Itâ€™s that time of year again, mandatory flu shots for everyone. There are many things that are unique to military service, and one of them is that anyone wearing the uniform is going to get shotsâ€”lots of them.
Master Sgt. Christi Soileau is an Aerospace Medical Services Technician who is one of the Air Force medics responsible for making sure people receive their immunizations.
She is just finishing her deployment to the 447th Expeditionary Medical Squadron at Sather Air Base in Iraq, and she understands how important timely immunizations are to maintain good health and to keep the force â€œfit to fight.â€
â€œIt seems like every time you turn around, itâ€™s time to roll up your sleeve again,â€ she said. â€œThere are some people who step-right-up and â€˜take it like a man,â€™ but there are others who seem to make themselves pretty scarce when immunizations are due.â€
Deployed from the 159th Fighter Wing at the Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base in New Orleans, Sergeant Soileau is a member of the Louisiana Air National Guard with more than 14 years in the Air Force, including four years active-duty. When she is not serving in uniform, she is a nuclear medicine specialist with the Louisiana State University Health Care System.
Because thereâ€™s no such thing as a â€œvoluntary immunization,â€ even the biggest needle-phoebes can run, but they canâ€™t hide, Soileau said.
During her deployment, she served as the Nursing Services NCO in charge and was responsible for oversight of the enlisted medics, as well as ensuring that everyoneâ€™s immunizations stay current.
â€œThe flu shot is just one of the many immunizations required for each of us to maintain our deployable status,â€ and whether youâ€™re at home station or deployed, Iâ€™m one of the medics who make sure you get whatâ€™s coming to you– whether you come to us or we have to go find you, itâ€™s all for your own good,â€ she said.
When the flu vaccine arrived at Sather, Soileau and her staff of medics headed out to duty sections throughout the base with syringes, vials of vaccine and the determination to make sure that each one of more than 800 Airmen assigned at Sather received their shots. The medics also took along a complete roster of personnel that listed each personâ€™s immunization history. â€œIf anyone was due for other shots; well, they got those too,â€ she said.
Tetanus, Hepatitis A and B, Influenza, Small Pox, Anthrax and Typhoid are just a few examples of immunizations required for military members.
â€œI would be lying if I said that some of the shots didnâ€™t hurt,â€ Soileau said. â€œMost people who have ever had the Typhoid shot know that it smarts when you get it, and then it can be pretty sore for a few days afterward. And, the Anthrax shot can really be a pain. It usually doesnâ€™t hurt too much while you are getting it, but about 30 seconds later it really stings.â€
During her career as a health care provider, Soileau estimates that she has given more than 15,000 shots, and has found that she just canâ€™t predict how people will react. â€œSome people come in joking and others have panic attacks,â€ she said. â€œSometimes a small, 90 pound girl can come in and get a shot without so much as a flinch, and other times you might see a big, burly guy with arms like a body builder who puts up the biggest fuss or even passes out.â€
Soileau is known by many coworkers and patients alike for always having a smile and enjoying her work. While itâ€™s often funny to see how different people react to getting a shot, she explains that thereâ€™s more than a century of data proving that immunizations save lives; thatâ€™s why she takes her job so seriously.
â€œNot only are immunizations a key element to maintaining our readiness, but preventing disease is much easier than treating it once it develops,â€ said Col. Charles Chappuis, 447th EMEDS commander. â€œAn outbreak of the flu or some other contagious diseases would put a serious dent in the war fighterâ€™s ability to accomplish their mission.â€
Chappuis is also a Louisiana Air National Guard member deployed from the 159th FW. He said that while immunizations have made many terrible diseases of the past nearly extinct today, there is still a danger of an enemy getting their hands on a biological strain of one of these diseases and attempting to weaponize it.
For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, Smallpox was once a disease that took an enormous toll on the population in the U.S. Even though an immunization to prevent the disease was invented in 1796, it was more than 100 years until it had wide-spread usage.
Outbreaks of Smallpox became sporadic through 1925, and then ceased abruptly in 1929. The last reported case in the U.S. was in 1949, and the disease was declared eradicated in 1977 and routine immunization was stopped.
Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Defense Department officials ordered Smallpox immunizations to resume for military members specifically as a precaution against a biological attack.
â€œThe Smallpox vaccine consists of taking a large, flattened needle, dipping it into the serum and then jabbing it into the skin 15 times,â€ Soileau said. â€œFor many people this is the immunization that hurts the most. It makes getting the flu shot seem like a walk in the park.â€
Regardless of which immunization Soileau is administering, she always takes the time to talk to her patients, reassure them and help them through the â€œtraumaticâ€ experience.
Ironically, while she tries to explain to her patients the importance of each immunization and what to expect when they receive them, Soileau is a pretty big needle-phoebe herself. â€œYup, I can give one without any problem,â€ she admitted. â€œBut getting a shot is pretty much at the top of the list of things I donâ€™t like.â€
By Master Sgt. Brian Davidson
447th Air Expeditionary Group