Across the country, the US Air National Guards are reporting acute shortage of doctors.
For instance Dr. Bryan Delage is the lone flight surgeon for a unit that should have four doctors taking care of its pilots and support staff, and that's on top of his 80-hour-a-week family practice in Ortonville, Minnesotta, more than 100 miles away.
Advertisement'I'm afraid we're going to wear him out,' said Master Sgt. Glenda Edwardson, recruiting supervisor for the North Dakota Air National Guard's 119th Wing.
Recruiting medical personnel has become a first-class headache for Guard units throughout the country, especially in sparsely populated areas like eastern North Dakota and western Minnesota, news agency AP reports.
The Air National Guard (ANG) , often referred to as the Air Guard are a reserve component of the US Air Force.
The job of recruiting doctors recently was shifted from the active duty ANG, but that hasn't improved the success rate, said Master Sgt. Connie Erickson, a regional recruiter from Minneapolis.
'This is very much a national situation,' Erickson said. 'We're not getting the interest we once did. It's very challenging for us.'
At full strength, the Air National Guard would have about 2,500 health professionals, including doctors, nurses and dentists, said Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, spokeswoman for the Guard Bureau in Washington. The Guard is 377 people short of that goal, she said.
'Our current situation is a priority,' Krenke said.
The 119th Wing's recent change from flying jet fighters to transport planes and unmanned aerial vehicles has increased the unit's size and nearly doubled the demand for medical care, said the base spokeswoman, Capt. Penny Ripperger.
'And that number continues to rise,' Ripperger said.
'We were short before. Now we're really short,' Edwardson said of the base medical staff. 'It's not like going out and finding a 17-year-old who wants his or her college paid for.'
The biggest roadblock, Edwardson said, is fear that military doctors will be shipped to Iraq or some other hot spot.
Deployment has been mostly on a volunteer basis so far, she said.
'We cannot guarantee that, unfortunately, because we are the military,' Edwardson said. 'But considering that our mission is really focused here, there's a very good chance there won't be the threat of deployment that you would see in other units.'
Delage has been placed on alert for Iraq three times, but his family practice kept him from going to the Persian Gulf. He did take part in a humanitarian mission to Ghana last year.
Only one Air Guard doctor in the country has been involuntarily deployed, Erickson said.
Unlike the Air Guard, the Army the Army appears to be holding its own on retaining doctors, but many of them are close to retiring, said Dr. Gordy Leingang, a flight surgeon with the North Dakota Army National Guard in Bismarck.
'We're just hanging in there because the country is at war,' said Leingang, 51, an emergency trauma surgeon. 'If all of us decide to pull the plug at the same time, they could be in trouble.'
Leingang has been deployed twice to Iraq and expects to be called up a third time.
'It was absolutely the most professional, rewarding thing I've done,' he said of his first two tours. 'It's arduous and challenging and there are a lot of things that aren't pleasant. But taking care of soldiers is a really cool thing.'
Delage calls the work of flight surgeons 'medicine squared.' They must show they're capable of operating in the back of a cargo plane at 30,000 feet without losing their wits. When the Fargo unit had F-16 fighters, Delage flew several times to get an idea of the physical demands placed on pilots.
'We have pretty high standards,' he said.
Delage, 44, has kept himself in shape as well. In 2000 he was ranked 50th in the country in the biathlon, which combines cross country skiing and shooting, but an injury ended his dreams of making the Olympic trials.
In advertising for flight surgeons, internists, emergency service physicians, dentists and optometrists, the North Dakota Air National Guard is offering $75,000 cash and help with student loan repayments. There's a $45,000 bonus for optometrists.
But money isn't all of it, Edwardson said.
'I think that they have to want to do it in order to be here,' she said. 'Patriotism is a big part of it.'
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