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Lady “Doc” assumes top level position at Mabry

Q & A's with Colonel McNabb

CAMP Mabry, Austin, Texas (May 15, 2009) –   She is equally comfortable among equestrian clients as she is discussing N1H1 with State Officials or participating in and planning Government Division of Emergency Division exercises, Dr. Connie Couch McNabb, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine  has been appointed as the Director, Joint Staff, Joint Force Headquarters.

Colonel  McNabb, the previous State Surgeon, has once again switched gears and has embarked on a new journey.   She agreed to sit down with us to do an interview.

Q -  Maam, most of us have worked with you and know you, but for our newest members, would you mind sharing a little of your background with our readers.

A – I am a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.  That may sounds like a strange qualification to end up in this job but in a way it is not so strange at all.  Veterinarians focus on large scale production and herd health.  We serve clients every day and experience how success gets down to management and leadership.  Veterinarians assist clients who make a million decisions to keep a large operation of hundreds of individuals and millions of dollars of investment on track for years at a time.   A client on one side of the road may be successful and another on the other side of the road may not be.   I learned from a very early stage, that it is all about management: 1. how to set the tone 2. stay focused on where the organization is going and  3. communicate the overall direction.  Only then can all these different decisions add up and lead to an organizational success.  
But to get back to your question, I hung up my Veterinary shingle in North Carolina in 1981.  Working a “large animal practice” I served five counties in the mountains of North Carolina.  But my goal was to work with quality horses because that is where my love was.   I practiced veterinary medicine at Churchill Downs for seven years and juggled a large clientele.    After 10 years of successful practice in this very physical and demanding field, I realized that I was ready for something different.   

Q – Is that when you decided to join the military?

A -  Not in that sense, but one day I came home at my usual time – 10 at night,  looked among my mail and noticed a  postcard.  It said: “Are you ready for a change?” and I said to myself:  “yeah, I think I am,”  I checked the box and mailed it.   A couple of weeks later Tech Sgt. Steve Jordan called me and he said: “Here I am - Air Force Health Profession recruiter,” and I said: “How in the world did you get my name,” and he said: “You checked the box on the postcard.”   I am not super religious but God has made His presence known more than once.  I felt it was a door I should walk through. The first Gulf War was just starting up and I wanted to serve.

I became the Public Health Officer at Luke Air Force Base.  My job was very much like being in practice.  I provided the Wing Commander and Senior Leadership the preventive medicine information they needed to keep their pilots and ground personnel fit, healthy and ready to deploy at any time, anywhere in the world.   During my time at Luke I met some Guard guys and gals  and I felt that maybe this was what I was looking for – I missed being a civilian but did not want to give up my military career.    When a position in the Texas Racing Commission came up and people from around the country started sending me the application, I felt that it was another open door.  “So I asked the Texas Air Guard, “if I go to Texas is there a place for me?” and the reply was: “Oh yeah there is a place for you; we need a public health officer at Ellington Field.”  A few years later I joined the 149th Fighter Wing Medical Group in San Antonio.   Col. Spermo, gave me a lot of support, Col. Morrow gave the Group a National Spotlight and Col. John Nichols gave us the confidence and support to become Texas's lead deployable medical team for disasters. 

Q – I seem to remember that Katrina and Rita happened while you were the 149th Medical Group, and I know you and your people were tasked to provide medical help in New Orleans.

A – Yes [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita came along which got us national attention.   Katrina was the big unknown.  We were part of a large Texas Joint military organization, but we were nowhere near were we are today.    Katrina taught us a lot of lessons.  It was not only the pats on the back when we returned, but also the “what went wrong” discussion.   We responded with everything we had but we knew that Katrina, organizationally, was not very pretty.  We knew that as one part of the larger Texas response we had to do better.  So the next several years we were passionate about working out the things that did not go well.   I realized that I was a change agent now.   We do not consist of blue people, or green people, but Texas Military Forces people.  Culturally the Army Guard and the Air Guard are different, but the reality is that we are going to respond; we are going to take care of business, not only in Texas, but in the region.    I do not expect Army Guard to be painted blue, or the Air Guard to be painted green but now we know each other.  We have established relationships, we have worked together.   We are going to take care of each other and we are going to take care of other people in need.  This will take all of us including the State Guard, especially their medical folks.    

