As a public health officer in the United States Air Force, Janice recently completed a year-long “hardship” tour at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. She is now stationed in Okinawa, Japan, and her military career has also included a six month tour in Afghanistan during which she assessed every medical station. Janice discusses the importance of fasting and prayer in her work, and the meaningful role of the Church in her service career.
Was the military part of your background growing up?
Not at all. My joining the military was one of those times where we feel like the Lord wants to direct our lives, and we’re willing but often think, “No, that’s not for me.” I had always been interested in the military growing up. I loved TV shows like “M*A*S*H*” and in high school I even talked to my mother about joining the military, but I think her exact words were, “Over my dead body.”
I had a scholarship to BYU, so I didn’t need the military to get my education. I got my bachelor’s in microbiology and originally planned on doing the pre-med route, but I felt being a doctor would take too much time, and I wouldn’t be able to be with my family that much. So I changed career goals and went into the medical laboratory. While I was in the military, I got my master’s in Public Health.
Listening to my mother, I felt joining the military was not the right thing for an LDS woman to do. After coming home from my mission, I started working in a lab, and kept having these experiences where I felt like I was in limbo, like I wasn’t doing what I was supposed to be doing. Other times I drove by a recruiting station and could not shake the feeling, “I need to talk to him.” Then 9/11 hit. I was 26 at the time, and I still wanted to honor my mother’s wishes, but once that door opened, I immediately called a recruiter and started the process. I think the Lord really guided me in commissioning with the Air Force. With my personality, now I know that I am happier in the Air Force than I would be in the other services.
What aspects of the military appealed to you and fit your personality?
Being part of a broader cause and being able to help and defend our freedom. I love the discipline of the military and not necessarily having to think about what I wear. I like to do things by the book. I’m more of an obedient person versus a creative person, so in a way I take comfort in knowing that I’m doing what’s right because I’m following the proper regulations. Even with the Church, I know I’m supposed to pay my tithing so I feel more comfortable.
What does your position as a public health officer with the Air Force entail?
I joined in 2002 and spent four years as a personnel officer. In 2007, I converted over after earning my master’s degree in generalized Public Health, which is more the educational model. I often tell people my job is to teach the Word of Wisdom and the law of chastity, but there is a lot of disaster and emergency preparedness as well.
Right now I’m a part of what’s called a “flight.” The basic unit of the Air Force is a squadron, and a flight falls under a squadron. My flight is made up of public health technicians where we make sure groups are following approved health and safety guidelines. We have a community health section to monitor any reportable diseases within the Air Force, most of which are contagious or sexually transmitted. We monitor those who have a positive skin test for tuberculosis and keep track of the increase in influenza cases, or if there’s an outbreak of food-borne illness, we monitor that and hopefully try to stop it. Another section monitors occupational exposure. For instance, with our airmen that are working on the flightline with airplanes or are exposed to chemicals, we make sure that they get the appropriate tests, that they’re not overexposed, and that they’re using their protective gear. We also have a deployment section so anyone who is deployed comes to our office, and we make sure they have all the appropriate vaccines. If malaria is in the area, then we make sure that they get medication to help protect them. We provide them information on what animals and poisonous plants they can find in the area.
We also travel to other areas of the world in a program called Subject Matter Expert Exchanges. Earlier this year, I went to the Philippines where I was matched up with Filipino counterparts, both military and civilian, and we talked about what problems they’re seeing in the Philippines. I actually trained a lot of them on how to do proper food inspections, because many of the diseases you see in these countries are either water or food-borne. We teach them how to cook their food properly and how to maintain it.
You are married. At what point did you meet your husband?
I met him online in 2004, so I was already in the military. He was living in Colorado at the time, and I was stationed in Florida. I would come home from work and call him and we would just talk about the day. We weren’t necessarily dating, we were just chatting with each other, and then, several months later he came to visit me, and at that point we decided to get married. I tease him a lot that he married me because I was in the military.
You spent 6 months deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 and recently completed a year-long unaccompanied “hardship” tour of duty in Korea. What was the process for deciding to accept those missions?
