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By Shireen Bedi, Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
/ Published March 27, 2018
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Erickson (first row, second from right), a U.S. Air Force physician, poses for a photo with Afghan women healthcare providers and Staff Sgt. Sarah Saelens when she worked on the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team. The PRT worked closely with local healthcare providers to improve the health and wellbeing of Afghan women. (Courtesy photo)
Lt. Col. Elizabeth Erickson, a U.S. Air Force physician, speaks at the International Committee of Military Medicine along with Dr. J. Christopher Daniel and Dr. David Smith from the U.S. delegation in New Delhi, India, November 2017. Erickson spoke on research she had done relating to military medicine, and was the only female among the 9-person U.S. delegation. (Courtesy photo)
The Air Force Medical Service participates in international medical outreach efforts, called Global Health Engagements, to strengthen relationships with partner nations that bear fruit diplomatically and medically. GHEs include a broad range of international medical activities undertaken by the U.S. military. These activities help to build strong relationships with allies and partners, increase military medical interoperability between nations, and build global capacity to address health security threats.
“For example, we work with some partner nations on bio-surveillance in order to better detect and respond to outbreaks, so they do not become larger health security crises,” said Erickson.
Erickson, a family physician and currently a preventive medicine resident at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Maryland, always had an interest in working and studying abroad. Before joining the Air Force, she studied and volunteered in India and Africa. In the Air Force, after assignments in Turkey and Germany, and a deployment to Afghanistan, she was an International Health Specialist at Pacific Air Force and U.S. Pacific Command.
“I was always interested in having a global perspective on care, so I gravitated towards these unique opportunities,” said Erickson. “As an International Health Specialist, I planned and executed GHEs, coordinated Department of Defense health activities across the Indo-Asia-Pacific region, and developed strategies to use health engagements to achieve national security objectives.”
Erickson’s GHE experiences allow her to apply and expand intercultural, medical, and military skills. As a female officer, she had opportunities to support the health and empowerment of women in multiple countries, specifically in Afghanistan.
From July 2009 to March 2010, Erickson served as senior medical officer and director of Women’s Affairs on the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan. She and her team executed programs that supported the local government and improved the health and wellbeing of the local population, especially women and children. The team engaged with the local Ministry for Women’s Affairs representatives, female healthcare providers at local hospitals, and the province’s only girl’s school.
“It was a priority for our commander to find sustainable ways to improve the lives of Afghan women,” said Erickson. “One project provided women with solar stoves. We found that women were inhaling harmful smoke while cooking with charcoal and wood, and we wanted to provide an alternative cooking method that would ultimately improve their health.”
The three medical Air Force women on the PRT met regularly with local female healthcare providers.
“We developed strong relationships with them and learned about their challenges,” said Erickson. “We conducted training on basic life support in obstetrics to help them recognize potentially life-threatening events that happen during childbirth, and prepared them to manage those events.”
While in Afghanistan, Erickson had the privilege to participate in an International Women’s Day event. Local women, including the female nurses and physicians she had worked with so closely, gave speeches, performed music, and recited poetry.
“It was special to see our friends, these women we became so close with, share their hopes for peace and stability in Afghanistan,” said Erickson.
Erickson’s experiences serve as an important reminder that female military leaders and medical personnel are vital for full-spectrum global health engagement, and she encourages other female medical Airmen to pursue opportunities in GHE.
“There are some really inspiring women in our partner nations, and it was a rewarding experience to meet and work with them,” said Erickson. “Many times, my female counterparts and I built a special bond, and we worked together to move health cooperation between our militaries forward. We should encourage more women to become leaders on both sides of the GHE community, so improve our engagements with our partner nations and the global military medical community.”