Give It Your Best: A Flight Surgeon’s Farewell

Photo By Staff Sgt. Deirdre Salvas | Colonel Stephen R. Carr, the state flight surgeon assigned to the Rhode Island Air National Guard, Joint Force Headquarters, concludes his final flight in a C-130J Super Hercules, July 30, 2019 at Quonset Air National Guard Base, North Kingstown, R.I. The "fini flight" is a long-standing Air Force tradition that serves as a career milestone for pilots approaching retirement.
January 05, 2020

QUONSET AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, R.I. – With an extensive and impressive military and civilian career, Colonel Stephen R. Carr reflects on his role and impact as he prepares for retirement. As the State Air Surgeon, for the Rhode Island National Guard, Joint Force Headquarters, Carr keeps senior leadership aware of the medical capabilities and challenges facing the Rhode Island Air National Guard (RIANG). He needs to be aware of medical readiness and developing trends around the globe because he never knows for sure where or when members might deploy. To him, the best way to describe his role at the 143d Airlift wing is to say he provides holistic medical overwatch.

“It’s the folks here in the medical group on the ground, doing the everyday detail work,” said Carr. “They’re ensuring each member’s healthcare is properly documented and that their medical needs are being met.”
The state air surgeon’s responsibilities take on a strategic perspective. Carr’s role requires him to have an appreciation for the tasks that the unit takes on and ensures that members are ready to face any challenge in the field. Carr tries to look over the horizon and ask himself, “What’s out there that might affect us?” He also looks at the capabilities and characteristics of the medical group and what assets they might be required to employ in domestic or contingency operations. The satisfaction and the reward in the detail work are what Carr thrives on.

Reflecting on his favorite part of the job, Carr exemplifies that it is working with the people at the 143d that drives him.

“If someone sat in front of you and told you all of the things that I have done, you would call them a liar,” said Carr. “No one person could do all of it in one lifetime, but I have. So, I’ve had some cool jobs and I’ve gotten to do some wonderful things. But the best job I’ve ever had was right here. This is the best.”
In his civilian career, Carr conducts high-risk obstetrics and prenatal diagnosis, using high-resolution ultrasounds. He also performs fetal surgery operating on babies inside the womb. He finds his civilian job incredible, but the guard is still the best job he’s ever had. When asked if his civilian career has helped him with his military career, he doesn’t feel that they are directly correlated and impactful of each other. His civilian career is a very small niche with a high impact.

“There’s stuff that I do in the outside world that has no bearing on what I do here in the guard and conversely,” said Carr. “The experiences that I’ve had here in the guard as a whole have helped me to be a better leader and that is something that I bring with me to my civilian career.”
He said that his military career has helped him more with his civilian profession because he has learned decision-making, consensus building, leading, following, teamwork, and congeniality amongst many other skills.

“They don’t teach you how to play well in the sandbox outside in the civilian world,” said Carr. “Here, it’s inculcated in us from the very first day when you raise your right hand. That’s crucial from my perspective.”

Carr took the oath in 1987, and in the middle of his service, he decided to take a ten-year break. His children were getting older and his civilian job was getting increasingly more complex to the point that he could no longer effectively juggle his growing responsibilities.

“I told my senior leadership that I was going to step away for a moment, but that I would be back and they didn’t believe me,” said Carr. “They told me that doctors never came back. Fast forward ten years and I came back to serve.”

Initially, Carr said he wanted to join the military due to a strong family tradition. His father and two of his uncles were in the Coast Guard and another uncle was in the Navy. His grandfather was a Marine aviator in WWI and his stepfather served in Normandy.

“I did not join out of necessity, it was just something that I must do, and very much something I deeply had and wanted to do,” said Carr.

As a direct commission, Carr came in as a captain and was very quickly sent to flight surgeon training. For a while, he was the only flight surgeon and doctor in the medical group. Today, there are six providers. Most of the flying that he’s done as a flight surgeon has been right out of North Kingstown.

“Part of the job description is understanding the environment and the people that you’re caring for. So I went out flying a lot and it worked out well,” said Carr.

Being a flight surgeon means providing healthcare to aviators and it’s different from other healthcare positions because they are providing that care at altitude. Something done on the ground that may be completely inconsequential can become disabling in the air. Dealing with an injured aviator at 20,000 feet, flying an expensive aircraft with 40 people in the back, that’s a problem that a flight “doc” has to understand. Once or twice a month, usually evenings when he would get out of his civilian job, Carr would come down to the base to fly.

When asked what advice he would give to young and incoming airmen, Carr thinks back to raising his right hand and the emotions he felt. “The job keeps changing, the job description keeps changing,” said Carr. “We never seem to have enough resources to accomplish the mission the way we would like. So the frustrations are present here as they are everywhere, that’s not particular to the military. So I guess my advice would be when things get frustrating and on the rough side, take a breath. Remember what it felt like to raise your right hand and commit to something bigger than your self-interest.”

He then reflected on a thesis paper he wrote at the Air War College on the parallels between the military and medicine.

“They both use different tools but have very strong parallels,” said Carr. “The philosophy is the same, there is an intrinsic good in what we try to do. Helping people is the common denominator with both military and medicine. For all of the apparent differences, the superficial antagonisms between the two, fundamentally I think the two are quite closely aligned.”

His final piece of advice was, “show up, be present, and give it your best,” said Carr. “Remember what it felt like when you swore in and how proud you were and after that, go re-attack.”
A phenomenal doctor, mentor, and airman, “doc” Carr was an asset to the 143d and will be truly missed.