Dwindling Numbers, Abundant Rewards Although members of all branches of the military have access to speech-language treatment, the U.S. Air Force is the last uniformed service to have speech-language pathologists in its ranks. But even in this relatively new branch (founded in 1947) their numbers are dwindling; active-duty SLPs number only five. The work ... Features
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Features  |   November 01, 2009
Dwindling Numbers, Abundant Rewards
Author Notes
  • Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.
    Kellie Rowden-Racette, print and online editor for The ASHA Leader, can be reached at krowden-racette@asha.org.×
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Speech, Voice & Prosodic Disorders / Regulatory, Legislative & Advocacy / Features
Features   |   November 01, 2009
Dwindling Numbers, Abundant Rewards
The ASHA Leader, November 2009, Vol. 14, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.14142009.30
The ASHA Leader, November 2009, Vol. 14, 30-31. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR4.14142009.30
Although members of all branches of the military have access to speech-language treatment, the U.S. Air Force is the last uniformed service to have speech-language pathologists in its ranks. But even in this relatively new branch (founded in 1947) their numbers are dwindling; active-duty SLPs number only five. The work is hard, they say, but the rewards are plenty. Here are three of their stories.
DiAnna Calvin, a major stationed at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, has practiced for 14 years, eight of them in uniform.
Q: How does the Air Force use active-duty SLPs?
The Air Force believes that each discipline needs to be in uniform. When you’re in the military it’s 24/7, and when they need you, they need you. For example, when I was at Keesler Air Force Base (Mississippi) during Hurricane Katrina, we were on duty non-stop for evacuation, clean-up, etc.
Q: What’s your day-to-day schedule?
No day is the same. Every day I have a case¬load that is completely different—one day I’ll have swallow studies, the next day I’ll be working with kids. I’ve been able to serve on the cochlear implant board, lead a laryngectomy support group, learn about shrapnel wounds—things I wouldn’t necessarily see in the civilian world. It’s great experience. But it’s not all professional work—we do things related to the Air Force and the military, like chemical warfare training and maintaining our physical fitness standards. But it’s all for a reason. We have to support our beneficiaries no matter what it takes—that’s the point of being in the military. We cater to them, we live their lifestyle, and we understand them.
Q: Why did you become an SLP? And then why join the military?
In college I wanted to find a job that was rewarding and I enjoy talking (my friends used to call me “Chatty Cathy”). I thought I was going to be a psychologist, but a friend’s mom was a speech-language pathologist and it looked so interesting. Later I was working in a rehab hospital in Montgomery, Ala., and was a little bored. I had a few friends in the Air Force who said I should look into it. I couldn’t believe all the training I still had to go through! But it’s been rewarding. I love seeing the head and neck cancer patients when they hear their own voices again. Tears come to their eyes. And so many patients’ families are grateful to me when their loved ones are talking again. Because so many military families don’t have anyone around, They’re grateful knowing that their son or daughter or husband is going to be taken care of. We’re like their wingman. There is so much I can do here and it never gets boring.
Ava Craig, a major stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska, is the state’s first military SLP. She began practicing in 1986 and has been on active duty for 15 years.
Q: What interested you about speech-language pathology?
I was born with unilateral cleft lip and palate. Although I didn’t need speech treatment growing up, I’ve always been sensitive toward kids who need help. In college I went through five different majors and thought I was going to be a teacher. Then I realized I wanted to help kids more individually, not as a group. Once I was in the field, my nephew was born with a bilateral cleft palate and I wanted to make sure I could help him.
Q: What was your path to the military?
Before the Air Force I worked in public schools for seven years, then worked for a rehab hospital for a year. My sister was in Navy at the time, and she was encouraging me to join because of the benefits and security. Plus, I could travel a lot, take care of my family, and still do what I wanted to do. The Air Force was the only branch that was looking for SLPs.
Q: Any surprises?
Absolutely! My first assignment was in Germany within an Army community, so I had three culture shocks—being in a foreign country, being in the Air Force, and working with the Army. On the outside [the civilian world], people go to meetings, of course, but we also have to do things like train for chemical warfare, especially now. It used to just be every two years, then every year, then every six months, and now it’s every month. I don’t think civilian SLPs are doing that.
Q: Is there any pressure being the first-ever military SLP in Alaska?
It’s like the movie Field of Dreams—“If you build it, they will come.” The number of people needing services was astronomical and I like that I can be here and make a difference in such a short amount of time. We see a huge amount of active-duty Army members with mild TBI. I haven’t seen this before; it’s new to me. Because of the active-duty Army, the majority of my patients are ages 18 to 32, which is unique. On most other bases, it’s birth to 3 and then age 50 to 80. I’m getting this group that you usually don’t see.
I’m doing a little of everything and have to be a master of all trades in our field. I don’t have the ability to specialize. Our field is so huge and this keeps it fresh for me.
Beth Harrison is a lieutenant colonel who serves as the chief of health professions assignments at the Pentagon. She has been an SLP for 18 years, 14 of them in uniform.
Q: How did you become interested in being an SLP?
Actually it was by accident. I was at the University of Arizona on a music scholarship for percussion, and one semester I made a mistake with my registration. All my classes had been dropped. I had to get into any class I could find. There was political science and Chinese history, and then I walked by the speech and hearing table. My mom was an SLP, but I never really knew what she did. There was room for me in the classes. I loved it and a few semesters later I said to my mom, “”
Q: How did you decide to join the Air Force?
As a graduate student, I did an externship at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas. It was such an exciting place for a new clinician—there was a variety of patients and it was such a rich learning environment. After I graduated I worked for a few years and then got a call from Wilford Hall asking me to come work there again. I was excited but didn’t quite get that it would mean I would need to join the Air Force. When I was there I was focused on the clinical part and hadn’t paid attention to all the uniforms around me. Once I figured it out I thought it would be good for a few years, I’d learn everything I’d ever need to know, and then I could go anywhere. But once I got in, I began to like having that other side to pay attention to. It’s not all about speech-language pathology—you also have to work on being a military officer, too. It all just kept going so well that I stayed.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for SLPs to be in the active-duty Air Force?
It helps you relate to the active duty person’s experience. We all have been there, we know what their situation is, what their challenges are, and I think they see you more as an ally because you’re wearing the uniform.
Q: you’re no longer practicing in the clinical setting. Why the change?
I stepped into a human resource position in 2005. It was a good opportunity because if I want to make this a career, I needed to branch out and look at the big picture. It’s been good so far, and who knows if I’ll ever go back to the clinic? Maybe once I retire—We’ll see.
Q: Any regrets?
None. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
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November 2009
Volume 14, Issue 14