What happens when a middle-aged female psychiatrist decides to
join the U.S. Army?
Does she come close to failing the grueling physical endurance
test that is basic training? Does she encounter fire during deployment? Does
she win a Bronze Star medal?
In the case of Rebecca Tomsyck, M.D.,
it was all three.
Tomsyck was born and raised in South
Carolina, one of seven children of an old-fashioned country doctor who made
house calls and carried his equipment in a black medical bag. He inspired her
to become a pediatrician as well as a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and
she was in private psychiatric practice in Charlotte, N.C., for almost 20
Then in 2005, at age 53, she decided that she wanted to join the
U.S. Army for two reasons: She had always been a patriot and felt called to
serve, she said, and she and her husband wanted to live in Europe. She managed
to work out a contract with the Army that would grant her the rank of
lieutenant colonel and assign her to the Army post in Heidelberg, Germany.
She started active duty in September 2005. She had to take the
Army's three-month Officer Basic Course at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, which was
incredibly difficult for her, she admitted.
"It was 104 degrees, and I am not a physical-workout person. But
I had to get in shape to pass a physical-fitness test. I also had to learn how
to put on gear and to use a weapon. However, some of the younger men and women
coming in and commissioning with me were extremely helpful. As one of them put
it, 'Ma'am, you're older than my mother. If she were doing this, I would hope
that someone would help her.'"
In December 2005, she was sent to the Army post in Heidelberg to
work as chief of child and adolescent psychiatric services. In addition, she
had to learn Army lingo, Army rules, and use of electronic medical records.
"When I joined the Army, I could Google and e-mail, but that was about it," she
In December 2006, she was sent to Fort Bliss, Texas, where she
got geared up, received more training, and was issued a weapon—a 9-mm pistol.
She was then flown to Kuwait and told to "get on the manifest and call
Catfish." "What is a manifest, and who the heck is
Catfish?" she asked herself. "Catfish," she said, "turned out to be a small civilian
in-theater air transport. I had to use it to find my own way from Kuwait to
During her six months in Iraq, she worked with a combat stress
control unit, and she and her colleagues diagnosed and treated soldiers for
various psychiatric conditions. "Many of the problems I dealt with were the
same as those that psychiatrists in a civilian environment see," she said.
"It's just that some of the issues arose from soldiers being separated from
She returned to Heidelberg in June 2007 and worked three more
years there—this time as chief of behavioral health services—and was promoted
to the rank of colonel in October 2009. Then in July 2010 she was deployed to
She was stationed at an Air Force
trauma hospital at Bagram Air Field where
anesthesiologists and surgeons worked around the clock, and where she and her
clinic staff saw inpatients, outpatients, and emergency room patients for
various psychiatric conditions. One day the commander called her into his
office and said that he wanted to make her the commander of an Air Force combat
operational stress control detachment.
"It was with some anxiety that
I took that position," she said, "because even though I knew a lot about
psychiatry, and even though I knew something about the Army, I knew nothing
about the Air Force." But she held that position until the end of her
deployment in Afghanistan last January.
And during these months, she and her staff helped not only
soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines, but also the 300 or so staff members of
the trauma hospital deal with all sorts of challenges—anxiety, depression,
marital problems, financial problems, sleep issues, suicidality.
In addition, she reviewed the paperwork when service members had to be
evacuated out of her command area for psychiatric reasons.
She acknowledged that she faced multiple dangers while in Iraq
and Afghanistan. "In Iraq, there was a lot of mortaring and shooting, and once
I hid under a jeep to escape mortars."
The months in Iraq and
Afghanistan also meant nonstop work for her and her staff—"seven days a week
from 8 a.m. until we were through"—as well as sleep deprivation in Afghanistan
since they lived near runways where jets and helicopters were constantly taking
off and landing. "Your unconscious mind—this is the psychiatrist in me coming
out—never lets down its guard because it has to protect you. It's in survival
mode." But she found the work incredibly gratifying, she said.
Finally, this summer, while back in Heidelberg, she learned that
she had been awarded a Bronze Star. It was for meritorious service while
serving as a hand-picked Army commander of an Air Force combat operational
stress control detachment in Afghanistan.
"I was shocked," she said,
"because, in my mind, a Bronze Star is for heroes. I wasn't a hero; I was just
doing my job." In any event, she emphasized, "I tell people that my Bronze Star
wasn't an individual award, but a team award. I couldn't have received it if it
hadn't been for all the wonderful people under my command and all the things
they did under my leadership."
Actually, when Tomsyck signed up with
the Army, her contract was for four years of active duty and four years of
Reserve. But she then extended the four-year Reserve time to four-year active
duty time. So by the end of 2013, she will have been on active duty for eight
years. She then plans to stay two more years in the Army, to 2015, when she is
63. During the next two years, she knows that she'll be serving in Germany, but
after that, she's not sure where she will be.
If Tomsyck had to do it over
again, would she have joined the Army? "In a skinny minute," she said. "I guess
I have to say that I had the guts to walk through the door. But I feel fortunate
and blessed to have been given this opportunity."