Jonathan Vinson ’93, a flight surgeon with the Air National Guard, applied for Operation Deep Freeze five years in a row. In December, he was finally deployed. He flew from Portland, Ore., to Christchurch, New Zealand, where he met the flight nurse and aeromedical evacuation technician he would be teamed with for the next six weeks. They received their “extreme cold weather” gear and stocked up on “freshies” (fruit and other perishable food) to bring to the team they would be replacing. They boarded a cargo plane, where Vinson asked the crew, “How do you navigate at the bottom of the planet where lines of longitude converge and GPS works poorly? How do you land when everything is white and terrain features are barely discernible?”
Nine hours later, they did land—at McMurdo Station on the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica. “I had envisioned a barren sheet of ice—which is exactly what the South Pole looks like—but the geography near the ice shelf is far more varied,” Vinson says. “Mountain ranges, sea ice and an active volcano, Mount Erebus, make for spectacular scenery.”
Operation Deep Freeze “encompasses all of the military airlift and logistical support for the National Science Foundation’s research operations at McMurdo Station and the South Pole Station,” Vinson says. Scientists gather on Antarctica to study marine life, climate, fossils, neutrino physics and more, and they offer lectures and lab tours to anyone on the station.
At home in Portland, Vinson is a family physician. When deployed as a flight surgeon, his duty is the care of military aviation personnel—“basically all things having to do with occupational medicine and safety for airmen and their families.”
So what does this entail on an industrial work station surrounded by ice and ocean and supplied by a massive cargo ship?
“The medicine at McMurdo is 99.9 percent routine primary care and 0.1 percent horrifying trauma,” he says. “I was thankful that we didn’t face a mass casualty during my tenure. That said, on my third day on station, a boiler exploded, shearing its door off the hinges and blowing a worker back 6 feet through an open door.” The man sustained relatively minor wounds, but he did have to be evacuated to Christchurch.
And then there was the evacuation of a Chinese national who fell ill aboard one of New Zealand’s Antarctic research vessels. “Layers of medical, logistical and political complexity made that one delicate!” the doctor says.
Vinson did active duty in the U.S. Air Force from 2002 to 2005, attracted by the promise of access to mentors and financial support during his medical residency. He describes himself as “a somewhat atypical vet: guardsman, noncombatant, politically left-leaning, not from a military family.” Since joining the Air National Guard part-time in 2008, he has been sent to the Middle East, the United Kingdom, Japan, Sri Lanka and various locations stateside. He saw Antarctica as a true “bucket list” opportunity.
“The places I’d like to go are too many to list,” he says when asked what’s next for him. “We’ll see where I might be needed in 2019.”