Reserve doctor reflects on three-decade rescue career

Col. (Dr.) Lewis Neace receives his official retirement pin from his wife at his retirement ceremony at Patrick Air Force Base Jan. 11, 2015. Neace completed more than 31 years of service as an Air Force Reserve physician and was most recently the commander of the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Patrick. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Anna-Marie Wyant)

Col. (Dr.) Lewis Neace receives his official retirement pin from his wife at his retirement ceremony at Patrick Air Force Base Jan. 11, 2015. Neace completed more than 31 years of service as an Air Force Reserve physician and was most recently the commander of the 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at Patrick. (U.S. Air Force photo/2nd Lt. Anna-Marie Wyant)

920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron Commander, Col. (Dr.) Lewis D. Neace becomes life-saver during commercial flights to and from Patrick Air Force Base, Fla., where he performs his Reserve duty. (Courtesy photo)

Col. (Dr.) Lewis D. Neace, former 920th Aeromedical Staging Squadron commander, retired from the Air Force Reserve Jan. 11, 2015. (Courtesy photo)

PATRICK AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. -- Commuting to an assigned base is a monthly endeavor for many reservists. While some spend a couple hours or more on the road to attend their drill weekends, few travel through all four continental U.S. time zones for only two days of work. Dr. (Col.) Lewis Neace was one of those few.

Neace, former commander of the 920th Aeromedical Support Squadron here, retired from the Air Force Reserve Jan. 11 and thus retired from taking the long monthly commute from his home near Portland, Oregon, to his unit in Cocoa Beach, Florida. There are Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard units in the Pacific Northwest, and Neace could have saved a lot of time if he stayed local, but he didn't.

"Rescue is something that once it's in your blood you really never let it go," said Neace, who works as a civilian emergency room doctor in the Portland area.

Neace began his career in 1983 at McChord Air Force Base, Washington, and was introduced to the Air Force combat-search-and-rescue community at Portland Air National Guard Base in 1985. The pararescue unit he was assigned to would eventually become the 920th Rescue Wing here. After getting a taste of rescue, he decided to spend the next nearly three decades of his career almost exclusively supporting the Air Force Reserve pararescue mission.

During his tenure with the Air Force Reserve, Neace made quite an impact on the rescue community. Not only was he a highly-qualified physician, but he also completed pararescue training in 1989, and that same year was named the Air Force Reserve Command Flight Surgeon of the Year. Neace was one of a select handful of officers who became pararescuemen well before the current combat rescue officer program was established.

Neace said he has been on more deployments than he can count to more locations than he can mention, and has received several awards and decorations along the way. But perhaps the biggest impacts he made on the Air Force Reserve--actually the Air Force as a whole--were his proposed changes to pararescue medical training.

Pararescuemen, also known as PJs, are among the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. They must earn and maintain an emergency medical technician paramedic qualification throughout their careers. Back in the 1980s, however, this wasn't the case.

Neace said when he entered the Reserve, PJs were not certified emergency medical technicians, or EMTs. He knew they were exceptional at their military job, but he was concerned they were not marketable in the civilian medical world.

"PJs had their own medical course which was much more advanced than EMT training, but if you try to get them into a civilian job in a trauma center, their training wasn't recognized," he said. "So we started doing EMT certification."

His unit was the first to implement the training, which was adopted by the Air Force Reserve and later active-duty Air Force. While this was a big accomplishment, Neace didn't stop there. He knew the PJs were capable of more, and he was determined to get them the training and qualifications they needed to excel. In the early 1990s, Neace found the opportunity he needed.

"I was at this meeting and a general asked me how the PJs were trained, and I explained it," Neace said. "But I said frankly, if a guy gets shot downtown, he'll have a higher level of medical care than someone deployed. That didn't go over very well."

His comment both disturbed and intrigued the general, who then asked how to fix the problem. Neace suggested making all PJs certified paramedics. Shortly thereafter, Reserve units began implementing paramedic training to get all PJs certified.

"It took a while to get everybody through the training," he said. "Reservists did it first. Once the active duty picked it up, they started doing it right at the (PJ training) schoolhouse and have been doing it ever since."

Neace left his mark on the rescue community fairly early in his career and continued making positive impacts throughout his time in service. When there was no longer a medical unit with the rescue squadron in Portland, Neace had to make a decision -- he could either find another unit in Oregon or Washington, or he could commute across the country to remain a part of his Reserve rescue community.

It was simple decision for him. He was ready to brave the jetlag from coast to coast. Neace spent approximately a decade commuting from Portland to Patrick. He said all those trips through airport security, hours waiting in airports and flying across the country, plus the additional hours driving from the airport to the base, were all worth it.

"Rescue is a great mission," he said. "I became a doctor to save lives, and that's the overall mission."

During his tenure, Neace was able to be part of some of the wing's greatest rescue efforts, including the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, Hurricane Katrina and the San Francisco earthquake. He was involved in several rescue missions in the Portland area, as well as caring for wounded warriors during military operations in the Middle East.

Neace said his civilian and military careers have complemented each other well. He took lessons learned from each and applied them to the other, which made him a better doctor and better commander. Saving lives is a highlight for both jobs, but in his most recent position at the 920th ASTS, Neace said the best part of his job was working with his Airmen and witnessing the great things they accomplish.

"The most rewarding part as the commander here was seeing the people grow and deploy and flourish in their careers," Neace said.

Neace called his Airmen "the best of the best" and said he is thankful for the opportunity to be their commander.

Col. Jeffrey Macrander, 920th RQW commander, said Neace has been an asset to the rescue community for several years and leaves behind a legacy.

"Colonel Neace has touched a lot of lives," Macrander said. "He's been the go-to flight surgeon not only for this wing, but is highly regarded throughout the Air Force and beyond. He will be missed."

Neace said transitioning to retirement is hard since he has served in the military more than half his life, but he's proud to have been part of what he considers the noblest mission in the Air Force.

"When bad things happen, rescue shows up, cleans up the mess, takes care of people, goes home and waits to do it again," he said. "It's been an incredible career."