Dr. Mark Fleming is one of our most distinguished AOAO members. As a DO trauma surgeon, he has risen to Captain in the Navy, and currently serves as Deputy Director, Navy Trauma Training Center, LA County & USC.
In addition to trauma surgery, multiple deployments and assignments, his professional life also has a strong research component with 69 peer reviewed publications, 70 presentations & 30 posters.
He is a graduate of MSU-COM, Orthopedics at MSU, & Trauma Fellowship at U of Minnesota.
Dr. Fleming has three children (one college grad, two in college), and lives in Los Angeles, CA with Kreslyon, his college sweetheart and wife of 28 years.
Read about his incredible life & experiences in the military!
What is your current military rank?
My current rank is Navy Captain. Abbreviated CAPT, this is the senior-most commissioned officer rank below admiral in the United States Navy or Coast Guard and is the equivalent rank of a colonel in the United States Army, Airforce and Marine Corps.
What administrative positions have you held?
Coming out of fellowship and arriving at my first duty station, my first assignment was Director of Orthopedic Trauma at what is now known as the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC). Formerly known as the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) and colloquially known as “The President’s Hospital”, the hospital is an Echelon 5 facility. Because of its proximity to Andrews Airforce Base, Walter Reed served as a primary treatment facility for definitive surgical management and rehabilitation of combat casualties from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Other administrative positions I’ve held include serving as the Chief of Surgery at the Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, an outpatient surgery center. As the Chief of Surgery, I was responsible for administrative and clinical duties as the chief physician over surgical services.
Another position I held was serving as the Deputy Director of Surgery at Walter Reed. As the Deputy Director for Surgery, I had operational responsibility for the effective delivery of patient care by surgical services across the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
As the Director of Orthopedic Research, I was responsible for oversight of the research program including serving on the Institutional Review Board which has oversight for ensuring research is conducted in accordance with established guidelines.
How did you become interested in the military?
Service to our country by serving in the US military has been a family affair. My interest in a military career is multifaceted, as I was exposed to the military at a very young age. As an Army brat, I would occasionally accompany my father to work at Walter Reed. At the time, he was a Colonel in the United States Army. I recall the deference he was showed as he walked the halls and I would recall the stories of his time in both the Navy and Army and recalled his favorite TV show was M.A.S.H.
My father enlisted in the US Navy out of high school and initially served as a Hospital Corpsman. He was assigned to the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda in the 1950’s. Following his stint in the Navy, he attended and subsequently graduated from medical school in the 1960’s at the height of the Vietnam conflict. Upon completing requirements for his medical degree, he received a commission in the US Army and afterwards completed his internship, residency and fellowship in cardiothoracic surgery all at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. He served at Walter Reed until his retirement from the US Army. My two oldest brothers also enlisted in the US Navy and we have a younger brother who enlisted in the US Army.
However, what really peaked my interested occurred in the 1980’s as the county was in the midst of the cold war with the former Soviet Union. President Ronald Reagan was in office and the US Navy’s strategic plan was to build a 600-ship Navy (by comparison, today we have 250 ships) to deter soviet aggression. During this time, I was a sophomore in college at Alabama A&M University. The US Navy had just collaborated on the hit motion picture “TOP GUN” and the movie was a de facto Navy recruiting film. After the film’s release, the US Navy stated that the number of young men who joined wanting to be Naval Aviators went up by 500 percent.
Several months after the release of the movie, a couple of Navy Officers adorned in their crisp “Milk Man” or “good humor man” uniforms were walking across campus. They approached me and inquired what my major was and if I had any interest in flying for the Navy. The thought had never crossed my mind. I was a double major in Physics and Computer Science and planned to pursue a medical career, or alternatively, to become a physics professor. Nonetheless, the idea sounded intriguing.
I was offered the opportunity to take the Aviation Qualification Test/Flight Aptitude Rating examination right there on the spot. Without preparation, they accompanied me to the campus library and I took the exam. I wasn’t sure how I performed in the exam but almost a year later I received a call from my mother who said, “there is a recruiter looking for you so you can fly for the Navy. I told them you wanted to go to medical school and they said they will pay for it after you fly for a while”. I jumped at the opportunity, eventually receiving my commission through the Aviation Officer Candidate School followed by earning my “Wings of Gold”. The US Navy continues to be a family affair as my daughter recently enlisted in the US Navy and my son will commence flight training in the Navy after he receives his undergraduate degree.
Tell us about your deployments.