Q –  I know that you have only been in the position for a couple of weeks, and it might not be fair to ask you this, but what is your vision for the future?

A.  What is my vision for this client?  Right now, I have one big client, the TAG, Maj. Gen. Mayorga, and his client is the Governor.   We have some other pretty important clients, called the legislature.   We serve our country and Texas and there are many things that we are expected to do.  We are honest brokers.   We cannot be all things to all people.  But our commitment to the needs of Texans is not negotiable.    We have good links to our strong DSCA partners who will also provide service.   This position is not about me, it is about my client(s).   That is where I am now - the last few years as the state surgeon here at Camp Mabry, and now in this position.   

Q – You mentioned DSCA, and it seems that every year we get a bigger role.  It almost seems like if there is something wrong in Texas, whatever that maybe, we are there to helpThere is more reliance on us every year.   The H1N1 flu virus seemed to explode into something much more devastating than what it fortunately turned out to be and the hurricane season is upon us.  You have worked closely with Dr. Lakey Commissioner, Texas Department of State Health Services, and many others agencies at the Governor's Division of Emergency Management.   Do you think from that perspective, it might have influenced the decision making for General Mayorga to place you in this position?

A –  Maj. Gen. Mayorga's decision to give me this opportunity certainly was like all the decisions he makes, based upon careful consideration of many factors.  I would like to think that my background in recent DSCA operations gave me a record of performance and qualifications to join his team. I am grateful for the confidence he has shown me.

The reason the Governor depends on Texas Military Forces during emergencies is because the Guard brings a sense of stability and order.  Citizens of Texas know that when the Governor “calls out the Guard”:  ‘you will be taken care of'.  We bring professionalism, tremendous capability, not just water, and food.   Our neighbors trust us.    We are citizen soldiers.  We live in these communities and we are helping our neighbors.  We are accountable to the civilian authorities.  We are not taking over, we are here to help and then when it is time for us to leave, we leave because we are citizen Soldiers.

Q – Something you said struck me, even though we could bring military members from around the country under Emergency Management Agreement Cooperation.  We are the military leaders when things happen in our State.   We know the local conditions and know where to get the local resources.   In that sense we are truly citizen Soldiers and Airmen.    Do you agree?

A – Exactly, that is one of the great strengths of the Guard.  We are citizen –Soldiers in uniform.   We come with the connections and the knowledge and the network.   We've got people in the Guard who are elected officials, corporate executives or major business owners.  We come with a wealth of talent that far exceeds our military skill sets.   When a small town mayor is having  problems, we have (by virtue of being the Guard) the ability to understand what it is he is trying to accomplish.  He or she just wants to get their community back to normal and we understand that.   We are civilians who put on the uniform as long as we are needed, and it is time to be civilians again, we do that. 

Q – Different topic:  In terms of mental health what are we doing in the State of Texas for our Soldiers and Airmen coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan who maybe suffering from PTSD.

A – PTSD is a disease, but so is the less recognized Traumatic Brain Injury.   It is not uncommon that it happens in the same person, but that certainly is not always the case.   We are asking Americans to go into a very dangerous environment where they are subjected to mortar or IED attacks.   Our Soldiers and Airmen are performing admirably, but in the blink of an eye, a Soldier on patrol or a civil affairs guy working on a water treatment plant, maybe exposed to something horrific.  If you take a brain and shake it around in someone's skull, something happens.   That soldier or airman may or may not realize it at the time because he was able to get up and function as well as anybody else.  Our folks are professionals.  The “suck it up and do the best they can”. The medical effects may not clearly show for days, months or even longer.  Everybody handles it differently, how people recover and deal with PTSD or TBI it is different for every individual.   Not everybody develops PTSD or traumatic brain injury, but we are dedicated to be ready for those who do.  It is important that we have a very robust commitment, military and civilian to get treatment for our Soldiers and Airmen.

Q – Please define treatment for me.

