Doctor leaves private practice to become Airman

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Patrick McKenna
  • U.S. Air Forces Central Command Combat Correspondent
The choice to join the military is one thousands of Americans make each year. Some join right out of high school. Others may come in years later with higher education or valuable life experience under their belts.

For one Airman currently deployed to Afghanistan, the decision to join the Air Force came two years ago, when he left behind a successful private medical practice to become an Air Force doctor, helping to fulfill a lifelong dream as well as put his skills to what he felt would be a better use.

Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) Derrick Willsey grew up in a military family as his father served four years in the Army during Vietnam, separated, and then came back to active duty as a dentist in the Air Force where he eventually retired. The respect and admiration for the military, instilled in Willsey as a child, transformed into curiosity and action as he saw a need for medical personnel to care for wounded service members fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"In the back of my mind there was always something missing," said Willsey. "I'd see pictures on the news and wondered if I could contribute and provide a greater capability to help the war effort. I began doing research and heard of the special operations surgical teams at Hurlburt Field and a light bulb went off in my mind."

What appealed to Willsey about the SOST mission was the opportunity it presented to apply his medical experience in a number of different ways. Willsey and the other seven members of his team, deployed from the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla., train year round to handle the blending of mission sets in what they do."

"Coming into active duty, I wanted to experience the more operational side of things," said Willsey, critical care provider for the special operations critical care evacuation team. "The SOST/SOCCET team provides forward surgical care, bolsters surgical capabilities at forward operating bases, supports coalition forces on direct action missions, as well as works with Afghan medical professionals to help them care for their own patients."

Willsey attributes much of his team's success to the experience and professionalism of his fellow SOST/SOCCET members and emphasized the importance of the team's cohesion in how they complete their missions.

"It's been busy, but that's what we signed up for," Willsey said. "We are blessed to have high quality folks on this dynamic team. We train how to eat together, live together, fight together, and that only helps us reach that mutual support to execute the mission."
In turn, Willsey's teammates have strong admiration for his decision join the military during a time of war and value his contributions and the experience he brings to the team.

"The choice he made to leave private practice medicine amazes me," said Maj. (Dr.) Jason Webb, SOST/SOCCET general surgeon. "He felt he had skills that could be better utilized by people in need. As a doctor he has a wealth of knowledge and we're always bouncing things off each other. He's become a good friend and I think the world of him as a doctor and a person."

Looking back to his childhood, the married father of two children recognizes the ties between his father's choice to come back to the military after some time away and his own choice to leave civilian life and answer what he describes as a higher calling.

"The military way of life, values, and what you're giving back was engrained into me," Willsey said. " It's doing something more than just for yourself. It was a great upbringing for me and I hope I can translate to my kids the same benefits -- duty, obligation, honor -- that comes with it."

Now on his second deployment to Afghanistan, Willsey has missed anniversaries and birthdays and, most importantly, time with his family due to his military obligations. One might wonder if he has any second thoughts about his decision to leave civilian life to join the Air Force.

"I'm confident why I'm here," Willsey said. "I'm not here to wait the clock out to get out. I'm here because I want to be and I'm committed to giving it everything I can. I consider this one of the best decisions of my life and I'll keep giving it all in whatever position I'm asked to fill.