WPAFB program proves rigorous for airmen, flight surgeons

He’s a recent graduate at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where the rigors of military life continued after he earned his stripes.

“Basically, it’s an extension of basic training,” said Mainolfi, 31, of Albuquerque, N.M., assigned to the New Mexico Air National Guard. “It’s still pretty rigorous. We PT (do physical training) three times a week at 4:40 in the morning. Our freedoms are still limited.”

Enlisted airmen, future flight surgeons and nurses all come to the school to learn aerospace medicine and physiology, bioenvironmental engineering or public health issues. Training can last weeks or, for medical residents, two years.

The school, part of the 711th Human Performance Wing, has an authorized staff of more than 700 and trains about 6,000 students a year. As mandated in the last round of the Base Realignment and Closure Commission, the school last year moved from Brooks City-Base in San Antonio, Texas, to the nearly 700,000-square-foot Maj. Gen. Harry G. Armstrong complex here.

The school, dubbed SAM, has a broad mission. Every future Air Force pilot takes his most comprehensive flight physical here, as researchers look for a solution to incidents in the F-22 involving hypoxia, or a deficiency of oxygen reaching the body.

The school’s epidemiology labs test thousands of samples every day from Air Force bases around the world.

Students from international air forces attend, too. In 2010, 65 students from 46 countries took courses. The school has a partnership with Wright State University in which flight surgeons may earn a master’s degree in aerospace medicine, and SAM instructors volunteer at Wright State, said Dr. Farhad Sahiar, director of WSU’s Division of Aerospace Medicine. Four Air Force flight surgeons have graduated and four others are enrolled, he said.

The Dayton Development Coalition and community leaders lobbied to have more Air Force missions such as the school locate to Wright-Patterson with the last BRAC, broadening the base’s footprint.

“It’s a one-of-a-kind,” said Maurice “Mo” McDonald, a vice president of military affairs at the coalition and a retired Air Force officer. “This doesn’t happen anywhere else. They are the one-stop shop for medical training for the United States Air Force.

“There’s a major economic impact not only in having the personnel here ... but also from the student population who have transited here throughout the year,” he said.

The school prepared aeromedical evacuation crews who have flown injured service members out of Iraq and Afghanistan, and deployed the Air Force Radiation Assessment Team to Japan after last year’s earthquake and tsunami to test for radiation contamination.

Learning the trade

Mainofli, who works as a Transportation and Security Administration screener and trainer in New Mexico, studied bioenvironmental engineering at SAM, where students practice how to handle hazardous-material situations and other scenarios.

“The days are extremely busy,” said Airman 1st Class Jane Vierzen, 25, of Battle Creek, Mich.

Airman 1st Class Kyle Love added: “You’re talking almost an associate’s degree course in a period of three months.”

Love, 28, is an active-duty airman from Las Vegas who left his job teaching high school biology for more job security in the Air Force.

“With all the layoffs going on in education, I just didn’t see a good future with it,” he said.

Love put his civilian-acquired skills to work in the Air Force, tutoring students who return with their new knowledge to their units, helping them overcome “test anxiety.”

“When you take 300 pages of information and combine it into 40 questions (for an exam), it’s hard to decide what to study,” he said.

Instructors don’t apologize for the course demands.

“You have to study hard,” said Maj. Matthew Ferreri, 33, an instructor and Fredonia, N.Y., native. “It’s not waiting until the last minute.”

Students aren’t the only ones hitting the books. New instructors may spend as much as 10 hours of preparation for each hour in front of students, the Air Force says. Sgt. Maurice Madrill, 30, of San Diego, an instructor at the school in his second year of a four-year tour, said he may spend two to three hours on every hour of lecture.

Many students live two to a room in a dormitory, where Airman 1st Class Brian Christensen served double duty as a rule enforcer.

Christensen, 30, of Phoenix, wore a red rope around his shoulder, signifying him as a top student leader. Lower-ranking student leaders wear green and yellow ropes.

“I’m hoping to get a better civilian job with this training,” said Christensen, an Arizona Air National Guardsman who in his civilian job works as a telephone sales representative for a window company.

In his leadership role at the school, Christensen occasionally gives “friendly reminders” to students to follow the rules.

“They tend to want to push the limit after basic training,” he said. “Usually they don’t want to deal with (the consequences), so they appreciate the reminder.”

Those accustomed to boot camp do enjoy some freedoms: They can leave the base during free time.

“(In) boot camp we had no real interaction with the outside world,” Christensen said.

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