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NEWS | May 1, 2008

Retiring 12th MDG CC cared for Airmen he led, brought out the best in "Warrior Medics"

By David DeKunder Staff writer

Randolph's top medical leader is undertaking a new challenge after a 26-year Air Force career that took him from a psychiatric nurse to a group commander. 

Col. Paul Bennett, 12th Medical Group commander, retires May 2 after two years at Randolph. As the medical group commander, Colonel Bennett oversaw 350 personnel that served 24,000 patients, from active-duty servicemembers and Department of Defense civilians to military retirees at the Randolph Medical Clinic. 

Although he will be retiring from the military, Colonel Bennett will be moving to Corpus Christi to become an inspector for the Accreditation Association for Ambulatory Healthcare, which certifies clinics and hospitals that meet basic medical standards. 

During his Air Force career, Colonel Bennett worked as a psychiatric nurse, a nurse administrator at three installations, a NATO medical planner in Turkey, a United Nations military observer in North Africa, the medical squadron commander at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla. and an Air Force Inspector General inspecting base hospitals worldwide. 

Colonel Bennett began his military career in 1968 when he enlisted in the Army, serving as a military police investigator for five years. When he got out of the Army, Colonel Bennett became a police officer in Verena, N.J., for five years while also serving in the Army Reserve. 

While he was working in law enforcement, Colonel Bennett said he decided that his desire to help people could be better served by working in another profession - psychiatric nursing. 

"I began to ask myself what I wanted to do for the next 20 years," he said. "I liked working with people and my mother, father and sister were nurses. While I was in the Army and working as a police officer, I interacted with people who had a lot of issues to deal with. I thought I could be a component in helping them get better. I thought I could make a difference." 

After completing nursing school in New Jersey in 1980, Colonel Bennett became a nurse at a psychiatric hospital in Cedar Grove, N. J. He joined the Air Force in 1982 and was first assigned to Sheppard Air Force Base, in Wichita Falls, Texas, as a psychiatric nurse at the installation's hospital. 

His experience working at Sheppard with Airmen who had depression, thoughts of suicide, schizophrenia and alcohol and drug abuse problems taught him how patients and medical staff members could perform under pressure. 

"I saw quite a bit there," he said. "I learned that if you told people that you wanted something done and not tell them how to do it, they will surprise you with their performance." 

Colonel Bennett was put into stressful situations where his expertise in psychiatric medicine was needed. He was sent to England during the first Gulf War to treat servicemembers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and in 1996 to Saudi Arabia to counsel Airmen who went through the Khobar Towers bombing, which killed 19 Air Force servicemembers. 

During his time at Randolph, Colonel Bennett instituted the "Warrior Medic" concept to his staff, which emphasized to base medical personnel that they were Airmen first and medics second with the primary focus of serving the needs of active-duty personnel better. 

Part of that "Warrior Medic" philosophy was to make the base clinic a tobacco- free campus to encourage Airmen to live better, healthier lifestyles, the colonel said. 

"We instilled a little of the warrior ethos to help us accomplish our mission, which is to be mentally, physically and spiritually fit," Colonel Bennett said. "What has given me the most pleasure is to watch my Airmen grow in those areas. If you take care of Airmen, they will carry on the mission. My staff did a good job of that while I was here." 

Lt. Col. Marissa Koch, 12th MDG chief nurse, said Colonel Bennett improved morale at the base by getting to know each of the medical staff members and trusting their instincts and knowledge. 

"He created the environment of the medic warrior, an excitement of being part of this group," Colonel Koch said. "He was a walk-around commander and made the effort everyday to see everyone. As a commander, he allowed you to be creative in terms of ideas and how to lead. He mentored squadron leaders so that they could be effective."