I actually volunteered to go to Korea. It was one of those things where I heard a lot of people talk about how it was a great experience, and the camaraderie was very good. I didn’t quite expect the timing, but it ended up working out. Kunsan Air Base in Korea is one of the few Air Force locations where we’re not allowed to bring our families, so it’s a short tour. My husband was hesitant at first since he didn’t want me to be gone for a year. But the one thing he doesn’t like about the military is having to move a lot, so one of the key things that got him to accept it was when I told him it would be another year where he wouldn’t have to move. We both prayed about it and felt it was something that I needed to do. He stayed in Texas where we’d been stationed. He’s very active in the ward, so he got a lot of support from there.
How did you maintain your relationship with your spouse while you were away?
A lot of it was electronic. I didn’t always necessarily have telephone service, but whenever I was connected to a wireless service, I was able to hook up to it, and there’s also a way to text from computer for free, so I was able to text my husband almost on a daily basis even if I couldn’t talk directly to him. And when I could, I would Skype. When I’m home, we really try to spend a lot of time together. Either in the home or whenever there’s a long weekend or a holiday, we do things that we enjoy together like going places and trying different foods.
There are some good times and bad times. I really do miss my husband when we’re separated. I’ve noticed that when I’m with someone for a long time, after a while you start paying attention to the little things that annoy you. But when I’m gone, it forces me to remember the good things and why I chose him. I tell him a lot, one of the reasons that I married him was he was the person that could calm me down whenever I was angry or frustrated about something. The other guys I had dated would either make me more frustrated, or would tell me that I was worrying about something that I didn’t need to worry about. So there have been times where I’ve been really frustrated about something at work or at Kunsan, and I’ll call my husband in the middle of the night or in the early morning for him and I’ll talk to him so I can calm down.
How does Kunsan differ from a standard military base?
Everyone on Kunsan lives on base in dorm-style housing, in very close settings. I lived with several other officers that are about my same rank, who worked in the same types of position. We each had our own room, but you see the same people that you work with after you go home. In the United States, a lot of us live off base in houses within the community since there’s not enough base housing to accommodate everyone. When the day is over, we go to our homes and live what we call our “civilian lives.” We either hang out with our church friends, family, or neighbors, but we rarely see others in the military community. Being at Kunsan, we’d see each other at the base store or within the community. There’s a lot more support for our intramural sports and the different activities because we don’t have our families with us. We’re more willing to interact. Another difference is that on Kunsan, it’s about one female for every 10 males.
What are the pros and cons of being a female in a very male–dominated environment?
Often I’m the only one that has help with my bags, but not because I am having trouble. But there are also times where being women, we often have to be careful of how we present ourselves, because there are still some stereotypes of being a woman in the military. When I go to correct someone, I have to be very careful of the manner I correct them in, the verbiage that I use, because someone will think “Oh, you’re just nagging me.” Whereas if I tell my male counterpart to go correct the person, they don’t get the same feedback that I would if I did it.
Overall, I would say being a female in the military is much more accepted, even in the last ten years or so. I see women getting jobs that were typically male-only jobs. The nice thing about being in the medical world is that a lot of the military females are actually in the medicine part of it, probably 50/50.
What was your experience in Afghanistan like?
It definitely was an experience I wasn’t expecting. I was primarily out of Kandahar and assigned to be a mentor to my Afghan counterpart. When I got to Afghanistan, my boss said, “We want you to go with them to every medical station and assess what kinds of resources they already have.” And because of that, I was required to travel all throughout these other regions of Afghanistan. I probably traveled over half of the time I was there, either on a helicopter or in a humvee.
Did you feel danger for your life? How was the security situation for you personally?
That was where I was grateful for the Church. I remember about a month or so before I deployed, I read about a young man that had been killed in Afghanistan. He was a medical officer and had gone to BYU, and at that point it kinda drove home to me, “I’m really going to a dangerous spot.” I got nervous. I remember going to a stake conference and the person speaking talked about an experience he had where he had to go into a different country, and he said that he prayed to have a pathway opened for him, that doors would be opened and he would be able to speak with the people. And so that’s what I started praying for.
