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Everybody hurts: Physical therapist helps Aircrews cope with deployment demand

Story by Senior Airman Joshua Kleinholz

332nd Air Expeditionary Wing

SOUTHWEST ASIA – Lt. Col. Tisha Sutton is a busy person these days, doing her part as the sole provider of physical therapy services to more than 1,200 service members assigned to the installation.

With specialties ranging from heavy equipment operators, to intelligence agents, to F-15E Strike Eagle pilots and everything in between, the tempo set by a deployment in an expeditionary location can be taxing on the body. Pair that with more free time spent pursuing personal fitness goals and experimenting with new movements in the gym, and injuries can pile up.

“Something unique we see in a deployed location is that 80-90% of patients that show up here at the [332d Expeditionary Medical Group] clinic are seeking relief for musculoskeletal type issues,” said Sutton. “People are spending more of their free time in the gym, so I treat a lot of injuries associated with that, as well as the ones normal ones caused by the day-to-day jobs.”

Though she provides quick access to care for the entire base population, Sutton was specifically assigned here to support F-15E aircrews from the 336th Fighter Squadron as they work toward Operation Inherent Resolve objectives. In typical sorties flown at home station, aircrews fly 1-3 hours at a time. However, due to the constant demand for combat airpower presented by the current fight, pilots and weapons systems officers routinely endure 6-7 hour stints in a cramped cockpit. Tight spaces, long hours, and frequent exposure to powerful gravitational forces are a recipe for potentially career-ending injuries that can develop over time.

“Before flying combat sorties these men and women put on 50lbs of gear and a heavy helmet, and strap into a tiny compartment seated at a 90-degree angle,” said Sutton, who participated in a familiarization flight prior to her deployment in order to best identify the causes of injuries in aircrews. “When we have back pain, or any other type of discomfort, we stand up, stretch out a bit and we feel better. These guys can’t move, they can’t adjust, and they’re exposed to these forces over and over.”

As the Air Force looks for ways to solve a pilot shortage, Sutton hopes that physical therapy can play a bigger role in extending the careers of experienced aviators. The process begins, she says, by changing the culture.

“Aircrews have trained their entire careers to be out here in the middle of the fight, so there’s a certain reluctance to come forward with injuries that might land them in [duties not involving flight], said Sutton. “I just hope that we can show them that we can keep you in the airplane longer; we can reduce your fatigue; we can ease your pain; and we can raise these issues so that there’s no longer a fear of being taken out of the fight.”
After the completion of her deployment, Sutton will be returning to the newly established Aviator Center of Excellence at Luke Air Force Base, AZ. As head physical therapist of the Human Performance Team, she’ll push for new methods of preventative treatment and provide input on enhanced training programs aimed at improving aircrew readiness going forward.

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