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NEWS | Aug. 11, 2006

Incoming Air Surgeon's vision: building partnerships, mental health focus

By Sgt. Jim Greenhill National Guard Bureau

SNOWBIRD, Utah - Alliances with civilian public health specialists and state agencies and a focus on mental health are among the priorities of Col. (Dr.) William "Chip" Riggins, the National Guard Bureau's incoming air surgeon.

Riggins - scheduled to assume the Air Surgeon's responsibilities Sept. 1 as successor to Col. (Dr.) Randall Falk, attended Readiness Frontiers 2006 held at the Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort east of Salt Lake City July 31.

Topics discussed during Readiness Frontiers - part intensive training venue, part forum for a military exercise, part networking opportunity - mirrored the vision Riggins' outlined for his new job.

Those topics included responding to natural and manmade disasters, planning, training, mental health and bioenvironmental engineering.

"There's not a big direction change," Riggins said. "Some of our recent deployments and the medical support that we were able to provide to those have borne out that our training is on target and that what we're providing our folks has them prepared to support the Guardsmen and also to support their communities."

Riggins outlined a vision of a medical Air Guard career field offering a medical smorgasbord of capabilities, doing more with fewer people, partnered with civilian agencies, highly trained and nimble.

According to Falk, the U.S. Air Force Medical Service is "rightsizing" from 39,000 uniformed members in the 1990s to 10,500. But meanwhile the Air National Guard component of that force has gone from never having deployed more than 0.2 percent of its medical capability to deploying 16 percent and doing business with more than 17,000 patients during Hurricane Katrina alone.

Hurricane Katrina was an example of the nimbleness of the Air National Guard community.

"Early on, our medical assets were asked to be available to places like the Superdome and the [New Orleans] Convention Center," Riggins said. "But once the population was taken care of we shifted, and we became the health care for the first responders, for the National Guardsmen. We can shift gears on the fly, and we can do both [civilian and military healthcare]."

Riggins' experience includes stints as state surgeon for the Texas National Guard and chair of the Texas Medical Association Council on Public Health.

Among issues he said he'll be emphasizing in his new job:

  • Strengthening relationships at the state level with public health officials. "Making sure that the Guard in our state role is connected to them at the hip is very important," he said. "We're one of the relatively few providers of surge capacity that cities and states can look to for medical support."
  • Strengthening relationships throughout the Department of Defense and with sister services.
  • Supporting the Air National Guard mission. "Making sure that medical support is appropriate and is available and is of the best quality that we can provide to our Airmen and Soldiers," Riggins said.
  • Responding to new missions such as the increased use of unmanned aerial vehicles.
  • Balancing what LTG H Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, calls the National Guard's home and away games. "We take the skills that we learned to support the Air Force and its deployment mission and apply those to our homeland contingencies," Riggins said. "We can bring the same medical skills and support that is increasingly in demand to support our away game and are increasingly recognized as relevant and needed for our homeland security plans."
  • Being prepared for potential challenges such as bird flu, disasters or terrorist attacks.

Mental health is of special focus.

"Readiness Frontiers 2006 will see the beginning of a whole new approach to the growing problem of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] and mental health issues in the Guard," said Falk, the outgoing Air Surgeon.

It's a priority Riggins expects to inherit.

"Responsible community members all understand the importance of knowing CPR [Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation]," Riggins said. "We think that the same thing eventually will apply to the mental health arena. Psychological first aid - making sure that from the average citizen on the street trying to help out [after a disaster] to first responders that we don't make those problems worse. Instead of leaving mental health to the psychologists and to the experts, we're taking it down to a level where those important interventions can be done by our frontline medics."

And it's a priority that Riggins is clearly optimistic about.

"We understand that as our communities try to build resiliency - and I'm talking about psychological resiliency - to disasters and terrorism, we believe that that begins with us, that if anyone in the community can do it and has that built-in resiliency … it's our Airmen and Citizen-Soldiers," he said.