Former White House physician follows dusty path to Iraq
June 11, 2010
<b>CONTINGENCY OPERATING SITE MAREZ, Iraq</b> - It's a long way from the hallowed walls of the White House to the dusty environs of northern Iraq, and for Col. Daniel Parks, the 26th Base Support Battalion surgeon, it was one wild ride.
From September 2001 to March 2009, this Canton, Mass., resident served as one of the six White House physicians for U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barrack Obama.
Quiet and professional, Col. Parks recently received the Defense Superior Service Medal for his duties as a White House physician in a ceremony with the 26th Base Support Battalion, 2nd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division, in Mosul, Iraq.
Colonel Parks said he was actually getting ready to leave the military to work in the civilian medical sector when he was nominated by the Chief of the Army Medical Corps to serve as a White House physician.
With six White House physicians on the staff at any one time - two from the Army, two from the Navy and two from the Air Force - the Army Medical Branch nominates six physicians. This list, in turn, is scoured by the Department of the Army and then passed along to the White House, who selects three personnel for interviews.
Those selectees underwent three days of interviews at the White House and the following day, Col. Parks received the phone call stating the job was his.
"I was totally excited," he said. "I mean, this was an opportunity of a lifetime."
Colonel Parks said he had very few expectations about the job.
"I heard very little about the position beforehand. I only knew it would be a different type of job with lots of travel, lots of medical contingencies."
Despite a rather ominous start - his first day of work was Sept. 11, 2001 - he quickly learned the ropes. After undergoing Emergency Medical training and Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training, he began working side-by-side with the Secret Service, the Marine One air squadron and the Air Force One air crews.
There's a physician and nurse within two minutes of the president at all times and a physician or physician's assistant with the vice president at all times. It's the responsibility of every medical responder to keep the president and vice president alive until they can reach a medical center or medical trauma center.
"We were a big medical team, approximately 25-26 people strong. We worked very closely with each other, with the Secret Service, and with the military for protection of the president," said Col. Parks. "There wasn't ever any one individual or anyone who was a superstar on this job - they wouldn't have lasted long, if they were. Our motto was, 'You need to be invisible but available.'"
Part of their mission also consisted of acute care for the president, the vice president and their Families, also the Secret Service, whether on the road or in the White House complex.
"Basically, we were a small, special operations unit of silent professionals," said Col. Parks. "We had a mission to do, and we did it."
While the position had its benefits, by the same token, the hardest part had to be the time spent away from home, he said.
"I was away for two- to two-and-a-half weeks a month. It was a 24/7 job and I was always on my Blackberry, or watching the TV news. If there was a tornado in the Midwest, we would have had to start planning on how to move assets there in case of an impromptu visit by the president.
"Anytime we travel, our mission was to coordinate a contingency plan for anything that could happen," he said. "We had to have every possible medical plan in place, no matter where the president or vice president was."
While the position was normally a three-year tour, he was asked to extend by President Bush's administration, and then he assisted with the transition of President Obama's administration.
Once the transition was completed, he began duties at the Pentagon Flight Medical Clinic, where he served as the Army flight surgeon. However, within three months of Pentagon duty he received orders to the 26th BSB, 2nd HBCT, to serve as their battalion surgeon.
Colonel Parks deployed to Mosul, Iraq, with the unit. However, he will redeploy this summer to continue his duties at the Pentagon.
Besides retirement in another two years, Col. Parks said he has no idea what he "wants to do when (he) grow(s) up." He said he'll probably stay in the D.C. area, as he has three children in Maryland - twins, a boy and girl who are 15 and another daughter, age 12.
Until then, he will reflect on one the most memorable positions anyone could serve in. "One of the coolest things is being able to see the workings of the executive branch of government from the inside," Col. Parks said. "Imagine the opportunity to see it in action from a war-time perspective, from the initiation of the war-time action, to today."
During his eight years of White House service, he traveled to every continent of the world, with the exception of Antarctica, as well as 43 countries, including three trips to Iraq and two to Afghanistan.
"I've also had the opportunity to meet other world leaders and to meet their medical personnel," said Col. Parks. "It was a great opportunity to travel the world and see medical systems and hospitals worldwide, from Beijing, Liberia, Rwanda, Thailand, France, and Guatemala and to see the different systems, the different cultures. They were very educational assignments."
Colonel Parks added that he was the duty physician, or the doctor assigned to the close proximity of the president, when they had arrived in Shanghai for the Asian Pacific Economic Conference.
"I was in the elevator with the president, Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. To be a fly on the wall in the back of that elevator, with that much power, was simply awe-inspiring," he said.
Would he do it again'
"In a heartbeat," Col. Parks said. "We worked hard and it was a very rewarding experience. The people there were top notch, cream of the crop and it was a no-defect environment. It was truly mission first, people always."
A 23-year military veteran, Col. Parks began his military career when he received his commission in 1986, following graduation from the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Suffolk University in Boston, Mass. After earning a Biology degree, he then served in the Medical Service Corps in the Army Reserve.
In 1988 he entered the active duty Army, as he began further medical training at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Md. He earned his medical degree through the Department of Defense School, graduating in 1992.
As a Family medicine practitioner, he then was transferred to the Womack Army Medical Center in Fort Bragg, N.C, as part of the Internship and Residency program.
After serving as the staff physician at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., Col. Parks returned to Womack. It was there he received his nomination to the White House from the Chief of the Army Medical Corps branch.