Joining the U.S. Air Force has allowed Brent Johnson, D.P.M.’95, to spread his wings and reach great heights — including his promotion to colonel in February 2015 and, three months later, his appointment as medical group commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
His previous positions in the Air Force include assignments in the Biomedical Sciences Corps, the third-largest element of the Air Force Medical Services that encompasses 17 specialties and more than 2,400 officers; as Air Force podiatry consultant in the Office of the Surgeon General; and as a physician and officer at bases around the country.
“The Air Force has been very good to me,” he says. “When you see the quality of people in the Air Force and what they do to defend our country, it makes you want to get out of bed every morning and be firing on all cylinders.”
Prior to his appointment at Ramstein, Johnson was deputy director of the Human Effectiveness Directorate, 711th Human Performance Wing, at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. 711 HPW/RH, as it’s shorthanded, provides science and leading-edge technology to enhance effectiveness, train warfighters, protect personnel and sustain aerospace operations. The organization also works to optimize integration of human capabilities and technology.
“How do we design technology to fit humans? Developing machines capable of making some decisions is the far future of the research HPW is doing, but there always will be a human in the loop,” Johnson says.
An example of such machines that HPW is developing are aircraft equipped to avoid ground collisions, the number-one cause of death for aviators.
“In those systems, the computer monitors the vector and altitude of the aircraft; if those are off, the system will automatically take control to lift up the aircraft and then return control to the pilot,” he explains. “Already that’s saved the lives of a few pilots.”
As commander of the 86th Medical Group at Ramstein, Johnson leads the largest clinic in the Air Force, which includes a 300-member Air Force squadron at the Army’s nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center (LRMC), the largest American hospital beyond the nation’s borders. The facilities’ medical staff provide care to more than 205,000 service men and women and their families within the European Command as well as treatment for personnel evacuated from the Africa Command and the 20-nation U.S. Central Command.
“I have met heroes of the past, present and future and have had the privilege to provide care to them… It’s truly an honor to be around these Americans.”
Although battle casualties have decreased, Johnson and his colleagues remain focused on combat readiness as well as on training medical staff, improving processes, working toward jointly staffing clinics with the U.S. Army, and planning a new medical center to augment Ramstein’s 50-plus-year-old facilities. Stationed there in 2002-2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-led effort to end the regime of Saddam Hussein, Johnson experienced firsthand the importance of a highly responsive medical force.
“We don’t have a major shooting war going on, but we have to be ready for the next one,” he says, noting current instability created by waves of refugees in Europe and recent U.S.-Russia disagreements regarding Syria and other issues. “How will we deploy forces for combat? How will we move patients? Combat readiness is more at the forefront here.”
Johnson says he “couldn’t even tell you” why he joined the Army Reserve as a high school junior in DeWitt, IA, but the idea stuck. He served in the Reserve and Army National Guard through college and medical school and, after his podiatric residency, joined the Air Force, which he considers “a great place to be.”
“We have the best patients in the world — they’re defending America and our freedom — and the opportunity for exposure to other fields of medicine is immense,” he once told APMA News. “I have met heroes of the past, present and future and have had the privilege to provide care to them. I am not only talking about the soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen, but also of the wives, husbands and their children who sacrifice every day of their life so that the members of the military can focus on defending the country. You go home every day tired and satisfied that you have made a difference… It’s truly an honor to be around these Americans.”