Both my husband and I also received blessings before I deployed. In my blessing I was told that I’d be protected and that this deployment would be beneficial for my career and it would be a good experience for me. Because of that blessing, I knew that if I was doing the traveling for work and because I wanted to do it for professional reasons that I would be protected. It’s really amazing because there were times that I would hear about a helicopter crashing or an IED that damaged a Humvee or something like that, and they were in the same areas where I had just been. But the most serious situation I was in was a car accident on one of the convoys. But I never ever had a problem getting back to my home base. There were times when a flight or a convoy was cancelled and I couldn’t go do a mission that I wanted to do. But the times when I was allowed to go, or able to get out there, I never had a problem getting back. I know that I was protected and the people that were traveling with me were protected also.
Do you feel that deployment has been beneficial to your career?
I do. I really feel it provided me with experience. For instance a lot of people that haven’t toured before, when they go to Kunsan, they complain a lot. You know in Kunsan we’re stuck in the dorms, we’re not allowed to be with our families and all that, but when I compare Kunsan with my deployment I can say, “Well at least I don’t have to go outside to go to the bathroom, I’m not scared to go to the bathroom, I have hot water pretty much every single day, I get to choose the foods I eat. There are also a lot of things I learned working with my Afghan counterpart. I was able to see how they were able to resolve some of the problems with the limited resources that they had.
How was it being accepted and giving advice as a woman, given the strong gender roles in Afghan culture?
Yes, that was a concern. Even going to the training at Fort Polk, they talked about how it was a very male-dominated culture, and there would be times when we may not be able to get our message through because we were women. But the nice thing about it was we were medical, and our medical counterparts were usually very well educated and much more willing to listen to us. One of the coolest experiences I had with being a woman was I when was up at one of the Afghan headquarters. Another female officer and I were walking toward the building and around the corner came this woman with her 10-year-old daughter. Just the look on that little girl’s face when she saw women in uniform. You could tell she was excited, tugging on her mom’s skirt. The smile on her face made my day.
There were a couple times I felt the gender barriers, but it wasn’t necessarily the Afghans that weren’t receiving my message. It was partly the coalition forces, all the other nations that were working with the U.S. It was partly my being a woman and part of it my being a captain versus a colonel. There were times where I had to get my boss to step in and tell people, “You gotta listen to her.” I’m considered one of the first levels in the Officer ranks – Captain – and Colonel is the highest.
What kind of cultural interactions have you had when you’ve lived outside the U.S.? Do you get to interact with the local people?
Yes, quite a bit. With Afghanistan, because I was a mentor, I actually dealt with the Afghans more than I dealt with the U.S. military. So I was able to learn about some of their culture. I ate with them quite a bit, I saw their work facilities. In Korea, I actually had two Korean civilians work with me, and when I got there, they took the time to sit down with me and teach me about the cultural differences– what’s accepted, what’s not accepted. They were really good and made sure I tried the different foods and saw the different sites too. The Korean people as a whole are extremely nice, very polite. When I was in Seoul, probably one of the biggest cities I’ve been in, I actually felt safe, whereas other places, I wouldn’t necessarily feel safe walking down the street or at night.
How have these experiences of getting to know these other cultures affected you?
It’s really helped me to see how if we don’t allow ourselves to look outside our own little world, we don’t realize how similar we are to each other. When I go to Honduras, Korea, Afghanistan, or the Philippines, a lot of these countries have very similar beliefs and standards. And it’s amazing to see that, whether I go to a wealthy or an impoverished area. A lot of times when I talked to some of the Filipinos, they would tell me, “Well this is just how the Filipinos do it.” And I was just laughing to myself, “Well, the Hondurans do it that way too.”
How does the gospel fit into the structure of military life?
Going to basic training was easy for me because I had been on a mission. Some of the initial rules people complained about were that you couldn’t smoke or have caffeinated drinks for at least the first two weeks. I watched several of my fellow trainees go through withdrawals of being without those substances and it was no big deal to me. On a mission, I was only allowed to talk to my family on Mother’s Day or Christmas, but in the military there are phones available and I could call home whenever I was off duty.
