Currently stationed near Fairbanks, Alaska, Col. Matt Ramage, M.D., has many unforgettable souvenirs from his career of service
by AMBER SMITH ZALINSKI
Not many people can tell you about the time they rang in the New Year around a bonfire on top of a frozen lake in Alaska while the green lights of Aurora Borealis danced across the sky in the background. Even fewer people, perhaps, can give you a first person account of standing at the South Pole in -40 degrees, or of walking the island of Tinian outside of Guam in the same sand where the Enola Gay was loaded. For Hooks, Texas, native Lieutenant Colonel Matt Ramage, M.D., a Flight Surgeon in the United States Air Force, these experiences and countless others are unforgettable souvenirs from a career of service that has carried him around the world.
Currently stationed near Fairbanks, Alaska, with his wife, Tiffany, and children, William and Reagan, Matt is the Chief Flight Surgeon and Chief of Aerospace Medicine at Eielson Air Force Base. “I often get asked if I perform surgery in planes,” he said. It’s not a terrible question, but Matt explained that the historical term “surgeon” predates the Civil War and describes any physician embedded in a military unit. “To become a Flight Surgeon, you must first be a physician, and then the Air Force sends you to additional training to earn your wings.”
His duties are far-ranging – just short of actual surgery in an airplane it seems. “As the primary care physician for pilots, special duty members, and their families, I see clinic as a normal Family Physician would, but at any moment I can be called to the flightline to respond to an inflight emergency.” He is also the medical director in charge of food inspection and sanitation on base, serves as the epidemiologist charged with identifying and containing disease outbreaks when they happen, and the “team doctor” embedded within the flying unit responsible for ensuring fitness of duty in its pilots. “A flight surgeon must have a rapport with his or her unit to build a mutual trust; we are required to fly at least four hours a month with our assigned unit. Over my career, I’ve had the fortune of flying in a wide variety of aircraft: T-38, T-6, T-1, F-16, F-18, C-5, C-17, C-130, KC-135, and HH-60.”
Matt’s dedication to a calling has carried him far from the open fields and blue skies of his childhood home in East Texas. “Some of my best memories are on the farm,” Matt said. “I used to love walking through the corn rows and pumpkin fields, going to football games, and knowing everybody everywhere you went.” For as long as he can remember, Matt knew that he wanted to be a doctor. “The medicine bug probably hit me when my grandmother thought it would be funny to teach me anatomy words from the encyclopedia when I could barely talk. My grandfather was a veterinarian, so I got to see the value in a clinician.” Because he has always planned to return to the Hooks area eventually, Matt said he was drawn to family medicine rather than a subspecialty. “If you can imagine the cliche ‘black bag country doc,’ replace the black bag with a helmet bag, and you’ve got me.”
While Matt’s goal to become a physician was very clear, his path to achieving that goal was yet to be determined. A self-described history buff, Matt never considered himself a military guy but started giving it serious thought as he approached college. “My grandfather’s service in the Pacific theater started my interest and appreciation for military history,” he said. “Once I learned about the career of flight surgeon, a physician that has no real civilian equivalent, there was no holding me back.”
After high school, Matt went to Texas A&M like his father, both grandfathers, and many other family members and was the third generation of his family to join the Corps of Cadets at A&M. Upon graduation, Matt had a pending medical school application but was not yet accepted. He entered the Air Force as a Manpower Officer at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene, Texas, and three months later, received his medical school acceptance letter. “I was in a predicament. As my calling is to medicine, I presented a compelling case to the USAF, and in the summer of 2003 was transferred to the Medical Service Corps to complete medical school.”
From there, Matt’s career trajectory has been upward, in practically every way. It may be too easy to gloss over his accomplishments on paper and forget to consider the work and sacrifices that Matt and his family have invested over many years. He is quick to point out that his successes have not been a solo effort. Matt spent four years in medical school at The University of Texas Health
Science Center at Houston which reaffirmed his desire to work in primary care. “Somehow by the grace of God, wonderful friends, and the unwavering support of my wife and family, I made it through. Medical school was the most fun I never want to have again.”
The Ramages spent a few years in Florida when Matt was accepted into the combined Family Medicine/ Flight Medicine residency program which allowed for maximum learning opportunities and total dedication.
“I have been able to focus on my education and career because I knew that my amazing wife, Tiffany, had everything taken care of at home.” The next step was an assignment at Sheppard Air Force Base in the Euro- NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, a deployment to Afghanistan, and then a move to Ohio where Matt completed the NASA-sponsored Masters of Aerospace Medicine program and a second residency. This accumulated experience and expertise landed Matt at the McMurdo Base in Antarctica, at the only hospital to speak of for more than 2,000 miles. “The isolation forces you to be inventive and rely on skills that I would never have to use as a physician in the ‘real world.’”
At home in Alaska for now, Matt is grateful. “As I look back on my career, I feel a little like Forrest Gump, with history just happening all around me,” Matt said. “The Air Force has been very good to me. One opportunity has led to another.” Ultimately, Matt is reminded that a decision to join the military must be preceded by a calling to serve and defend your country. “One of the things I’m proudest of is having been a part of the lives of the heroes in the defense of our nation. It is an honor to help return a son, daughter, mother, or father back to their respective families. I am proud that my children have been exposed to a very large and diverse world, and I am so proud of how resilient and confident they are.”
While his service has taken him around the globe and afforded him opportunities far beyond the Bowie County lines, Dr. Matt Ramage is certain that his most cherished memories are always of returning home. In his 14 years of active duty, nearly two years have been “away” – a necessary hardship for military families. In the summer of 2020, the Ramage family is planning their last drive south to plant roots back at home in East Texas. “That feels really good,” Matt said. “More than anything, I’m thankful for my family. I’m thankful that no matter where in the world I go, they are waiting for me to return. I’m thankful for their service to our country as a military family.”