Taking Care of the Pilots: Air Surgeon Retires from ANG at Age 68

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Bonnie Harper
  • 104th Fighter Wing, Public Affairs
A five-year old boy growing up in Westfield, Massachusetts would smile every time he heard a jet from the local military base roar overhead. He'd look up at the jet soaring through the clouds and knew that was where he wanted to be someday.  

"I wanted to see what the birds see," said Joe Keenan, "I wanted to be a pilot; I wanted to fly!"  

When Keenan was 10 years old, the 104th Fighter Wing from Barnes Air National Guard Base in Westfield was the sponsor of his little league baseball team. A feeling of pride swept over him whenever he saw the fighter wing patch sewn on his little league uniform, he said.  

More than 50 years later, Keenan celebrated his retirement with two of his friends and brothers in arms, both F-15 pilots, after the final flights of their military careers.

Lt. Col. Joe "Monk" Keenan, a recently-retired flight surgeon for the 104th Fighter Wing, feels honored to have served in the guard and lucky to have fulfilled his childhood dreams of flying.  

Keenan officially retired from the guard in October 2016 when he turned 68, which is the congressional directed age of mandatory separation for military health professionals.   

The maximum age to become an officer in the military is 35 years old, but there are exceptions and waiver processes for specialized career fields. Doctors can join the Air Force up to age 58. Keenan commissioned at the age of 61.   

"I didn't even know it was possible until I was 60," Keenan said. "I got sworn in, on what happened to be drill weekend, on my 61st birthday. It was a great honor; it was the best birthday present I ever had."  

It was a very rare situation for someone to commission into the Air Force above the retirement age of 60. The entire waiver and paperwork process for Keenan took a year, he said.   

"They took a real chance and did it," Keenan explained. "I always felt that I had to give 110 percent to my job because they had faith in me to let me in, so I did not fail at anything I did."

Keenan went through the Reserve Commissioned Officer Training program at Maxwell Air Force Base and then on to the three-month-long Aerospace Medicine Program to learn everything about aerospace medicine and pilots.

Flight surgeons are the primary care physicians for pilots and crewmembers, and they are able to apply their medical knowledge and training to specifically address the needs of those who travel in air or space.

Keenan is an ear, nose and throat doctor (ENT) and has managed his private practice in Westfield for 37 years. He studied philosophy as an undergrad at Boston University and attended medical college in Augusta, Georgia. Keenan completed his medical residency at the University of Connecticut, focusing on head and neck surgery. He continues to serve as an assistant clinical professor at UConn.  
"It was a beautiful combination to use my expertise from the head and neck area to the particular problems of flying," said Keenan. "So many of flying problems are sinus, ear and throat related. People can get barotrauma to the ear, a sinus block, or bleeding coming from the nose."  

Due to the unique stresses and conditions that pilots face, aerospace medicine specialists and flight surgeons are needed to help discover, prevent and manage physiological responses that result from flying in extreme environments.  
"The pilots are a highly skilled, sub-group of people, with very specific medical needs," Keenan explained. "You need someone that has the requisite medical knowledge and the same shared flying experiences with them to understand the stresses they're going through, so you can take care of their problems and give them advice. It's so important."  

In the United States Air Force, only about 50 to 60 percent of the flight surgeon billets are filled, according to Keenan.   

"There's a real shortage of them," said Keenan. "That's what I was told when I was going through training. There's such a need."  

The Air National Guard provides an excellent opportunity for physicians in the civilian world to join the military and serve part-time in a similar career field.  

"I think a great resource would be for doctors in the community who are already full-up, residency trained, maybe 40 years old or so, to consider joining the guard," said Keenan. "They have the time to enter. They don't even view it as a possibility."  

There are two career paths in the field of aerospace medicine. You can be assigned to the medical group or be in operational status, Keenan said.   

Keenan was assigned to operations as part of the Squadron Medical Element and reported to the operations group commander.   

"Every time they deploy, I go with them," said Keenan. "I have more than 250 hours in the F-15 Eagle. I ride in the two-seater, so I get to fly the Eagle from the back seat."  

Although Keenan was only in the guard for seven years, he enjoyed every minute of it, as it blended his medical knowledge with his interest in planes. Keenan got his pilot's license at age 16 and has approximately 2,500 flight hours as a civilian pilot. 
"I put my heart into it [being a flight surgeon] because I love flying," he said. "When you're up there living with them, eating with them, flying with them, you know the incredible stresses they're under and you're better able to take care of their health needs."

Keenan volunteered for six overseas deployments during his time in the guard, taking care of pilots as they traveled to countries including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Iceland, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Malaysia, and Qatar.

Although Keenan views the end of his military career as bittersweet, he is honored to have served with a great community who supported him being a flight surgeon later in life.

"Someone always has your back," said Keenan. "You don't have that in many parts of the world."  

For more information on joining the Air National Guard or joining the aerospace medicine field, visit http://www.goang.com or www.airforce.com/careers/detail/aerospace-medicine-specialist-flight-surgeon .  

"You can do it!" Keenan added. "You can get into the Air Force, and you can become part of the Air National Guard, which is an incredible experience in and of itself."