It’s still one of those situations where you have to be careful about not wanting to make others feel like you’re preaching to them. But I do have ways of letting others know that I’m LDS. For instance, at Kunsan, each of our units had jerseys with patches. On my jersey for the Med Unit, I have a BYU patch and a CTR patch. They’re pretty bright, it’s hard to miss them. I also took some of the MormonAds, the less religious ones, and put them up throughout my office, so when people came in they saw different little sayings.
Even now in my job, when I encounter a problem, I often fast and pray. I had an experience when I first got to Kunsan where I heavily relied on prayer. What had happened was my predecessor didn’t necessarily leave my program in the best of shape. If we’d have had an institutional inspection at the time, we would have failed because of the lack of documentation. I actually fasted about it because it was such a concern for me. In the Doctrine and Covenants, it talks about speaking sharply as the Spirit directs you and then follow with a spirit of love afterward. I’ve learned that I’m willing to stand up for what is right, whether it’s something with one of my programs, or something with the Church. I brought in my entire flight and basically told them how disappointed I was and gave them the challenge to prove to me that they could run their program. They were not happy with me for a couple weeks, but during those weeks, whenever I got the opportunity, I would praise them for even the smallest of things and tell them how pleased I was with their work. It was amazing – the first time in 10 years where I had a flight that was truly united. I really feel it’s because of how I was guided in that first session I had with them, providing them with what my expectations were. Because of that, and because of the opportunity the Lord gave me to help them resolve any obstacles, they were able to unite, and during the last six months they turned all those programs around to the point where they were pretty much perfect.
What resources does the Church provide to support military personnel?
They have a lot of stuff like dog tags and a special scripture set that has a red cover and is small enough to fit it into the pockets of our uniform. Going into the desert, like Afghanistan, it gets really hot, so they understand that and allow us to have special t-shirts that have the marked garments on them, so instead of having to wear two layers of clothing, we only have to wear one layer. They also make sure that Church services are available wherever there’s the possibility. Wherever there are small military branches, we actually fall under the local mission. In Afghanistan, being part of the district Relief Society presidency, those that notified us that they were LDS and wanted to have contact, we had sisters all throughout the country, both in Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan, and one my roles in the Relief Society was to send out the visiting teaching messages. So even though we weren’t physically close to each other, we would email each other, and I would send out a little message each month, or a devotional. The Church actually does a good job of making sure we have the Relief Society set up.
What are worship services like?
Each military base has a chapel, and it’s very similar in the deployed setting. At Kunsan, our chaplain services coordinated different times in two different buildings for every religion that wanted the opportunity to hold services there. One of them was the chapel itself, the other was another facility with a small worship room run by the chaplain. We met in the afternoon. There’s a piano in there and tables where we had the sacrament. Because we didn’t have any children with us, we had a different schedule for our meetings. We had sacrament meeting, but didn’t have two additional hours, just one. For the second hour we alternated between Sunday School one week and Priesthood/Relief Society the next and all met together.
What does patriotism mean to you?
When I look at freedom, it’s based on being allowed to worship how I see fit, or being able to go to sleep at night and not worry that some militants or gunmen are going to come. Freedom is the right to be able to express ourselves and not to fear reprisal. Being in Afghanistan and seeing what life is like when freedoms are denied strengthened my resolve to defend our freedoms and the privilege we have of enjoying our services.
What can the average person do to be a good citizen whatever country they live in?
A lot of it is just to take care of those within your community. If you have a program to take care of those, then start branching out from your community. When we take care of each other in our communities, it’s amazing what can happen.
At A Glance
Janice M. McDowell
Location: Kunsan Air Base Republic of Korea
Marital status: Married
Occupation: Public Health Officer United States Air Force
Schools Attended: BYU and Univ Mass-Amherst
Languages Spoken at Home: English and Spanish
Favorite Hymn: “Do What Is Right”
Interview by Nollie Haws. Photos used with permission.