By Jeff Mullin, Senior Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
In a small building across the street from the sprawling Armed Forces Reserve Center, is a flight whose influence reaches across Vance Air Force Base.
Medical Services Flight, housed in Bldg. 816, encompasses optometry, Drug Demand Reduction, Family Advocacy, Alcohol and Drug Abuse Treatment and Prevention (ADAPT), and mental health.
“We’ll do deployment clearances, security clearances, so even people who don’t really need mental health-related services, we’ll still have some sort of contact with them,” said Maj. (Dr.) Samuel Tobler, Medical Services Flight commander.
Medical Services Flight provides services to active-duty military members and their families, and, on a limited basis, to retirees as well.
“When we see dependents and retirees, the variety of cases gets much broader,” Tobler said.
Vance has one optometrist and two optometry technicians on staff, to help meet the visual needs of airmen and their families.
The Drug Demand Reduction program involves random drug testing of every airman on base.
“Mostly it’s used for a deterrence tool,” Tobler said. “Everybody’s name is in it. I’ve been here a year and I’ve had to go over probably three times (to be tested).”
Family Advocacy deals with issues like child abuse, child sexual abuse and domestic violence.
ADAPT helps airmen deal with alcohol and drug-abuse issues through counseling and education on the group and individual level.
All of the above are “command-driven” programs, meaning airmen are referred to their programs by their supervisors. However, mental health is driven by the individual.
Mental health offers a wide range of services, including biofeedback, assisted relaxation and stress management, to help airmen and their families deal with issues like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, sleep problems, stress and anger problems. Both group and individual counseling sessions are held.
Tobler said PTSD manifests itself through “People coming back from deployments and having experienced some stuff that they maybe weren’t prepared to see or experience. Even with all the training we do to prepare folks for that, it’s going to happen from time to time.”
Someone from Medical Services Flight briefs each new class of students as they prepare to begin pilot training.
Most of the flight’s interaction with students involves airsickness management. Students experiencing airsickness first meet with a flight surgeon, then go to Aerospace Physiology to help them work through the nausea sparked by airsickness. Then they go see the mental health folks.
“We’ll go through some behavioral strategies that have proven to be effective in helping to reduce those cases,” Tobler said. “Ultimately, if they can’t get that managed, then they will end up washing out of the pilot training program.”
Airsickness is linked to the human “fight or flight” response, Tobler said. Mental health teaches students biofeedback techniques to help them manage that fight or flight response.
“So that they are controlling their breathing,” Tobler said. “When you can control their breathing, then it will control a lot of other physiological processes that are going on in the body to help them get some control over the airsickness.”
Suicide is a growing issue in the military. In 2012, suicides in the U.S. military surged to a record 349. Vance is not immune, but the incidents are infrequent. The last suicide on base occurred in December 2011.
“That is something that we’re very, very motivated to affect in any way that we can,” Tobler said. “We’re looking at research, what are the factors and what sort of things can we have an impact on.”
The Air Force has targeted certain career fields, like security forces, as being at higher risk for suicide, he said.
“We have some specific things that we’ve developed for security forces here at Vance, to try to provide them additional support and make it easier for them to come over and get services,” Tobler said.
The flight has seen an increase in the number of security forces airmen seeking services of late, he said.
In the past, there has been a stigma attached with seeking help from the mental health flight, Tobler said, but efforts are under way to change that.
“More and more mental health is trying to adopt the model that the chaplains have,” he said. “Chaplains are embedded with units, typically. The mental health segment of the Air Force is trying to get more into that, where we sort of embed ourselves with different units.
“It’s easy for me to go and talk to somebody that I already know.”
Mental health services are confidential, unless it is judged the person’s issues will impact their job performance.
“It is very minimal information,” Tobler said. “What does the commander need to know? They need to know that this person is having a problem, here’s my recommendation and this is where we’re going with this person. Beyond that, the commander doesn’t have any need to know, and things stay between the patient and the provider.
“All of my staff takes this very seriously. If folks can’t come here and have some confidence that what they talk about is private, then they’re not going to end up coming here.”