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"The thing that was amazing to me was that within three hours of getting to know each other all the team members knew what they were supposed to do. We were able to set up our operating room in Hanoi in about 30 minutes and took it back down in 30 minutes."
Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jay Johannigman


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February 2001

Another First
Trauma surgeon joins team that travels with the president

By Senior Airman Chance C. Babin

     When the president of the United States travels outside the country, it is often to remote areas that may not have access to the best medical care available. In the event of a medical crisis in which the president requires emergency treatment, the Air Force surgeon general assigns to the travel party a team of nine specialists who are capable of responding to almost any contingency.Graphic of Cincinnati magazine cover featuring Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jay Johannigman
     President Clinton’s trip to Vietnam in November was historic on a couple of fronts. For starters, it marked the first time an American president had visited the country since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Also, it was the first time an Air Force Reserve physician had ever traveled as part of a presidential medical support team.
     Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jay Johannigman, an individual mobilization augmentee assigned to the Surgeon General’s Tactical Advisory Team at Bolling Air Force Base, D.C., had the honor of providing a Reserve presence on the team.
     “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Johannigman said. “It was truly great. I was extremely proud to stand up and represent the U.S. Air Force.”
     According to Lt. Col. (Dr.) William Beninati of the 59th Medical Wing at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB, Texas, Johannigman’s selection was based on his skill level and familiarity with the program.
     “Basically we look for people who first and foremost have a high level of skill in their medical specialty,” Beninati said. “Secondarily, we look for people who understand the system we’re using in terms of the size of teams and the type of equipment. One person who stands out in both of those regards is Dr. Johannigman. He’s been instrumental in developing these small teams as an active-duty member and is one of the finest trauma surgeons you’ll find anywhere.”
     Because of his experience working with medical support teams on active duty, Johannigman was selected to remain involved with the program when he joined the Air Force Reserve.
     “I was fortunate enough to be assigned to be a reservist on this mission because of some of the experience I had when I was on active duty with the 59th MW,” Johannigman said. “I knew the concept and some of the active-duty people who would be going.”
     Officially, the medical support people who travel with the president make up what’s known as a small portable expeditionary aeromedical rapid response team. The team comprises three components: a mobile field surgical team, a critical care medical transport team, and a flight surgeon and preventive medicine specialist.
     “When you combine this capability, this is a team, in a military contingency, that is meant to be able to stabilize casualties and then move them rearward,” Johannigman said. “The SPEARR team is meant to have a very robust capability with very mobile assets so that it may move forward during the early phases of an operation or contingency.”
     Aware of this very valuable medical asset, the White House medical unit requested that the Air Force assign a SPEARR team to accompany the president on foreign visits to provide surgical and critical care support.
     Johannigman’s component consisted of five people. Each of the members carried a field pack with surgical equipment.
     “When you take all of our five field packs together, we have the capability of doing 10 major surgeries or 20 minor surgeries over a 48-hour period,” Johannigman said.
     The team traveled to Vietnam in advance of the president so support would be available the moment he hit the ground.
     “Wherever the president was staying, the surgical room we set up on his floor was always manned by a member of the team,” Johannigman said. “The remaining members were physically in the building with pagers.”
     As the president traveled around the country, the team moved ahead of him and set up shop.
     “The thing that was amazing to me was that within three hours of getting to know each other all the team members knew what we were supposed to do,” Johannigman said. “We were able to set up our operating room in Hanoi in about 30 minutes and took it back down in 30 minutes.”
     Johannigman said team members worked very closely with the Secret Service, integrating themselves into the agency’s casualty disaster response plans.
     Just before returning home, the team got the chance to meet the Clintons.
     “They expressed their thanks for us being there,” Johannigman said.
The doctor said his trip to Vietnam reinforced the fact that the Total Force policy is alive and well in the medical field.
     “Our team consisted of three people from Wilford Hall, four from Keesler AFB, Miss., one from Andrews AFB, Md. and myself from Cincinnati, Ohio,” he said. “So we had people from four different places.”
     In addition to having the honor of being the first reservist to serve as a member of a presidential medical support team, Johannigman was also recently honored for his hard work and expertise in his civilian practice. In its November issue, Cincinnati magazine recognized him as one of the area’s top doctors. To identify the best specialists, the magazine, which featured Johannigman on its cover, surveyed 1,500 primary care physicians in Greater Cincinnati.
     On top of that, Johannigman received the Col. Thomas M. McNish Physician Recruiting Excellence Award presented by Air Force Reserve Command. The award was given in recognition of his support of the command’s recruiting program. Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Paul Carlton, Air Force surgeon general, presented him with the award.
     Johannigman said he is thankful for the opportunities the Reserve has given him.
     “Being a reservist has afforded me opportunities I would have never had otherwise,” he said. “I am mostly a civilian surgeon (at University Hospital in Cincinnati). I have been afforded opportunities my civilian colleagues would never see.”
     As a member of the Reserve, Johannigman has been to Kosovo to support Operation Joint Endeavor and has served in Santiago, Chile.
     “I am a voluntary reservist,” he said. “I stay in because it’s so much fun.”
     (Airman Babin is assigned to the 926th Fighter Wing Office of Public Affairs at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base New Orleans, La. He wrote this article while on a temporary duty assignment to Citizen Airman.)

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