When I was flying for the Navy my first deployment was to the middle east, and we were based out of Masirah, Oman in support of Operation Desert Storm. Oman is located east of Saudi Arabia on the southeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. My crew was essentially a self-contained unit. When you arrive at your squadron and are assigned to a crew, they are your family for the next three years. You train together, eat together and deploy together. We would typically fly 12-hour missions every other day for six months in the Persian Gulf. Our missions during that deployment were considered anti-surface warfare as we would assist in enforcing the embargo on Iraqi imports and exports after that countries invasion of Kuwait.
My second deployment was to Okinawa, Japan and Misawa, Japan where we would fly antisubmarine warfare missions to identify and track Russian submarines. We conducted several detachments to far east countries including Korea, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Australia essentially “showing the flag”.
After becoming an orthopedic surgeon, I deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I was assigned to a US Marine Corps Forward Resuscitative Surgical Service (FRSS) at an Echelon 2 facility in Ramadi, Iraq. Ramadi was part of the Sunni Triangle in western Iraq where some of the toughest fighting between the US Marines and Iraqi insurgents took place. My surgical team consisted of one orthopedic surgeon, two scrub technicians, one physician assistant, one nurse, two anesthesia providers and one general surgeon, and we provided the surgical support for a Navy Shock Trauma Platoon.
I also spent some time at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad. Ibn Sina was a commandeered Iraqi hospital that accommodated an Echelon 3 Army Combat Support Hospital.
You have been involved with some incredible reconstructive surgeries for our wounded soldiers. What is it like to be a military orthopedic surgeon?
I think I will always consider myself a war surgeon. Some of my life’s most profound experiences have been as an orthopedic surgeon taking care of wounded warriors and witnessing first hand their remarkable resiliency.
During my career I managed patients with some of the most horrific injuries you could ever imagine. Whether it was a wounded warrior with multiple amputations or mangled extremities, it was not unusual to be asked by the patient, “Doc, when can I get back into the fight” or “when can I rejoin my unit”?
Taking care of these brave men and women – the soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines that protect our freedom – has been the ultimate honor. After being bent, compressed, stretched and twisted, these wounded warriors had the willing capacity to recover to functional form so they could continue to serve our country.
Of all the patients I treated, the ones that stick out in my mind the most, and I remember all of them, are the multiple extremity amputee patients, specifically the ones that lost both arms and both legs. Of the five that survived, I helped manage four of them. One of my patients recently appeared on a daytime talk show, the TV show Ellen, and when asked to describe the day he got hurt responded that he just had a bad day at the office.
These wounded warriors are emblematic of Spartans – not the ones that lost to Texas Tech a few weeks ago – but the true warriors in every sense of the word. They never give up, never surrender. Their resiliency is infectious and it is that resiliency that drove me to operate every day, seven days a week, for years. Returning these wounded warriors to normal function became a passion and made me realize that any problems I had or daily challenges I faced paled in comparison and were not, in the big picture, very significant.
Your research is amazing in both scope and volume. What was the focus of your research?
Significant challenges we faced while taking care of wounded warriors at Walter Reed was managing patients with composite tissue loss, i.e., injuries to skin, muscle, nerves, vessels and bone. It was a particular challenge in our patient population because they frequently sustained multiple extremity injuries including amputations. Therefore, strategies to address the injuries were often a challenge because of the absence of adequate donor sites. Our research program was focused on the reconstruction of these multiple injured warriors through the use of regenerative medicine modalities.
What do you like best about your life in the military?
Without question, what I like best about my military service is the camaraderie and esprit de corps – the feeling of pride, fellowship, and common loyalty shared by the individuals I’m serving with. Although I’m sure it exists, I’ve never been in a civilian organization where that existed at least to the degree that it does in military service.
What are the greatest challenges?
Being absent from my family and missing important milestones in my children’s lives were/are the greatest challenges.
Describe one of your most memorable events during your career?
Receiving my commission, being winged by my mother when graduating from medical school and being hooded by my father when graduating from residency, finishing fellowship, the deployments, returning from deployments, being named a master clinician at Walter Reed, the surgeries, having my father pin the Defense Meritorious Service Medal to my chest are all events that are memorable. However, the most memorable was witnessing the birth of my three children.
Leave us with a final thought or advice.
The two thoughts I like to leave you with are two of my favorite quotes:
“People that succeed are not necessarily the most talented, they are the most determined, they know how to persevere. When they fail, they don’t see that as final. They learn from it and try again. When they face obstacles, they don’t shrink back and get discouraged, they dig their heals in and fight the good fight.”
– Joel Olsteen
“I can imagine no more rewarding a career. And any man who may be asked in this century what he did to make his life worthwhile, I think can respond with a good deal of pride and satisfaction: “I served in the United States Navy.”
– John F. Kennedy (JFK)