Hartford, Conn. –
For an organization obsessed with uniformity and “dress-right-dress”, individual military service is anything but. While many servicemembers may complete a single contract then part ways from their respective branch, others make an entire career out of their service, wearing the uniform for twenty, thirty, and sometimes forty years. For U.S. Army Maj. Deanna Wolff, a physician’s assistant with the Connecticut National Guard, her military career was a little more … unique.
Her story, however, started off like so many others. Growing up on the South side of Baltimore, Wolff grew up in a lower income family which encumbered her prospect of receiving a higher education. So, she turned to the military. In 1989, at the age of 17 and against her parents’ wishes, she enlisted into the Maryland Army National guard as an Operating Room Technician with the 136th Combat Support Hospital.
While serving in this role, she met and worked with several Soldiers in various medical fields. These interactions were instrumental in her development as a young Soldier and would give her valuable insight into the opportunities available to her as a medical professional. She found herself gravitating toward pursing a career as a physician’s assistant, or PA. But to do this, she would need to be accepted into a PA program after completing her undergraduate degree from the University of Maryland.
To do so, she would need some practical experience. As she worked toward her diploma, she also took on hours at a local hospital working as an operating room technician. The National Guard also provided opportunities that benefited both her civilian and military careers, one of which being an opportunity to earn her Expert Field Medical Badge – one of the U.S. Army’s most prestigious decorations (with an approximate 21% pass rate) that’s awarded to medical Soldiers who complete an exhaustive list of medical and warrior tasks under stress.
Wolff completed her undergraduate degree in 1994 and, after performing enough clinical hours at the hospital, she was accepted to the military’s Interservice Physician’s Assistant Program, or IPAP, which is operated out of Fort Sam Houston (now, Joint Base San Antonio). Phase one of the program was sixteen months of classroom education. Phase two was the clinical portion of the program, where Wolff and her fellow students used their knowledge and experience from phase one in a military treatment facility for a year long clinical rotation. For Wolff, that brought her to Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
Being in the medical field is not for the faint of heart. Dealing with patients’ physical, emotional, and mental wounds on a daily basic can be taxing to one’s own mental and emotional health. But for Wolff, the journey into medicine felt more like a predetermined path rather than a leap of faith thanks to the influence of her older sisters.
“My sister was a nurse, my other sister, she’s a biochemist, and my other sister is an ER Physician,” said Wolff . “So, it was kind of the natural course for me; you kind of follow in the footsteps of your family. Because of their interesting stories and how they enjoyed working in their career fields, that’s why I joined the career.”
At the end of her clinical rotation at Fort Campbell, Wolff was accepted into Yale University’s surgical residency program, relocated to Connecticut, and transferred to the Connecticut National Guard. As she began to plant roots in Connecticut, her professional life was focused entirely on medicine, specializing in orthopedics and emergency medicine. But her military career almost took a dramatic turn when her Air Force friends from her home state learned she had her pilot's license.
At the time, the Maryland Air National Guard's 104th Fighter Squadron flew the A-10 “Warthog” Thunderbolt II, and tried to recruit Wolff to be a fighter pilot. As exciting as it would have been to fly the ground troop’s favorite air-to-land flying brrrt cannon, Wolff had a difficult time finding the value in being a fighter pilot for her career outside of the military. So, she remained in the medical field and continued to fly recreationally, taking four-to-five flights each month in her personal RV-9A high-performance experimental aircraft.
In 2004, after fifteen years of service, Wolff made the difficult decision to step away from the military and focus on being a mother and started her own private practice. Over the next fourteen years, she would dedicate herself completely to raising her four children and splitting her professional career between her private practice and working at various hospitals and clinics around the state.
But the calling to serve her nation never left her.
“I want to keep my foot in the game,” said Wolff. “We miss out on so much as civilians by not being involved or not knowing what’s going on in the world but being in the military, I feel like I’m a part of something, a bigger community. I lost that when I left, the sense of community and the friendships that I had. It’s different than anything you would experience with your civilian friends, I think.”
Once her youngest child was in high school, she decided her kids were old enough that she could heed the calling to serve once again. In 2018, she rejoined the Connecticut National Guard and was assigned to the 142nd Area Support Medical Company.
When she initially left the military, the United States was beginning to ramp up deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan as part of the Global War on Terrorism. And Wolff would quickly learn first-hand that in the near decade and a half since she last wore the uniform the deployments, especially among the reserve components, had done anything but slow down.
The 142nd was deployed to Powidz, Poland in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve on Oct. 24, 2021. While there, Wolff served as a telemedicine provider for medical treatments provided by medics at outlying forward operating sites, participated in simulated medical exercises with Polish medical students at the Poznan University of Medical Sciences, and helped foster a stronger relationship between U.S., ally, and partner forces in the region.
Rejoining the military after such a long time certainly came with its fair share of issues. As Wolff explained, everything about the Army was different, everything from the introduction to the annual Periodic Health Assessment to the weapons she was required to qualify on. But while there were some hurdles, she needed to overcome in her basic warrior tasks, she credits her experience in the civilian sector for keeping her ahead of the curve in the medical aspects of her job and as a leader.
“Being on the civilian side, I have to keep up with all the current literature,” said Wolff. “And I’m in a teaching environment where I mentor students through Quinnipiac University so I have to keep up with everything that’s current, so I can bring that to our military setting … and teach our Soldier s when we have drill weekends.”
Her civilian experience has certainly been a major value added to the Soldiers who report to Wolff, especially her traditional guardsmen who may only be able to perform their military duties, or similar, on drill weekends, but the military training also pays itself forward in her civilian career. Skills like coping mechanisms, adaptability, and teamwork are all things she took from the Army and try to instill on her students.
As for the future, Wolff has been working on her military education and hopes to be able to reach the rank of Lieutenant Colonel and continue to work with her Soldiers to build them up to the best they can be before retiring (for real, this time).