Guardian of the Ice: Utah Air National Guard Flight Surgeon's Antarctic Odyssey

  • Published
  • By TSgt Nicholas Perez
  • 151st Wing

Lt Col Leslie Rassner, physician with the 151st Medical Group, Utah Air National Guard, recently concluded an inspiring mission as the Air Force flight surgeon for Antarctica during Operation Deep Freeze 2023-2024. Her journey, marked by dedication, challenges, and profound impacts, exemplifies the Guard's commitment to global service.

Lt. Col. Rassner's military career, spurred by her initial nine years as a Navy physician, commenced a surprising resurgence after eight years of civilian life in Utah. Inspired by a mentor's successful transition to the Air National Guard, she found a harmonious blend of family life and military service, reflecting the Guard's core values.

"I am so happy to have found a place in the military that keeps my family in Utah but allows me to continue to serve locally and internationally as a military physician," said Lt. Col. Rassner.

Her Antarctic odyssey began after watching an IMAX movie with her family, setting a goal that led to her securing one of three coveted spots as a flight surgeon augmented for the 2023-2024 mission.

Assigned to the McMurdo Station clinic, Lt. Col. Rassner played a pivotal role in providing medical care for around 850 civilians and 100 military members. Her responsibilities extended to overseeing flight medicine care, collaborating with a civilian medical team, and supervising aeromedical evacuations.

"In Antarctica, we are not just providing medical care but supporting the ultimate pack-it-out group camping trip. My medical duties allowed civilians and military personnel to receive excellent medical care and, when necessary, to be safely evacuated to the necessary level of care," emphasized Lt Col Rassner.

The challenges faced in Antarctica, from remote medical facilities to the urgency of medevacs, showcased the complexity of her role. Lt. Col. Rassner's commitment to advancing Antarctic military flight medicine became particularly evident during a distinctive incident at 10,000 feet.

Dr. Rassner’s subsequent proposal introduced a groundbreaking approach to ground testing and treatment for altitude sickness, emphasizing the utilization of existing documents—a practice not currently in place.

Praising the supportive community in Antarctica, she drew parallels between her work there and her urgent care role in Utah. Despite a demanding schedule, Lt. Col. Rassner highlighted the camaraderie and interconnectedness among station residents. Memorable encounters with the environment, including a polar plunge and a close encounter with Weddell seals, added depth to her Antarctic experience.

Reflecting on profound moments, such as a transformative experience during a Jewish Shabbat service, Lt. Col. Rassner expressed a newfound sense of purpose and appreciation for her life, carrying this perspective into her role as a physician and colleague.

The Utah Air National Guard recognizes the crucial contributions made during missions like these, as Lt. Col. Rassner's medical duties align directly with the broader goals of the US Antarctic Program. The Guard continues its commitment to global service, ensuring the health and safety of military personnel and civilians in challenging environments.

In sharing her advice, Lt. Col. Rassner emphasized the importance of facing challenges, acquiring necessary skills, and maintaining communication with teams back in the States. Her resounding advice to fellow medical professionals considering similar missions: "Do it!"

Lt. Col. Rassner's Antarctic journey is a testament to the dedication and adaptability of military physicians, showcasing the Utah Air National Guard's commitment to excellence in global service and the pursuit of knowledge. This extraordinary mission strengthens military capabilities and fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation among civilians for the challenges faced in the name of service and exploration.