I want to tell you a story.... I know it is a little long, especially for a web site, but I think it is important. It’s about how I came to create DODMERB Consultants. It’s intensely personal, but then your story is intensely personal as well. It’s a story of frustration and confusion, of disappointment and rejection, but in the end a story of success. I want to share my experiences as one struggling to get through the medical qualification system, only to end up as the Director of that system. If you’re trying to get into one of the service academies or win an ROTC scholarship, or are the parent of someone trying to, you might find this interesting.
“A Navy Pilot!” That was always the answer to: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Most of the questions came from Navy pilots, all friends of my dad, a career Naval Aviator himself. I was born into Naval Aviation – literally - in the dispensary of a Naval Air Station. I grew up on other Naval Air Stations across the US. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t look up to see an airplane flying over my home or school. All I ever wanted to be was a Naval Aviator.
Like many of you, I started filling out applications for the academies and ROTC scholarship programs during my junior year of high school. By that time my goal had changed slightly. I still wanted to be a Naval Aviator, but I decided I’d rather do it as a Marine. DoDMERB didn’t exist in those days – each of the academies and ROTC programs had their own, separate medical qualification process. It meant multiple days going to physical exams in different cities, from Savannah, Georgia to Orlando, Florida. I didn’t receive an appointment, but I did receive both Army and Navy (Marine Option) four-year scholarships. While excited, I was left with a gut-retching choice – which to accept?
I suspect you’re saying, “Well, that’s a no brainer.” Marine Pilot = Navy Scholarship. That’s true… but there was a problem. When I went to my first physical I was the picture of health - at least I though I was. It turns out I had a medical condition no one knew about – not me, not even my parents. During my first academy physical I learned I was colorblind. No one told me what that meant. All I knew was I now had a “label”. You’re colorblind! I wasn’t sure how bad it was but I knew it couldn’t be good. My dad was deployed to Vietnam so I turned to the only advisor I had, my high school guidance counselor. He was a great guy, but had no clue what the medical standards were. He too sensed it was bad. He actually told me I wouldn’t be able to get into any of the services. He suggested I start thinking about some other career. SOME OTHER CAREER? There was no other career. It was Naval Aviator or nothing! I lost many a night’s sleep worrying over that label. Colorblind!
The FALANT Dilemma
To understand what I faced, you should understand that, even to this day, each service has its own color vision standards, and the Navy has its own way of testing color vision. All of the services use the Ishihara Pseudoisochromatic Plates, better known as the PIP. While the Army and Air Force use the PIP as their main color vision test, the Navy uses the PIP as a screening test. The one you really had to pass was the Farnsworth Lantern or FALANT. Pass the FALANT and the Navy and Marine Corps will let you do anything, including fly Navy/Marine Corps aircraft. As luck would have it, my colorblindness was mild and I could and did pass the FALANT. The DREAM was restored!
But here’s the rub…. While I could pass the FALANT, it was never easy. I never felt comfortable with my answers, and I always worried there would come a day when I couldn’t pass it – hey I AM COLORBLIND after all... My biggest worry was that I would be tested when I reported to college (as the Sea Service Academies do), and if I failed the FALANT, I’d lose the Navy Scholarship. Taking the Army Scholarship was the safe route. I wouldn’t be able to fly, but I’d still be commissioned in the Army and that was a pretty good deal. I knew I would enjoy being an Army officer, but I really wanted to be a Marine and I really wanted to fly. Long live The DREAM! After more sleepless nights, I decided to take a chance and accepted the Navy Scholarship. With fingers crossed, I reported to The Citadel and was delighted to learn that my color vision would not be re-tested until I had my commissioning physical my junior year. I was safe and on my way!
The Ticking Time Bomb
The four years at The Citadel seemed to fly by and before I knew it, I was a 2nd LT at The Basic School (TBS) in Quantico, Virginia. Life was great! Thanks to the NROTC College Flight Instruction Program, (FIP) I received my FAA private pilot rating one week before I was commissioned. I had an “aviation contract” with the Marine Corps, guaranteeing I would go to pilot training once I completed TBS. I had passed all my flight physicals, even the color vision tests. Life was truly great! Little did I know that there was a ticking time bomb in my medical records! On one of the physicals from years before, an eye exam put me a quarter (.25) of a diopter over the refractive limits for pilot training. Even though I still had 20/20 vision, I was no longer qualified to go to flight school as a Student Naval Aviator.
Suddenly life wasn’t so great… I was weeks away from achieving my lifelong dream only to be told “Not so fast…”
Luckily, I knew someone with inside knowledge. I immediately called my dad’s flight surgeon from his Vietnam cruises, now the Senior Medical Officer of an aircraft carrier, and explained the problem. He helped me put together a waiver request package. I then had to wait six nerve-racking weeks before learning that I would be granted a waiver for pilot training!
I did earn my wings as a Naval Aviator and had the joy of flying the AV-8A Harrier right out of flight school. Flight school was a challenge, but getting through the medical process proved to be an almost insurmountable hurdle!
A New Dream
As much as I enjoyed flying the Harrier, I always seemed to look for bigger challenges. While stationed in Okinawa, I had the good fortune to serve with several great flight surgeons. Even though my degree was in Political Science, they encouraged me to apply to medical school, which I did (after returning to college to earn a Biology degree). Following an internship in Family Medicine, I completed flight surgeon training and embarked on a 25-year career in Navy Medicine.
After a series of operational assignments, including being the first Senior Medical Officer of the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), I reported to DoDMERB in 2005 as the Chief of the Sea Services Division. Two years later I took over as the Director. Talk about coming full circle! During all my struggles with medical qualification, I never dreamed that one day I would be the Senior Medical Officer of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, or that would I be the Director of DoDMERB.
During my years at DoDMERB, I never forgot the anxiety and dread I experienced, first as a high school student, then as a newly commissioned 2nd Lt, trying to avoid being medically disqualified. Were it not for the intervention of a caring flight surgeon, I would never have had the chance to earn the wings of a Naval Aviator, and then fly one of the world’s most exciting aircraft.
Telling Your Story
I reviewed thousands of cases while at DoDMERB, and by far my biggest frustration was my inability to personally interview each applicant. I did call some whose medical history left me with questions, but there simply weren’t enough hours in the day to call everyone. I had to trust that what was in front of me was accurate and complete. Too many times I learned it wasn’t.
The medical qualification process is complex. Not everyone will be qualified (or waived), nor should they be. Some medical conditions are simply incompatible with military service. Your challenge is to make sure the DoDMERB physician reviewing your file has the most accurate picture of your medical history and current medical status. The same goes for the waiver authorities, should you need a waiver.
Your issue is probably something other than color vision. It doesn’t matter what the condition is or which service you’re applying to. After 6 years at DoDMERB I have a pretty good handle on which conditions each service will consider for a waiver, and which conditions won’t be considered for a waiver by any program.
After reviewing thousands of cases, reading thousands of stories, I know how to tell your story; what’s important to include and what doesn’t help. I hope you’ll let me help you tell yours….