HomeNewsFeatures

Physical therapist keeps troops in fight

U.S. Air Force Capt. Jennifer Millington, 366th Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, stands in front of her Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle, Oct. 20, 2011, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Millington used this vehicle to travel across base carrying her treatment table with her to treat patients at compounds outside of the hospital. (Courtesy photo)

U.S. Air Force Capt. Jennifer Millington, 366th Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, stands in front of her Mine Resistant Ambush Protected All Terrain Vehicle, Oct. 20, 2011, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. Millington used this vehicle to travel across base carrying her treatment table with her to treat patients at compounds outside of the hospital. (Courtesy photo)

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Dating back to World War II, military physical therapists have been an overlooked, yet monumentally important, component to operations across the globe. From rehabilitating a retiree after an in-garrison hip replacement, to teaching a wounded warrior how to stabilize a prosthetic leg overseas, these dedicated professionals continue to be an essential cog in the Air Force machine.

One of these unique medics calls MHAFB her home. Capt. Jennifer Millington, 366th Medical Operations Squadron physical therapist, knows what it takes to deploy.

"I was deployed to the hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in June through December 2011," said Millington. "Primarily we worked with members who were injured either on base or out in the field."

Millington's deployment afforded her the opportunity to put her skills to use on individuals directly connected to combat operations.

"There were several patients I would see who would go out on missions that would really bang them around, and I would see them after, and we would do a lot of manual therapy and manipulation to get them into the field again," said Millington. "I think contributing to the war effort was the most rewarding part about being there."

Millington also spent time with patients from the traumatic brain injury clinic.

"We worked with the TBI clinic and saw a lot of the wounded warriors who were being treated for traumatic brain injuries," she said. "Some of them even had shrapnel in them that was not going to be removed."

Often times, personnel wounded in combat rely on therapists to receive some form of rehabilitation. In fact, another Gunfighter who was injured by a Rocket Propelled Grenade just two months before Millington arrived came to intimately understand physical therapy's role downrange.

"I suffered a traumatic brain injury and worked with neurologists at Army Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to help me rebuild my short-term memory and ability to think at the speed I could before," said Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace, 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs superintendent.

While Wallace's therapy concentrated more on neurological issues, during the time he spent in rehabilitation, he witnessed firsthand the significance of military physical therapy.

"I remember a Polish soldier there with me who was missing one arm and one leg and he was going through a lot of physical therapy," explained Wallace. "I think members have to be resilient, be strong and want to get better."

"I think back to that Polish soldier, this was a guy who couldn't speak the language and he was missing two limbs, but I saw a complete desire in him that no matter what, he was going to get better," he continued. "So half of it is internal but you also need a competent medical professional to help you. You need someone who is understanding of what your ailment is and is able to motivate you because everyone will go into periods of depression and want to give up, but it takes someone really dedicated to their job as a medic to push you beyond what you thought you were capable of and help you want to get better."

During her deployment, Millington was able to develop a connection with many patients who will not soon be forgotten.

"I also had the opportunity to work with some Army Rangers and Navy SEALS, but it wasn't only working with the Special Forces that stand out in my mind," said Millington. "I also remember working with a young Army infantryman who had been shot several times. I considered myself fortunate to get 45 minutes every day to talk to him and hear his experiences. He ended up going back into the fight and we are still in touch to this day."

Upon arriving in-country, Millington quickly realized her fortitude would be tested in ways it had never been before.

"The biggest eye opener was the second day I was there and I was called to help unload recently injured servicemembers," she said. "There was around eight guys coming, everyone rushed to their aid, and here I am a physical therapist not used to this kind of commotion unloading these litters of guys with missing limbs. That was an amazing realization where I thought 'wow we really are at war.'"

The effect of Millington simply doing her job to the best of her ability undoubtedly helped save numerous lives.

"Many of the aircrew would experience back and neck pain due to the long missions wearing a survival vest and the Joint Helmet Mounted Cuing System," said Lt. Col. Tom Yeager, F-15E pilot with the 9th Reconnaissance Wing, Beale Air Force Base, Calif. "Captain Millington was able to offer physical therapy and stretching programs to keep our aircrew flying during the more than six month deployment. Her dedication to service and duty was able to help those of us experiencing pain keep flying, ultimately supporting the ground force commanders and the men and woman who needed close air support."

Despite Millington being thrust into many unfamiliar and challenging situations, she wouldn't hesitate to do it all over again.

"I think I have the best job in the military," said Millington. "I get dedicated time with patients, where I can sit down and work with them. I think there is something special about being able to touch someone and I think there's a healing aspect in that and being over there as a physical therapist was the best experience I've ever had. I would love to go back and do it again."