RAF ALCONBURY, England --
A setup of two separate medical clinics under one wing – the 501st Combat Support Wing – is a unique aspect to an already unique mission. But even more unique are the two commanders who lead them and the similar backgrounds they share.
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Hoettels, commander of the 423rd Medical Squadron, and Lt. Col. Robert Heil, commander of the 422nd Medical Squadron, are both prior Army soldiers, both came from a Special Forces background, and both are now serving squadron command tours at the 501 CSW. The chances seem quite unlikely.
Hoettels is a prior Army Civil Affairs officer attached to SF, and Heil is a prior Army SF medic. Both bring their unique experiences, knowledge and worldview to the clinic each day.
“I loved my time in the Army,” reflected Hoettels. “Getting a chance to go out and do the civil affairs work, getting to travel and see the world and immerse myself into cultures and do some advising and nation-building… I loved doing that.”
The daughter of two Army parents, Hoettels joined the Army Reserve Officer Training Corps program out of the need to pay for college. She graduated with a degree in international relations and was commissioned as a medical service corps officer. Soon, she was put into the Army’s civil affairs program and received a deployment tasking to Bosnia within a week.
After a year in Bosnia, Hoettels returned and was attending civil affairs school when the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred – forever altering her original plan to serve only four years. She was on a plane to Afghanistan a couple of short months later, continuing what would be a 10-year journey in civil affairs.
“Civil affairs is using your skills to be able to help a country stand back up on their feet,” said Hoettels. “Winning hearts and minds is part of it, but truly it’s looking at capabilities of what people can do and helping enable them to move themselves forward.”
This philosophy of ‘teach a man to fish rather than fishing for them’ is the bedrock of the civil affairs mission.
“If I were to just go out and give someone an immunization, people would typically want to come back to me because I was the one who gave them that immunization,” she explained. “So it’s my job to think through what immunizations (the local communities) need, assisting the ministerial and local levels with what they want to give, (and) teaching them how to come up with resources. But when it comes time to give immunizations… they go out and do it themselves.”
Attached to SF teams, Hoettels would also work hand-in-hand with Psychological Operations soldiers to help solve problems the teams would encounter in local communities.
“One of the concerns we were noticing in Afghanistan is the little kids were actually picking up the brass (after firefights),” she said. “Sometimes they were unexploded ordnance, and they’re playing with it because it’s shiny… but ordnance would (sometimes) explode, or they were picking it up for money. PSYOPS came up with this absolutely wonderful kite that essentially said, ‘Hey, please don’t pick up brass,’ and the agreement was if the kids would show us where the brass was, they could get a kite. So they loved it. That’s probably one of my favorite products ever.”
After realizing she could be even more effective on deployments if she had more medical expertise, Hoettels pursued a nursing degree and decided to switch to the Air Force as a medical nurse – appreciative of her time in the Army, but enticed by the opportunity to fly.
Hoettels has spent the past 13 years in the Air Force, marking 23 years of total military service and six deployments. Her medical experience, SF knowledge and desire to fly took her Air Force career from working on an expeditionary medical team in Iraq, to flying Critical Care Air Transport missions out of Germany, to supporting Naval Special Operations as part of a surgical team in Africa. She keeps a healthy sense of humor at the unusual nature of her career path.
“I’ve never done things the ‘normal’ way,” she laughs. “I have been very fortunate throughout my entire time to be able to be put in the right place at the right time and have awesome experiences.”
Now taking on the challenge of squadron command, it is at the 501st CSW where Hoettels now works alongside Heil, a fellow Army soldier-turned Air Force medic.
Heil initially enlisted in the Army as an anti-armor infantryman, but was soon drawn to the rigor and close-knit community of Special Forces.
“I always saw these guys walking around with green beanies, and I thought it was pretty cool,” he said. “I talked to a recruiter and asked him, ‘What’s the cream-of-the-crop Special Forces MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) track?’ He said, ‘Oh, 18 Delta. The SF medics go through the hardest training; the longest training.’ Years down the line I put in my packet and went through the Q (qualification) course.”
Heil graduated the nearly two-year course with only six soldiers from the original group of 72. He was assigned to the 1st Special Forces Group in Okinawa, Japan, as part of a scuba team. In that time, the majority of missions were Foreign Internal Defense – or FID – missions.