A -  We, as a military organization, are adjusting to the new normal.   Seeking help does not necessarily mean, ‘you are sick', and we have to redefine treatment.  Does it mean that any organized discussion on working out problems is considered treatment, then we may run the risk that a Soldier or Airman does not seek “treatment”.  Does PTSD mean that I am irreparable, of course not.  The healthiest thing a person can do is to seek the means that gets him or her back operating normally.  Sometimes treatment means the chance to get much needed sleep and eat well, other times it means longer and more targeted treatment possibly including medication and counseling.  It is perfectly normal for a Soldier or Airman to share his or her thoughts with somebody who has been there.  Command Sgt. Maj. Morales, Command Sgt. Maj. Broyles and Command Chief MSgt. Davis are working together to remove the stigma that the “help” threshold is too high, too hard or too frightening. 

Q – How can a friend or family member help?

A -  Peer to peer is key.  Nobody knows you better than the people who are next to you.  It is no different than saying, “hey you have a fever, let me take you to the Doc.”  We would not wait until it turned into something more serious.  Same thing applies here.  We know when something is wrong.  We do not expect family members, Soldiers and Airmen to become PHDs or psychiatrists, but we should be able to say “Something is wrong, can I help you?”   We may not know that an individual is showing signs of PTSD or TBI, but his or her buddy or family member may.   He or she did a great job and six months later he gets fired from his job, his wife or her husband is leaving, and the car was repossessed – those are all signs we need to be cognizant of.   We have huge resources, VA, Partners Across Texas, Mental Health, Family Resources.  Kids in school may be the canary because the only colors they draw their mom or dad in is black while everybody else's mommy maybe colored in cheery tones.   Senior NCOs are the key to de-stigmatizing this issue.   We should be able to walk somebody over to great partners such as the VA or Texas Vet Commission.  These people have their antennas up, they are veterans – they get it.  

Q -So it almost sounds like the first defense for people suffering from PTSD are the people close to them?

A – You don't have to be an expert.  There is help but you have to know where that help is.  The Command Sergeant Majors and the Chiefs through the Wings have to be involved in getting this information out.   If you don't know anybody else, you need to know your local Vet Center, Mental Health team member or Texas Vet Commission representative.   Giving somebody a booklet on PTSD is not the answer.  Somebody with TBI may not get beyond the first sentence because they have brain damage.   

Q – I believe it is everybodies'  responsibility to be cognizant of a returning Soldier or Airman.   We receive phone calls from concerned moms and dads and we need to step out of our lanes.   We have to seek help immediately.

A – We are the Guard.   If you are deployed with somebody and they come to work and they cough up a lung you would immediately assist.  This is the same thing.   The threshold is not somebody sitting at their desk in tears.   You need to pay attention to each other earlier.   The resources are available. 

Q – During the National Day of Prayer, the chaplain said, the motto should be:  People first, mission always, instead of Mission first, people always.   That made a profound impression on me because it makes so much sense.   Do you agree?

A – Absolutely, and though I am no longer the joint surgeon, I cannot leave the medical piece behind.  This is important business.  We are in the business of protecting Texas, but we have to protect ourselves to be able to protect Texas.  The number one mission is not doing one big giant group hug, it is doing what the President or the Governor asks.  I've got to take care of my people so that they are ready to go.   If I am going to ask/tell you to do everything, I am responsible for seeing to it that you are able, trained and fit.

Q – This is not your first stab at being involved in a joint organization, but what does joint mean to you?

A - I had the opportunity to take a reserve component professional military education course.  It taught me what this purple thing is.  It is Army, Marines, Navy and Air Force. You need to bring your service culture but you should expect the other service to bring theirs as well.  In this joint business we have to understand what is best done by what component and step aside and let them do it.   There are sprinters and distance runners. A distance horse is not at the front of the pack in half a mile race.   We have to recognize our service competencies and exploit them for the best possible mission outcome. 

Q – Ma'am thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us, and as a final note – Are you still happy with your  decision to become a Citizen Soldier?

A – Absolutely.   The militia was around long before there was a DoD.   It is in our blood, it is in our families.   My mother and father were in WWII, and I have a great – great –great relative who served in the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts field artillery.  As a matter of fact they did not know that he was a she until she was injured.   DoD and the United States Army came from us – the State Militias.  We are still here.  

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