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n 1964, when Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr., MPH'84, was in the seventh grade, his father moved his family from Birmingham, Ala., to Freetown, Sierra Leone. There, George Peach Taylor Sr., formerly a lawyer involved in the civil rights movement, oversaw the newly independent African nation's 250 Peace Corp volunteers for two years. The younger Taylor, appointed surgeon general of the Air Force October 2002, believes that President John F. Kennedy's assassination and the civic-minded atmosphere of 1960s Alabama led his father to heed Kennedy’s admonition to "ask what you can do for your country."

Proving the apple doesn't fall far from the tree, the son has answered the same call over the course of a nearly 25-year career as an Air Force flight surgeon. Along the way, he has tried to be a model representative of his country. Living overseas during their formative years, first in Sierra Leone and then in Guyana, Taylor and his two brothers and sister learned not to act like ugly Americans. "My parents would say, remember that you're an American and [others] judge America based on your behavior," he recalls.

If JFK and the civil rights movement indirectly influenced Taylor's upbringing, the popularity of the space program in the 1960s gave him a love of flying that started long before he thought about becoming a doctor. In his late teens, Taylor's parents gave him a memorable birthday present that would only add fuel to the fire: a flight log and their blessing for him to learn to fly. In fact, Taylor, a Russian and physics major at Rice University in Houston, only considered studying medicine the summer after his junior year. And to pay for it, he cashed in on his flight fever, joining the Air Force on the Health Professions Scholarship Program to attend Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The program gives future physicians a stipend and covers medical school tuition and books, in return for one year of service for every year of medical school covered by the scholarship.

Taylor began his first assignment as a flight surgeon in 1979 at Kadena Air Base in Japan, with every intention of returning to Baylor for his residency. But, three years later, faced with a choice between the Air Force’s aerospace medicine program and an orthopedics residency at Baylor, Taylor had no trouble deciding. "I was having too much fun doing aerospace medicine," he says. As part of the requirements for board certification in that field, he received his MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health in 1984.

For those civilians who have never met a flight surgeon, the job may need some explaining. "Our responsibility is to take care of those who fly," says Taylor. "The actual Latin term for it is volanti subveninus." Laughing, he adds: "That's a slogan that means: 'We take care of those who fly.'"

That care comes in many forms. A flight surgeon is a hybrid: part general practitioner, part health adviser and educator, part occupational health expert, part EMT, part forensic scientist and accident investigator. A typical workweek on an Air Force base might include three days in the clinic seeing pilots and their families, one day in flight, and one day writing educational materials or inspecting the various shops on base--the paint shop, the degreasing shop, the air traffic control facility. Flight surgeons keep their patients safe from the hazards of flight and the heavy metals lurking in the coatings on stealth airplanes, but also from the dangers of long hours, late nights, loud engines, and the common cold.

Of all the perks of being a flight surgeon, Taylor loves most the close contact he has had with the Air Force's day-to-day operations. "You feel like you're really involved in the missions of the Air Force, in the mission accomplishment of the Air Force, and you learn how the Air Force operates at the squadron level," he says.
Case in point, during the United States' recent military operations in Iraq, Air Force flight surgeons "embedded" with every squadron made sure their squadron-mates were well rested, in general good health, and ready to fly. As a flight surgeon, "your job is to keep that squadron healthy so they can accomplish the mission," Taylor says. But medics also stand ready to stabilize and evacuate the injured. "Obviously there's family stress," in the Air Force, Taylor observes, "because we have guys taking off in B-2s from Whiteman, Mo., flying combat missions." Air Force mental health workers help both military personnel and their families cope with wartime separation, anxiety, and fear.

Taylor notes that the Air Force had its support system in place on bases well before the war began in the form of integrated mental health, chaplaincy, and family support services. The program has had some remarkable success. Since its inception six years ago, the service's suicide rate has dropped to 9.1 per 100,000; in the six years before the program (1991-1996), the rate was 14.1 per 100,000. In 2001, then-U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher lauded the Air Force's approach, integrating it into the National Suicide Prevention Strategy.

Although Taylor has never gone on a direct combat mission, he was chief of aerospace medicine at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., during the first Gulf War in 1991, and the senior air force medic in Europe during the U.S. military operation in Kosovo in 1999. In that capacity, he helped decide how many medics--doctors, nurses, and technicians--to send where. He did the same in Afghanistan last year as command surgeon for air combat command.

Now, as surgeon general, Taylor organizes, trains, and equips the Air Force’s "medical forces" and responds to commanders in the field, sending them the people and equipment they need. He also advises the chief of staff of the Air Force on health and safety issues and administrates a medical system that includes 50 clinics and 24 hospitals, with an operating budget in excess of $6 billion. Taylor says his primary responsibility now is making it possible for the Air Force’s more than 40,000 medical workers to do their jobs. "Every illness, injury, or death in combat is terrible," he asserts, "and it’s made worse if we could have taken care of them but we didn't."

Taylor works hard every day to make sure that the Air Force does take care of its people, whether in garrison or deployed to the far reaches of the planet. Since 9/11, his Air Force Medical Service has accomplished over 100,000 patient visits in the field and laid down a field public health system that resulted in a disease rate 20 percent below the incredibly low rates seen in Desert Storm. His service also transported over 3,500 troops of all services from Southwest Asia to Europe and on to the U.S. "That's quite a story," Taylor quips. Agreed: quite a story, indeed.

Eman Quotah

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