“(In FID missions) you’re helping their government and their armed forces to strengthen themselves and embolden their capabilities,” said Heil. “We train their SF guys. We train them in weapons and tactics, and we’re primarily there to do training with their forces.”
Those missions, along with humanitarian missions and exercises, saw Heil and his team partnering with SF in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and elsewhere across Asia. As the team’s medic, he was especially vital to executing medical capabilities exercises in various countries.
“You go into a school or compound and you try to see as many people as you can,” he explained. “Everything from routine care, abscesses, all sorts of different things. They want as much help as they can get. I remember this one lady who came in in a wheelchair with her foot wrapped up in a towel… her whole foot was gangrenous. We worked out with the on-base Navy hospital (at the location) to actually fly her back to (the main hospital) to give her care.”
Heil moved on to Fort Lewis in Washington and after 12 years in the Army, eventually started considering the Air Force as a future career goal.
“Being around various bases around the world seeing how the Air Force lived and how the Army lived was completely different… I said, ‘Man, the Air Force has it good!’” he laughed. “It was time for me to move on (from SF). I wanted to come back as an officer and work in the medical community.”
After a brief stint between the two services where he worked night shifts in an ER in California, Heil and his family moved to Texas, where he was first assigned to the ER at Sheppard Air Force Base.
He eventually received his masters degree and added the specialty of Family Nurse Practitioner to his resume. Now 21 years later, he works to instill those foundational concepts he learned in SF in his medical squadron at RAF Croughton.
“As a team, you rely on each other,” he said. “You plan missions together; you do everything as a team. As an SF soldier, that’s who’s going to keep you alive. (Now) during all calls and training days, I try to reflect back on that mentality… that we are a small squadron, and we have to rely on each other. I try to correlate that camaraderie, that esprit de corps, that cohesiveness that we had in SF not to the entire squadron per say, but maybe in your work area or your specific flight or section.”
With small teams of 40 to 60 personnel each, Heil and Hoettels’ medical squadrons serve one of the most unique and diverse communities in the Air Force. Spanning seven installations across the United Kingdom and Norway and a community of more than 14,000, the 501st Combat Support Wing is organized into two groups, each with separate areas of responsibility. Heil’s 422nd Medical Squadron is part of the 422nd Air Base Group, headquartered at RAF Croughton and also serving RAF Fairford and RAF Welford. Hoettel’s 423rd MDS is part of the 423rd ABG, headquartered at RAF Alconbury and also serving RAF Molesworth, with select support functions in the group also reaching RAF Menwith Hill and the Jåttå Military Compound in Stavanger, Norway.
For small teams to execute such an expansive mission requires a good deal of innovation and teamwork – qualities both Hoettels and Heil’s SF backgrounds trained them well for.
“I love learning and thinking outside the box,” said Hoettels. “(In the Army) you’re sometimes dropped into a location and there’s only five or six of you. What can you do? You’re not in a building. There will be times you’ll need to be a little creative. I think because I grew up in special operations in the Army, that’s why I do well with this.”
The unique aspect of having two medical clinics in the same wing also helps foster a culture of innovation. Hoettels and Heil regularly share best practices and discuss ideas for improvement, their similar backgrounds providing a solid foundation for cross-talk.
“Civil affairs worked hand-in-hand with Special Forces,” said Heil. “She’s used to, exposed to, and knows about the SF world. So that’s a big plus for us, just having that history and that kinship is important. It’s helped strengthen our relationship as squadron commanders.”
“It’s very interesting when I found out we both had the same background, except his is a little bit more cool!” Hoettels laughs. “I think we think along the same lines just by the way we grew up.”
And even beyond the medical field, both attribute their worldviews to their mix of experiences from both the Army and the Air Force – developing them into not just good soldiers and then good Airmen, but good global citizens.
“The worldview has taught me how to look at things strategically,” said Hoettels. “You can always step back and go, ‘Okay, this is how this impacts this.’ Looking at the world and seeing how things influence each other helps you be a better citizen too, and you’re able to start piecing some things together and figuring out where you sit in the world, and why your mission is so important. You understand that it’s pretty awesome to have food in your belly and a roof over your head. It makes life relative, and as a citizen that makes you a little bit more grounded… having more exposure to the world helps everybody be more tolerant.”