As commander of the 419th Fighter Wing Medical Squadron, Col. Laurence Nelson has one small grievance: He doesn’t have much time for skyrocketing.
Dr. Nelson is, by weekday, an ophthalmologist and eye surgeon at Tanner Clinic, involved in cataract surgery and diagnosis of complex eye problems. During other hours, however, he’s soaring in F-16 fighter jets.
As commander of this Air Force Reserve squadron, Dr.Nelson manages health care for all reservists at Hill AFB. Dr. Nelson oversees the health and wellbeing of more than 1,000 airmen, pilots and officers, as well as their medical readiness for war. He’s assisted, he says, by seven physicians, six dentists “and a bunch of other people.”
That leaves little time for flying — his favorite perk of the job and the reason he joined the AF Reserves after leaving the active force.
Strictly speaking, Dr. Nelson’s presence aboard the F-16s is to regulate and understand the stresses of piloting. “That’s the theory,” he says. “But I do it for fun.”
Paperwork keeps him grounded. “My commander work takes me away from doing the fun things,” he says.
Military duty worldwide
As an active-duty physician, Dr. Nelson’s duties have carried him all around the globe, as well as through some historical and chaotic times.
As one of the leading eye trauma surgeons in the Air Force, for instance, Dr. Nelson was on call at Landstuhl Air Base in Germany when the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were bombed on the same day in 1998, killing at least 200 people and injuring hundreds more. Many American casualties needing trauma surgery were flown to the safety of the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
He received an Army Commendation Medal for his services provided in the bombing’s aftermath.
“That gave me some great experience,” he said. Later, he’d use that experience while on tours to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dr. Nelson was assigned to Balad Joint Base, widely known as Camp Anaconda, shortly before the Iraq War troop surge of 2007. As the flight commander of an active-duty fighter squadron, he was one of two ophthalmologists and part of the head/neck trauma team.
As the number of troops grew to 15,000 and more, Dr. Nelson was the expert on hand during times of mass casualties. Most of his work was reconstruction, he says, “removing eyes that were completely destroyed and repairing eyelids and eyes that we could save.”
Iraqis’ eye trauma worse than Americans
Most American soldiers carried protective gear, reducing their injuries. Less protected from roadside bombs and gunfire were the Iraqi police officers working with the Americans, He said. “A lot of the people I operated on were Iraqi police,” he remembers. “They didn’t have much of the ballistic eye-wear protection that our guys had, and they took a lot more casualties.”
American soldiers were flown to Germany after making it through the trauma triage in Iraq. “We’d only keep our people in the hospital for one or two days — we’d operate on them and then they were gone,” Dr. Nelson said. “But the Iraqis we would keep around until they were stabilized, because if we sent them right out to hospitals it wouldn’t work out well for them. Medical care in Iraq was still a mess.”
Doctor still loves his military patients
Following years carried him to Turkey and Italy where he managed satellite medical consultation clinics, as well as Afghanistan in 2010. His Air Force career was memorable, he says, “because I got to do some really cool stuff as a surgeon.”
Even today, some of his favorite patients are retired military. “Those guys are great; they’re like coming home,“ said Dr. Nelson. After he’s left to welcome his next patient, it seems he’s right at home as he enters the exam room, “How ya doing, you old rascal?”