Eye-opening experience for Reserve optometrist

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Stephen J. Caruso
  • 514th Air Mobility Wing

Despite the challenges of 2020, for many Citizen Airmen the events of last year created opportunities to serve in unique duty assignments that normally would not be available to them. For one Reserve Citizen Airman with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, Lt. Col. (Dr.) Daniel Toocheck, the year ended with a thrilling and chilling TDY to Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, where he attended the Air Force Arctic Survival Training. 

Toocheck, a traditional reservist, serves as the chief of optometry services with the 514th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J. He spent 90 days on active duty from September to December 2020 at Eielson Air Force Base to fill a critical manning need for the 354th Medical Group. 

At the outset, the TDY was fairly routine, according to Toocheck. He lived on base and worked in a standard military clinic set up. Upon his arrival to the town of “North Pole” in the late summer, the moderately cool temperatures even allowed Toocheck to walk to work. His route took him past the 66th Training Squadron’s Detachment 1 schoolhouse, which conducts Air Force Arctic Survival Training at Eielson. 

Affectionately known as “Cool School,” the arctic survival training involves five days of combined classroom instruction and field training in the arctic environment, medical, personal protection (clothing, shelter construction, and firecraft), sustenance (food and water procurement), and signaling. 

While the course is primarily for Air Force mission operators such as pilots and flight crew members who may require training in a downed aircraft event, other AFSCs including medical professions are also able to attend. As a Reservist on a short TDY, Toocheck’s chances of attending the high-demand class would seem unlikely. That was, until the superintendent of the Arctic Survival School showed up at the clinic one day for an eye exam.

In talking with the superintendent, Toocheck realized there could be an opportunity to attend the week-long class after all. He contacted the education office and was added to the waitlist. Since many Air Force members from bases outside of Alaska were unable to attend due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, Toocheck fortunately secured a slot relatively soon and attended the class with an entirely local cohort. 

“Everybody in my class was actually from Eielson,” Toocheck said. “There were a couple F-35 pilots and F-16 pilots.”

Toocheck’s arctic survival class began in early November, before average winter temperatures were expected to turn severe. Shortly into the course, temperature dropped well below freezing. Furthermore, a record snowfall made the field training portion far more challenging. 

“It got down to minus 34 one night we were out there,” Toocheck said. “You’re trying not to let any of your skin get exposed. This was the first week of November, not even the cold part of the year.”

Focusing on rudimentary cold weather survival skills, the training helped Toocheck better appreciate the importance of getting back to basics. 

“Class has been around for 60 years and it’s changed very little,” Toocheck said. “The basics of building an A-frame, starting a fire or melting water really haven’t changed.”

The "A-frame" refers to huts made of snow and logs that student must construct for night time shelter during the course. 

“They said the A-frame will make it probably twenty degrees warmer,” Toocheck said. ‘It was cold. I was shivering.”

Overall, the combination of classroom and field training was very effective, according to Toocheck. He encourages other Reservists to seek out such training opportunities, both within and beyond their career field. 

“The training gives you confidence that you can sleep outside when it’s minus 34 degrees,” Toocheck said. “It also gives you confidence in your ability to participate with active duty.”

One of the biggest eye-openers was his newfound appreciation for the adverse conditions Air Force pilots have to train for. 

“In the Air Force, you’re always supporting the warfighter,” Toocheck said. “If anyone’s going to get stuck out there, it’s the pilots. They’re the tip of the spear, right? So it gave me more of a perspective of what the pilots need to do. It’s not so glamorous. It takes a lot of sacrifice. You know it’s going to be difficult.”