Recognizing Our "Vets" in Uniform
Throughout the month of December, in conjunction with the Military Health System's focus on veterinarian Service Members, the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Development Activity is proud to highlight the outstanding veterinarians who serve our organization. We conclude our two-part series with a spotlight on U.S. Army Lt. Col. Lisa Thomas Read.
"When I was five or six years old, I wanted to be a veterinarian because my dad was a vet, and I understood the practice," explained U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Melinda Eaton, deputy project manager for the Tissue Injury and Regenerative Medicine Program Management Office of USAMMDA.
Growing up in the picturesque city of Spanish Fork, Utah, Eaton spent a great deal of time with her father as he cared for animals throughout the valley. This firsthand experience quickly placed her on a path towards becoming a veterinarian as well, and she focused on this career throughout middle school, high school and college. However, the seed was planted in her very early years.
"I can remember when I was about three or so, my father taking me into the surgery room with him, sitting me down with a box of donuts – and I just sat there and watched him do the surgery," said Eaton. "I didn't really start working as his technician until I was about 13, but I assisted in many surgeries over the years, until my father retired a few years ago."
Eaton said that her initial plan was to become a zoo veterinarian, but these plans changed when she entered veterinary school at Washington State University, and discovered other options such as pathology, orthopedic surgery and laboratory animal research. It was during this time when she realized that a military career could augment her future plans as well.
"Between my sophomore and junior year of vet school, I served as an Ensign in the U.S. Public Health Service at the National Institutes of Health, within the veterinary pathology department, and I discovered that I enjoyed working for the government," said Eaton. "During my senior year of veterinary school, I was able to complete externships at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Foreign Animal Disease Center at Plum Island and at an animal research laboratory at the University of Washington."
While working at the NIH, Eaton began to recognize that the structure of the uniformed services appealed to her, and she investigated opportunities within the Army and Air Force. She eventually joined the Air Force because it offered interesting avenues for work in epidemiology and public health. However, a short three-year tour became a career commitment, and Eaton now plans to remain in uniform for at least five more years, which would take her to the 20-year retirement point.
Interestingly, her extended obligation grew from her love of education and, as she puts it, her role as a "professional student." Eaton takes advantage of the educational opportunities provided through the military, and her academic resume is unquestionably impressive.
"I completed my undergraduate work in Bioveterinary Sciences at Utah State University, and then went on to Washington State University for my DVM [Doctor of Veterinary Medicine] degree," said Eaton. "Through the Air Force, I was able to complete a master's in Public Health from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in 2004, and a doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. This month, I will graduate from Florida State University with a master's degree in Library and Information Sciences."
Eaton is also board certified through the American College of Veterinary Preventive Medicine, and certified in Public Health; this past September, she completed the requirements for her Project Management Professional certification.
Again, this is impressive, without a doubt – but the most remarkable aspect may be that, for the past 15 years, she has completed all of her degree coursework while serving full-time as an Air Force officer, which is no minor task.
In her current role as deputy project manager for the TIRM PMO, Eaton oversees daily management of the office while also supporting the administrative staff, the project manager Kristy Pottol, and the entire team. In addition to these duties, she is also dual-hatted as the Chief of Advanced Development for the Air Force Medical Support Agency, which includes managing AFMSA's advanced development portfolio.
Pottol clearly recognizes the talents of Eaton, and her great contribution to the TIRM PMO team.
Said Pottol, "Lt. Col. Melinda Eaton is one of those rare officers willing to rapidly learn, execute and take on a leadership role, all the while staying sensitive to the needs of the team and our stakeholders. In one big leap, she jumped into regenerative medicine technologies, product development and Army processes, and she has continued to soar.
"I rely on her to act as the project manager in my absence, and to ensure we meet our business metrics," continued Pottol. "Her ability to work towards 'yes' when asked to complete an impossible task is commendable. The TIRM PMO is blessed and grateful to have Lt. Col. Eaton on our team."
Eaton's tour at USAMMDA, which is a subordinate command of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command under the U.S. Army Medical Command, began when she was selected as the first Advanced Development Fellow in August 2015, working closely with her mentor Pottol. The assignment offered her in-depth training regarding the acquisition process, which Eaton intends to use to help design the research, acquisition and development pathway for medical career fields in the Air Force.
As she explains, "My goal is to help build a career pathway for officers that allow them to stay within the research and development environment so they may hone their skills, as well as find leadership opportunities. I would like to help support senior Air Force leaders in building a solid pathway for junior officers to follow."
When asked to clarify this a bit, Eaton explained that the Air Force currently has a designated command pathway for career advancement and promotion, which involves clinical work and leadership training for commanders at various levels. However, no direct pathway exists for research careers.
"Because there is no true research pathway, one has to bounce back and forth between research and clinical work to be promoted," said Eaton. "In my case, I would have to leave research and become a squadron commander for two years to work towards a promotion to Colonel."
Eaton truly hopes to promote change in this area, and she believes this may come in the not-too-distant future. Although this issue remains a current hot topic for her, she is also looking forward to accomplishing future goals as well – such as those that will come after her military service.
"Although I've enjoyed my veterinary work over the years, I really would like to continue my connection with academia after I retire from the military," said Eaton. "I really like libraries – I like books, and I like knowledge. In fact, I've thought about completing a doctorate in Library Science, but it would have to be in residence, so this would have to wait until I finish my Air Force career.
"I really hope to find a position as a medical librarian at a medical school someday. I would love to work with young researchers and help them figure out what they would like to do in their careers. And I really enjoy teaching as well, so this could be another possibility for me down the road."
Is that all?
Not for someone like Eaton.
"Actually, I've thought about learning a language as well," she offered. "I love Italy, so I really would like to learn Italian."
In between all of her responsibilities, Eaton finds time for running, reading and collecting books, volunteering at church and within her community, as well as the National Museum of Health and Medicine – I'm not sure how she does it all, but I am genuinely amazed.
Quite honestly, the energy displayed by Eaton makes me feel a bit lacking; but her positive and upbeat attitude is what draws people towards her, and helps garner the respect she receives from others.
While Eaton's connection with veterinary medicine may have grown out of a close connection with her father, many would agree this bond certainly provided the impetus that has shaped an outstanding career for a remarkable individual.
It seems that box of donuts provided quite a return on investment.