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By Don Branum
Vermont National Guard Public Affairs
The former deputy state surgeon for the Vermont Army National Guard’s Medical Readiness Detachment received the Order of Military Medical Merit in August.
Lt. Col. Chris Gookin, who began his career in 1987 as an active-duty Sailor, was recognized for helping the Vermont Army National Guard maintain a deployment readiness of 98 percent as well as for his work with state partners Senegal and North Macedonia.
“These are complex undertakings, and Chris’s planning abilities and foresight facilitate great success in these mutually beneficial exercises,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Knight, Vermont’s adjutant general. “His ability to build positive relationships and networks is remarkable.”
Medical readiness encompasses both physical and psychological health. Tracking Soldiers’ health requires coordination among the deputy state surgeon’s team, the Medical Readiness Detachment, and unit-level commanders within the Guard, Gookin said.
“That comes down to knowing your Soldiers. Medical readiness is an individual responsibility, but we need to know what’s going on,” he said. “If a Soldier has an injury, we need to know whether it’s been cleared up. We had to continuously sift through deployment manning documents and review Soldiers’ medical history and any changes to their health, including what medications they’re taking.”
One challenge to this process during the recent round of deployments in 2021 was that Vermont was deploying Soldiers to three combatant commands, each with their own set of medical readiness standards, Gookin said. His teams created “short lists” with Soldiers who needed waivers, fit-for-duty letters, or other assistance preparing for deployment.
“Soldiers in the Guard may have different primary care providers, and not every Soldier maintains a primary care provider,” Gookin said. “So we work through these Soldiers and will do periodic health assessments or an office call with the Soldier. That’s where we get a handle on what’s going on.”
Gookin described the coordination between the Deputy State Surgeon office, the Medical Readiness Detachment, and Soldiers’ chains of command as “not zero-defect, but high-touch.” Working together closely to maintain Soldiers’ confidential health information, they reached out to their network of medical providers.
“In those cases, it’s just about relationships,” Gookin said. “There are a lot of medical professionals in Vermont who are very pro-Vermont Guard, and they want to help our Soldiers.”
The Vermont Guard’s work with Senegal and North Macedonia are likewise built on relationships. In both cases, the state partner identifies a need, and the Vermont Guard determines how best to fill it.
“We’re very fortunate with these two partners that we have the trust built up between us,” Gookin said. “There’s a request from our partner, and for us, it’s, ‘How do we get to yes.’”
The focus with Senegal has been how to work in austere environments, whether those are combat-related, humanitarian, or part of a civic response, in order to improve not just Senegalese doctors’ skills but those of Vermont Guard medics and dentists, Gookin said.
“For instance, 15-19 percent of battlefield evacuations are dental,” he said. “Someone has an abscess or something like that, you have to get them out of there. We’ve come up with a rotation amongst our Guardsmen so when we bring our dentist, we may have a medic spend a couple of days working in the dental area.” That gives the medic enough dentistry to stabilize a patient who needs to be evacuated from a forward operating base or combat outpost.
Each medical exercise begins with a notice from the Vermont Guard about nine months in advance, Gookin said. The State Partnership Program, Medical Readiness Detachment and Senegalese Embassy discuss the location and the scope of the exercise.
“Some trips we bring a dentist, other missions we don’t,” Gookin explained. “Some missions we bring a women’s health specialist, other missions we don’t. It depends on the availability of the Guardsmen who participate. But we come into these missions with the Senegalese as the lead, always.”
Because the Guardsmen are learning how to operate in austere environments, they travel light.
“We may come in with medications and things like that, but we’re not bringing cases full of medical equipment,” he said. “We’re using the material that is present in the clinic or hospital in Senegal, because you may find yourself in a situation where this is what you have to work with, and the luxuries you had at home are at home.”
Gookin has also worked with North Macedonia and the Balkan Military Medical Task Force to exchange information with host nations in that corner of Europe. Most recently, he gave a presentation on the Vermont Guard’s medical footprint, including how it’s comprised and deployed.
“Our North Macedonian partners have sought several times to review Army and Air Guard procedures on how we deploy our forces to a disaster or peacekeeping operation,” Gookin said.
Gookin, who came to the Medical Readiness Detachment in 2016 and recently left for an assignment at the Pentagon, said receiving the award was a tremendous honor.
“It reminds me about the privilege of being in the Army Medical Department, and while I’m not a provider, I definitely get a lot out of working with our Soldiers, with the Vermont Air Guard medical professionals, and our state partners,” he said. “The accomplishments I was recognized for were not completely done by me. They were done by Soldiers, Airmen, and civilians doing their jobs to ensure that we all presented the best health care opportunities to the force.”
The Order of Military Medical Merit is a private organization founded by the commanding general of U.S. Army Health Services Command in 1982 to recognize excellence and to promote fellowship and esprit de corps among Army Medical Department personnel, according to the AMEDD Center of History and Heritage website, http://achh.army.mil/. Membership in the Order denotes distinguished service, recognized by AMEDD senior leadership, and is awarded to individuals who have clearly demonstrated the highest standards of integrity and moral character, displayed an outstanding degree of professional competence, served selflessly in AMEDD for at least 15 years, and made a sustained contribution to the betterment of Army medicine.