Interview With Becky Dunavent, Naval Reserve Captain

Malcolm Slight

Becky Dunavent worked at a computer in a dimly lit warehouse, the racket of industrial air conditioning filling the air as the unit tried to stave off the 100-plus degree heat and humidity of Haiti. Garbage was piled in one corner; a nearby white board showed the number of rats killed inside. Two weeks after an earthquake hit the Caribbean country in January 2010, Becky was arranging medical evacuations as part of her duties as a Navy Reserve officer.

“We were sent to manage patient movement, mainly Haitians originally. We did 22 missions with 115 patients. We had to work with immigration because if you take a Haitian out of the country without permission, it’s considered kidnapping,” the Benicia resident recalls. “I was there five weeks—a very long, busy five weeks.”

The stint in Haiti was her only deployment in a Navy Reserve career that started in 1987. For the past five years, she has specialized in moving military patients and Department of Defense beneficiaries from battlefields to hospitals.  That time included more than 3.5 years on active duty while based at Scott Air Force Base in Illinois. She earned the Defense Superior Service Medal—just one step below a Silver Star—for her work there.

In December, she switched gears and now is the reserve deputy surgeon for the Navy’s Pacific fleet. “Usually the surgeon is a doctor, but the deputy is medical and I’m medical service corps,” she explains.

She resigned her job as a science teacher at Benicia Middle School in March because of the demands of her current Navy Reserve assignment.  “It wasn’t going to be fair to the students or the school because I have to be gone so often,” she says.

Becky is a captain in the Reserve, one rank below rear admiral.  She and her husband, Tom, moved to Benicia in 1989 and raised their two sons here.

What led you to join the Navy Reserve? I was in working in immunology at Cedars-Sinai and when we moved to Sacramento, I couldn’t get a job.  I was too specialized. My dad had served in the Navy and had been in the Reserve, and he suggested I join so I could still work in a lab. He swore me in, and he pinned every rank on me until he died. I found out six weeks after he died that I was becoming a (captain).

You can get a direct commission into the Reserve based on what your degree is in, with the obligation that if you’re called up, you do what you are called to do.

How do your military career and teaching career work together? Working as a seventh-grade teacher turns out to be a great background for this type of work because you’re learning to communicate, learning to use things like Powerpoint to get your message across, teaching people to play well with others.

What agency oversees transports injured troops? USTRANSCOM  (U.S. Transportation Command) is like the UPS for the Department of Defense. We transport everything and work with all the commands. I was the director of the Global Patient Movement Requirements Center at TRANSCOM.

Patients are a very, very small portion of the work. On a busy day, there are about 1,200 Air Force missions, and patient movement might be 1 percent of that. It’s statistically dust, but you’d be surprised how quickly it can make you sneeze if things go wrong.

What is involved in arranging these medical evacuations? The individual services evacuate patients until you get to a point where the Air Force can fly in. The patients are not stable but stabilized. If there’s a critical patient, you can put an ICU in the air—it blows my mind what these folks can do.  If it’s my loved ones, they’re the ones I want taking care of them.

There are no devoted aircraft for patient movement in the world. All of these are called lifts of opportunity.  You’re calling up the Air Force, which is delivering beans or bullets to commanders in the field, and asking them to interrupt their mission. You have to make an assessment: Are you going to cause more casualties by not giving this commander what he needs? You want to make sure you don’t make things worse.  It was hard (tearing up).

As a wife, and as a mom and as a sister, we owe it to every man and woman out there to do all that we can. As long as we have men and women in harm’s way, I’ll do whatever I can. It’s an honor to do this.

Coming from the Navy Reserve, what did you learn about working with other branches of the military? Each service has its own culture. One day someone in the Air Force told me we were going to do LORs and I got excited and said, “Good. I love doing LORs.”

They were confused, and I said, “LORs—we’re talking about letters of recommendation, right?” That’s what LORs are in the Navy.

“Ma’am, we’re talking about letters of reprimand,” they said.

You can see just how quickly you can be misunderstood if you have the different branches at a meeting and everyone is using acronyms.

What are you doing in your new job as reserve deputy surgeon? I’ve been spending time getting familiar with the Pacific Theater and the various concerns there.

I spent seven weeks in Hawaii—I know, people tease me about that, but it is work. But, still, you are in Hawaii.  Every Sunday morning, I woke up and thought about Pearl Harbor. … I will spend four more weeks there by mid-July.

I’m also doing more training, finishing up a 40-week school with the Advanced Joint Professional Military Education program.

In the surgeon’s office, we work on everything from goodwill visits to helping out when you have something like the tsunami that hit Japan. Every other year, we take our hospital ships out to other countries like Vietnam and Micronesia on goodwill visits. We’re getting ready for next year’s tour and our office will be doing all the logistics work for the medical piece. It’s a big Department of State thing, a big political thing.

What are the transitions like as you move from home to your military duties? Going from the civilian to the military world and back is hard. You get used to acronyms. In the military, if I ask someone of a lower rank to do something, unless it was illegal or immoral, they had to do it.

Being in both worlds gives me more opportunity to talk to people and to educate people. The military is more than defending the country. There’s also humanitarian work.

One of the reasons I was successful in the Reserve was that I was able to sit back and ask why we do what we do sometimes. It’s taught me a lot about sitting back and observing and listening and not being quick to judge.

What do you miss about your Reserve job when you’re home? I miss the daily interaction, knowing what’s happening, not being in the middle of it.

What do you miss about home when you’re away? Just the simple things: asking how was your day, going to the kids’ soccer games, being able to have some down time because when you’re on call 24/7, even when you’re on leave, you don’t get enough of that.

Over the years, I missed birthdays, I missed holidays, I missed the day-to-day life here, things like the 4th of July parade, the fireworks, Christmas on First Street, the wildflowers, California weather.

What do you hope to be doing with the Reserve in five years? I would like to train new officers, to help them learn some of the things I’ve learned in the past five years. I’d like to be mentoring brand-new officers in direct commission into the Reserve like myself so when the next things happen, we’re prepared.

What about five years from now in your personal life? My husband is retired and I look forward to taking rides with him in his sports car. I look forward to spending time with my family and treasuring them because I spend a lot of time away.

Would you go into active duty again? If they ask, they need me, and that’s why I’m in the Reserve.

What motivates you to do what you do? Living in this country is a gift that’s not to be taken for granted. Not everybody can do the military and I know that. But we all serve in our own way, whether it means raising productive people in the world or whatever else we do, we all need to step up at some point in some way.