop a real mission," he said in a break between sessions at the Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort in Little Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City. "We're a vibrant force today, well integrated into the Air Force medical system. The most gratifying thing is to see our transition from a force in reserve with very little wartime deployable capability to an integral part of today's total force and today's joint Guard force."
Readiness Frontiers 2006 was a July 27 through Aug. 7 conference that provided training, discussion and networking opportunities and a full-on military exercise for the Air National Guard medical community.
The medical community that Falk saw gathered for the conference - itself in its third year - was in marked contrast to what the air surgeon contemplated when he took over six years earlier.
"I saw us disappearing," he said. "We had no live mission. We were very much a force in reserve as a backfill. There was no viability. There was no continuity. There was no future.
"At the same time, managed care was coming into the American medical frontier. Managed care meant fewer capabilities in reserve at the civilian level. It meant more constrained resources. The Guard medical service brings professionals and medical personnel from every community in the nation together with tremendous skills that can serve the nation much more profitably and much more successfully than we had trained to in the past."
The Air National Guard Medical Service's primary missions are homeland security and the EMEDS or Expeditionary Medical Support packages being stood up nationwide.
The Air Guard divided up responsibilities with the active duty side.
"We took the lead on homeland security and homeland defense," Falk said, "They support us whenever we need support, Then we support them in the AEF [Air Expeditionary Force] mission.
"The whole objective of medical support in the homeland security environment was to be able to provide a surge medical capability which is lacking in the nation."
The Guard's newfound capability to provide that was demonstrated after Hurricane Katrina, when 904 medics - representing about 16 percent of the Air National Guard Medical Service - flooded Louisiana and Mississippi, said Col. Kenneth Franklin, deputy director of the Air National Guard Medical Service.
"What was a concept back in 2001 is a very real and relevant capability today," Franklin said.
The Katrina deployment was an example of the National Guard executing its best home game. But, Franklin said, "For us, it's not a game - it's a capability that's out there that can save a lot of people."
Katrina was historic for the medical service: Until then, no more than 0.2 percent of the service had ever deployed.
Readiness Frontiers is rotated between the country's 10 Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) regions over a five-year cycle, focusing on two regions each year. Air National Guard Medical Service training occurs over the same five-year cycle.
The annual gathering saves time and money, proponents say.
For example, just one medical discipline, the bioenvironmental engineers, save $16,000 and 24 days of training per person who attends the conference, said Maj. Kirk Phillips, chief, occupational and health branch.
"It saves a lot of money for the Guard," Falk said. "To be able to get the certifications that we need to be able to work in our fields it's very expensive to go in a sort of piecemeal basis for each of our units to seek training. It's not available to them, and when it is available, it's available for few people at extreme cost."
And it's vital training. "You cannot deploy in our career field if you don't have the training," Phillips said.
Senior Master Sgt. Chris McLain of the 134th Medical Group out of Knoxville, Tenn., ran the emergency medical technician training at Readiness Frontiers 2006.
"Readiness Frontiers is a great opportunity for Guard, Reserve and active duty to come together to get much-needed medical training," McLain said. "It gets us all together in one location to make sure we're getting quality medical training. Great courses are being offered. They are all things we need to know with the current situation in the world."
Courses included understanding the national incident management system and the incident command system.
"It really is what links us and our civilian counterparts together for command and control," McLain said.
Other courses were targeted at flight surgeons, medical planners, public health experts, full-time health technicians, nurses, dentists and bioenvironmental engineers. The conference featured nationally certified courses in advanced trauma life support and advanced cardiac life support.
Readiness Frontiers also is a networking opportunity.
"The Readiness Frontiers conference provides the means for making contacts and establishing communication with other units across the United States or abroad," McLain said.
An Israeli mental health expert was among guests at the 2006 conference. The Air National Guard Medical Service also paired with outside partners such as Saint Louis University and Harvard universities to increase the standard of training and discussion.
"The level of training is absolutely at the pinnacle," said Maj. Bill Beck with the 149th Medical Group. "[Including Harvard faculty] lets me know that I'm getting some of the best training in the country, and as far as I'm concerned if you're getting the best training in the United States, you're getting the best training in the world."
Of the Harvard contribution, Maj. (Dr.) Kenneth Egerstrom, chief of aerospace medicine for the Air National Guard, said, "The people that they have there have deployed all over the world for all sorts of humanitarian missions and natural disasters. They've got a lot of firsthand practical knowledge."
And it's not feel-good networking: It's potentially lifesaving networking. The conference allows the Guard to forge closer links with communities and with agencies such as FEMA. This year, for example, medical planning training incorporated people from FEMA, states and the Guard.
Of course, Readiness Frontiers also brings together people who spend most of their time working apart from each other at separate bases around the nation.
"By bringing people together from different bases, we get a compilation of best practices," Egerstrom said.
It also ensures the Guard and other agencies it is likely to work with speak the same language.
"We need to exercise together," said Lt. Col. Theresa Votinelli, field commander of the Missouri CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear or High-Yield Explosive) Enhanced Response Force Package (CERFP). That way the Guard and groups it works with share language, understand each other's doctrines and know their roles within the national response plan.
And McLain said what happens at Readiness Frontiers finds immediate real-world applications.
"Much of this will be taken to the border as we're supporting that," he said. "Future homeland disasters. As well as our military missions overseas."
The conference also allows members of a complex career field to keep up with the latest trends.
"You have to be very flexible in today's military," Votinelli said.