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Guarding the health of service members

James Coker focuses on protecting service member health every day as deputy chief of the Public Health Division at the Defense Health Agency. Here he is exploring a Mount Denali glacier “off the clock” while stationed in Alaska as a public health flight commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base. (Courtesy photo) James Coker focuses on protecting service member health every day as deputy chief of the Public Health Division at the Defense Health Agency. Here he is exploring a Mount Denali glacier “off the clock” while stationed in Alaska as a public health flight commander at Elmendorf Air Force Base. (Courtesy photo)

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FALLS CHURCH, Va. — James Coker began his career as a public health officer at Yokota Air Base, Japan. During a quarantine inspection of an aircraft infested with beetles, Coker collected samples for laboratory identification, where one turned out to be a previously unidentified beetle species. Today, that sample, named after the base, is part of the National Archives, and serves as a memory of Coker’s introduction to public health.

“Quarantining infested aircraft that arrive is a standard procedure that helps avoid introducing a foreign, invasive species that could affect the environment – for example, the brown tree snake in Guam or the coqui frog in Hawaii,” said Coker.

In his current role as deputy chief with the Defense Health Agency’s Public Health Division, Coker is still helping to protect the health of service members. Military, civilian, and contractor personnel in Public Health work together in six major areas: individual medical readiness and deployment health, immunizations, preventive health, occupational and environmental health, veterinary services, and the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Branch, which tracks disease around the world.

“Looking across the Military Health System, we identify ways to standardize health programs and find efficiencies,” said Coker. “One example is the optimized Department of Defense, Periodic Health Assessment. It incorporated a mandated annual mental health assessment,” he said. “Everyone across the services now answers the same questions. And, service members only have to make one appointment, which reduces time away from work.”

A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel after 23 years, Coker feels his military service prepared him well for his current duties with DHA.

“I enjoy working on disease outbreaks, emergency care and preparedness, and humanitarian relief activities,” said Coker. “Continuous learning and new discoveries are what make me most excited about my job. You definitely have to keep abreast of what’s happening around the world.”

Coker’s military service and personal travels have taken him through all 50 states and to more than 78 countries. It was in Germany where Coker took his first assignment as a newly enlisted Air Force aeromedical technician and began his love of travel and public health. He gave vaccinations to the flying population and others preparing to deploy for Operation Desert Storm.

In December 2001, Coker found himself stationed in Oman’s 101-degree weather. Soon after arriving, he moved on with an advanced reconnaissance team to a former Soviet state, trudging through snow up to his knees. He was part of the team that surveyed, secured, and then opened an air base at Manas Airport in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. The air base became a vital staging ground for the coalition effort in Afghanistan, both during Operation Enduring Freedom and then for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

“We lived in tents and used kerosene stoves – it was very cold there. In addition to ensuring force health protection, safety, and food supplies, we examined the site for any potential environmental issues. We looked to see if there were vaccines or other preventive requirements needed to protect our forces deploying to the area,” Coker said.

Whether using health surveillance to evaluate the effectiveness of the influenza immunization or advising on safe food practices, “we all have that common vision of protecting our forces,” Coker said. “We have some great people – intelligent physicians, scientists, and other professionals in the Public Health Division. We’ll continue working together with the services to synchronize and improve the future of military public health.”

As for Coker’s travel wish list, he says the world is a big place. “I could return to favorite places like Barcelona and Buenos Aires or return to Michigan to visit family. When I decide to retire for a second time, I want to continue exploring and living in new places where I haven’t been before.”

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