Bathalon says goodbye to USARIEM
August 9, 2012
NATICK, Mass. -- Thirty years can pass quickly when you have been blessed to do something you love.
Just ask Col. Gaston Bathalon, who will put the finishing touches on his three-decade Army career Aug. 24, the date he relinquishes command of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine at Natick Soldier Systems Center. He wound up far removed from his original plan to serve four years and shift into the civilian world.
"This is not something that I would have ever expected for me to do, ever," said Bathalon of his USARIEM command. "This was not on my radar screen."
Neither was a long Army career, but that changed.
"I liked the idea of being in the Army -- as simple as that," Bathalon said. "I really liked wearing the uniform."
Bathalon always wore it well, especially at USARIEM, whose mission is to "optimize war fighter health and performance through medical research." Bathalon came to the institute in 1998 and was at the helm during its 50th anniversary celebration in June 2011.
"Working with the support and the research staff here, the civilians, the military, it's just been phenomenal," Bathalon said. "They've watched me grow. The list of people in this building and the important research they conduct to support today's Soldier is remarkable. It's a great place."
The Troy, Vt., native took over as the 18th USARIEM commander July 9, 2010, from Col. Kevin Keenan. Prior to that, Bathalon served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom as the U.S. Central Command's human protections administrator on the Joint Combat Casualty Research Team.
"I was able in my deployment to see the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters," Bathalon said. "I will never, ever … forget the mass-casualty events. The hospital staff was called in for an 'all hands on deck' approach. Everyone lended support where they could. You just never forget that."
The "Angel Flights" also left Bathalon with indelible memories.
"Angel Flights were for Soldiers who had died as a result of being in combat. We honored the fallen by saluting and escorting them to a waiting helicopter that began their return trip home," Bathalon said. "It's very, very clear how Soldiers honored those who (made) the ultimate sacrifice."
Bathalon's own deployment ended by medevac after he lost consciousness several times on Christmas Eve, 2009. A rare gastrointestinal stromal tumor had burst in his stomach, and he lost seven liters of blood.
"There were people that were much worse off than me," Bathalon said. "I'm certainly not comparing myself to them."
Bathalon gained a patient's appreciation for the deployed medical personnel, however.
"I will tell you that the medical personnel who man these (combat support) hospitals are just tops," Bathalon said. "They carry you, literally and figuratively."
Those deployment experiences changed Bathalon's approach to command. When he moved into his office at USARIEM, he brought with him two "Quilts of Valor" made by volunteers and a backpack that the USO had given to him while assigned to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center's Warrior Transition Unit.
"I've tried to take care of Soldiers and what they have wanted to do to improve themselves," Bathalon said. "We have had a number of Soldiers go from enlisted to the officer ranks. Some changed their MOSs. We've had a number who wanted to deploy that got to deploy. Important to me is that I've never turned down the opportunity for someone from USARIEM to deploy."
Bathalon was every bit as attentive to his civilian staff. Each USARIEM civilian who has retired during his tenure has received an American flag that flew over NSSC.
"They've served their country honorably," Bathalon said. "They're wearing a civilian uniform, but still serving their country, so why wouldn't it mean a lot?"
Bathalon had made his mark on USARIEM long before taking over as its commander. He had been its deputy commander and had established the Military Weight Management Program while assigned to its Military Nutrition Division.
"In fact, the latter part of my career -- I'd say for the last 10 years, maybe more -- I've been the subject matter expert for the Pentagon, Army G-1, on Army weight control program policy," Bathalon said.
After graduating from the University of Vermont in 1982 with a degree in human nutrition and foods, Bathalon accepted a direct commission into the Army Medical Specialist Corps. He went on to earn a master of science in human nutrition sciences and a doctor of philosophy in human nutrition sciences, both from Tufts University -- not bad for a guy who, through sixth grade, attended a two-room schoolhouse not far from the Canadian border.
"My brother and I didn't speak a word of English when we started school, and I remember how difficult it was," said Bathalon, whose Canadian-born mother, Rolande, spoke almost no English. "The deal was we would teach her the English that we learned in school. Mom would talk to us in French, and instead of replying in French, we would reply in English."
Bathalon and his wife, Rose, will return to Troy. The father of four plans to take time off with family before finding his next calling. In fact, the Bathalons are soon-to-be grandparents. Their daughter, Emilie, and her husband, Joshua, are expecting a child in October.
His immediate plans include remodeling the house that he helped his parents build in 1978 and in which his mother still lives. A certified ski instructor, Bathalon will teach ski lessons during the upcoming winter season at nearby Jay Peak, where he worked before joining the Army.
"I'll be a full-time ski instructor," said Bathalon, "something that I have been wanting to do for a long time."
And as he navigates the slopes in Vermont's "Northeast Kingdom," Bathalon will be able to look back on 30 years of honorable service to the nation.
"I'm OK with this exit," said Bathalon, smiling. "I'm looking forward to the opportunities that await us in Vermont."