MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan -- Most humans will never venture as far south as Antarctica. The seasons rarely change with every dawn lighting up the snowy white tundra void of vegetation. The chilly air feels crisp as ice pierces even the thickest of garments.
Nestled deep within these chilling, often sub-zero conditions, McMurdo Station’s mission trudges forward, often-requiring medical services.
U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Tory Woodard, the 35th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander, recently joined Operation Deep Freeze for a 60-day deployment with Joint Task Force-Support Forces Antarctica as their flight surgeon.
“It was an amazing experience and really cool to get picked for this mission,” said Woodard. “I worked with a great group of people and together we made a difference. Even though the weather is bad at times, when it clears up, it really is beautiful.”
U.S. Air Force National Guard members fill two medical positions, while active-duty physicians fill the other. Woodard served as a local validating flight surgeon. He coordinated civilian and military assets to support medical evacuation missions in Antarctica.
“I believe they chose me for this mission because of my military medicine background and training,” said Woodard. “I am double boarded in family medicine and aerospace medicine, so I have the experience and variety of missions in my background making me well suited for deployment to this remote environment.”
During his tenure, Woodard supported all research projects in Antarctica and used aircraft and assets to help with airlift and create solutions for transportation of personnel. McMurdo Station uses specially modified C-130 Hercules heavy lift aircraft with skis allowing them to land on ice and snowy runways at various locations across the continent.
With extreme weather conditions the norm, Woodard made sure personnel had everything they needed to work safely and complete their missions among the harsh conditions.
“My concern was making sure everyone was healthy,” he said. “The base is very small; there’s only about 700 to 900 people and not a big medical footprint. So I augmented the other providers there in case we had an emergency.”
He took care of the maintainers, who are also out working on ice and in the snow on the aircraft. Confirming all medical needs were good to go, he also supported the civilians working in the clinic.
However, due to Antarctica’s hostile landscape, Woodard encountered many medical variations.
“You can only hope everyone stays healthy, but when an emergency occurs someone with some experience is needed,” explained Woodard. “We can treat anything from diving illness to altitude sickness.”
Some days, the weather is in control of everything. Until it clears up, patients in need of transporting have to wait two or three days. Woodard explained that preparation is crucial in a remote location.
“It is not much different from a deployment at a small base anywhere in Afghanistan or anywhere else,” he stated. “You have to know the available resources, train your team to use those assets and do the best possible with what is accessible.”
Like any remote location, the internet and phone systems are slow, due to limited satellite coverage, but Woodard said, there is a lot to like too.
“McMurdo has a lot of great recreation,” he said. “I traveled over to the New Zealand research station at Scott Base a lot and shared meals and met many other international scientists, researchers and specialists. We had a weekly lecture series on topics such as NASA research, climate change and animal research. On the nice days, I ran and hiked on some beautiful local trails, explored the ice and enjoyed the incredible scenery. We even had mountain bikes and cross-country skis to check out and use to explore the area around the base.”
For Woodard, one of his most memorable parts was a 10-mile loop. It lead up to "Castle Rock" with a view of Mt. Erebus (the southern-most active volcano in the world).
“We toured and saw one of the original explorer's huts called ‘Discovery Hut’ dating back to 1902,” he recalled. “That site has been surprisingly well preserved in the dry, cold climate. It was filled with clothing, food, tins, research items and penguin skeletons preserved for more than 100 years.”
Woodard said while extracurricular activities were a great way to fill his free time, he missed his family and the communications challenges due to degraded internet access were a struggle, but they made it through just like they’ve always done in his nearly 20-year career. Woodard’s family has learned how to be resilient through many prior deployments.
With no cell phone or Wi-Fi service available at McMurdo Station, his wife, Pamela, said frequent landline phone calls kept them connected.
“This made being deployed over the holidays more enjoyable,” she said. “He’s always made an effort to stay in touch and that’s what really matters--that we have some sort of communication with him.”
The deployment may have only lasted 60 days, but Woodard said the experience provided him with a better understanding of the unique joint operations required to support the Antarctic research operations.
“I got to experience one of the most challenging medical and aviation operations in the Air Force,” he said. “I realized there is always something new to learn and challenges always present--opportunities to improve yourself and those around you. I brought back some rich experiences, hundreds of photos, some unique gifts and the rewards of knowing I applied my training to support the mission in a place only a few have ever experienced.”