U.S. Air Force; Major
For Dr. Bob Phillips, the decision to join the military was an easy one – he was required to. He clearly remembers his notice arriving in the mail during his senior year of medical school and it read, “You have been allotted to the U.S. Air Force…” and he was off! During this time, the U.S. was heavily engaged in Vietnam, and Dr. Phillips estimates 90% of his medical class was drafted during the war.
The plan was for Dr. Phillips to do a two-year tour in Turkey, and once he sent his belongings there, he received a TWIX (telegram) telling him the base he was assigned to was closed! The Air Force said they could assign him somewhere stateside, or he could do a 3-year tour, and choose between England and Germany. Dr. Phillips says he was “anxious to see the world,” so he opted for England, since he could “speak the language and would be able to read the local newspaper.”
He enjoyed his time in Suffolk, England, and even added an additional year to his tour. Beyond being in England, he was deployed several times to various places including the Arctic Circle, and Lebanon during their Civil War. During his tour in Lebanon, he had a scary experience; while treating both Christians and Muslims in a medical tent, somebody started shooting at them! The cross that was painted on the tent to identify it as “medical” actually made them a target! Someone had to go out and paint over the cross to keep them safe.
Dr. Phillips returned to the U.S. for his residency at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, followed by his Fellowship at Duke University Eye Center. There he met his wife, who was a patient. They’ve been married 43 years and have three children.
Talking about his time serving in the military, Dr. Phillips says, “I enjoyed it all, no regrets. I could have made it a career, but I didn’t want to be traveling around the country for 20 years. It gave me great discipline and great experiences – traveling to Africa, the Middle East… places with great history I wouldn’t have gone otherwise.”
With a specialty in cornea and external disease, Dr. Phillips started performing transplants and needed an eye bank from which to obtain his tissue. At the time, he was one of just two corneal surgeons in Alabama, so he contacted Alabama Eye bank, now called Advancing Sight, because he wanted to support them, and took that obligation seriously. He was Chair of their Board for a few years, and was asked to return to that role again after he retired at age 70. When asked why he has stayed involved with Advancing Sight, he says, “I like the eye bank’s core mission and philosophy – their willingness to give a cornea to anyone who needs it and to care for as many people as they possibly can.”
Dr. Phillips credits the military with making him a better educated, disciplined, and organized physician. They taught him how to work with people of diverse backgrounds and improved his communication skills. He also liked that he was doing something to help his country. He recommends service to those looking to get into medicine saying, “Two years is not much to give your country. Only 1% of the population has ever worn the military uniform.”
Today, Dr. Phillips enjoys telling children about his military experience and answering their questions. His daughter is a third grade teacher, and he visits her class on Veterans Day every year, with his old uniform in hand!