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New York Guardsman Says Deployments Make Him a Better Doctor

By Eric Durr
United States Department of Defense

March 13, 2017 - Ebola and malaria aren't diseases that doctors working here in the hometown of the Baseball Hall of Fame normally expect to deal with.

But Dr. William LeCates, a kidney specialist and medical director of Bassett Healthcare Center here, has experience with both diseases, as well as battlefield medicine, as a result of his other career as Lt. Col. William LeCates, a New York Army National Guard doctor.

His work in the military, LeCates said, has served to make him a better physician.

"It is difficult for me to be absent from my civilian work, but I come home again with a better appreciation for my own civilian role," LeCates said.

LeCates specializes in internal medicine. He joined the New York Army National Guard in 2009, putting the knowledge and skills he gained at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore to work for American and allied military personnel.

He said he always had an interest in serving in the military. However, attending medical school, establishing himself in a practice and having three kids along the way meant putting off that aspiration, LeCates said.

Finally, with his family settled in Cooperstown, his practice established and the realization that at age 39 he needed to join the military now or never, LeCates decided to seek a commission in the Army Medical Corps.

"The Guard was a perfect fit for me," he said. "I knew we could have our home, we could stay in our home. Debbie [his wife] and my kids could be secure and fixed in our schools and the community and I could carry out my military duties."

LeCates serves as a member of the New York Army National Guard's Medical Command. LeCates conducts medical readiness assessments at Camp Smith Training Site or Fort Drum along with treating soldiers during training periods.

Overseas Deployments

But his service has also meant deploying overseas, including twice to Afghanistan and once to Liberia.

His first deployment in 2010 was with the Iowa Army National Guard's 334th Brigade Support Battalion at Camp Blackhorse, Afghanistan, as an augmentee to the battalion's medical company.

U.S. soldiers from the unit trained Afghan soldiers, and LeCates said he was the doctor charged with keeping them healthy while also working with the Afghan army medics.

It was a barebones medical clinic --"Role 1" in military parlance -- where the job was to provide basic primary care, emergency treatment for injuries and wounds, and stabilize patients so they could be transported to more sophisticated treatment facilities, LeCates said.

His second three-month deployment, the standard for reserve component doctors, was in New Kabul Compound -- an American military facility in the heart of Afghanistan's capital city -- in 2013.

This time he worked at a major U.S. headquarters as one of the physicians for 800 American personnel. The compound was also adjacent to an Afghan military hospital, where he worked with Afghan medical personnel to treat arriving casualties.

"I had a chance to do some mentoring with the Afghan military physicians," he said.

Service in Liberia

LeCates' most-recent deployment was a six-month mission to the West African country of Liberia with a 14-member detachment from the Michigan Army National Guard.

The Michigan Guard soldiers were in Liberia as part of Operation Onward Liberty, a mission to train and mentor the country's armed forces.  LeCates volunteered for a six-month deployment, filling two three-month reserve physician deployment slots.

"We lived and traveled with the Liberians. Wherever they traveled, we traveled," he said. "They were always gracious hosts, but some of the areas were very rural. It was really hands-on."

As a doctor, the deployment offered an opportunity to see medical care at both the individual and large-scale levels, as the country dealt with the aftermath of the Ebola outbreak, LeCates said.

"The country is small enough, and the cities are close enough, that in a single day I could be in a Liberian clinic looking at young kids that are getting malaria, and in the evening I could be working at the ministry of health and helping to understand their Ebola response efforts," LeCates said.

He added, "In Liberia the medical experience, the diseases and diagnoses I saw, are ones I will never see in the United States.”

LeCates said his military experience has been a tremendous benefit to his work as a doctor back home in Cooperstown, a place he chose for his career because he gets to perform complicated, challenging medicine in a small-town setting.

Military Leadership Training

"I think military leadership training is the best type of leadership training available," he said. "I am fortunate in my civilian job to have an opportunity for a medical administrative role here at the hospital, and that [military] training in mentoring and motivating helps."

The military medical system is also very effective at using lessons learned and making on-the-spot improvements in clinical care, he added.

"The civilian sector is slower at those changes. It has given me a chance to look at how a big system can bring about changes to make improvements," LeCates said. Military doctors, he added, have pioneered new trauma care techniques on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, and knowing those skills is always useful.

"The Army is very good at training its deploying doctors to understand the basics of point-of-injury care, and how to keep the soldier safe," he said.

LeCates said he values his military medical duty, but he couldn't serve if he didn't have the support of his fellow doctors in Cooperstown as well as his family.

"They are very supportive," LeCates said of his family. "I think every time I come back from deployment, we as a family have to reassess. I have to pause and learn to be part of the family again."

Still, LeCates said he is proud of the part that he and other reserve component medical personnel play in taking care of American service members.

"I think it is a strength of the military medical system that many of the deploying physicians are Reserve and Guard," LeCates said. "They bring skills learned at home to benefit the soldiers."

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