Staff Perspective: Q&A with Dr. Annie Murray, Prior U.S. Navy Pilot and Current Staff Psychologist

Staff Perspective: Q&A with Dr. Annie Murray, Prior U.S. Navy Pilot and Current Staff Psychologist

Dr. Annie Murray is a United States Navy psychologist. She is prior USN helicopter pilot and a current staff psychologist at Naval Medical Center San Diego (NMCSD). I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to sit down with her to discuss her background in aviation and her thoughts on how psychology might relate to that community.

Dr. Hanson: What made aviation interesting to you and how did you get into flying in the first place?

Dr. Murray: I’d always had a fascination with flying. When I was in high school I worked summer jobs, such as lifeguarding and babysitting, in an effort to fund flying lessons at our local airport. That led me to pursue going to the Naval Academy with the goal to be a pilot. At the academy, you get to choose what community you go into, it’s called service selection. Once I was a senior at the Academy, I said I wanted to fly, so that’s how I got there.

HA: I know you flew helicopters. How did you choose that particular aircraft? What was your role in the US Navy as a pilot?

AM: Everyone in the Navy starts out as a fixed winged pilot. After the Academy, you get orders to Pensacola, Florida to start flight school. At that time, everybody started off learning the T-34 fixed winged aircraft. You go through primary and intermediate flight school which is about a year-long total. At that point, you choose a platform. You are offered jets, props, or helicopters. They say you get to pick, but it’s mostly needs of the Navy. At the time, I picked helicopters, and I think the majority of my class went helicopters too. For me, the truth of the matter was I didn’t really like fixed wing flying because I got airsick all the time. In helicopters, I didn’t get airsick and so that was the obvious route for me. Once that was determined, I continued on in advanced flight training in Pensacola, Florida for about another 6 months or so before earning my “wings of gold” and being designated as a Naval Aviator.

HA: As an aviator, how long was your commitment?

AM: Let me think, I was winged in early 2001. My commitment was a full 7 years from the time I was winged. Plus, it took me just over a year to get through flight school.

HA: Once winged, what sorts of things did you do as a helicopter pilot? What were your deployments and missions like?

AM: After completion of all flight school and getting winged, I was sent out to San Diego, California. You continue with more training where you learn to fly the actual helicopter that you will fly in the fleet. Prior to this, you are learning on smaller aircraft platforms such as the Bell Jet Ranger which looks like the little traffic helicopters you see flying around. Once you get winged, that’s when you get to fly the Navy’s helicopters. I was assigned to the HS Community which flies HS-60 (F) Foxtrot and (H) Hotel versions. These are the Navy’s version of the Black Hawk helicopter, but are carrier-based. We were based out of North Island in Coronado, California and I went to training until September 11 happened.

Soon after 9/11, it became apparent that we were going to quickly deploy. The squadron that I had been assigned to was going to be surged after 9/11 to get out off the coast of Pakistan as quickly as possible. So they actually condensed my training and after 9/11 happened I was quickly called to my fleet squadron and we left on deployment almost right away on the U.S.S. John C. Stennis. We were deployed a good 7 months during the first wave of carrier operations in Operaration Enduring Freedom (OEF). After that deployment, we came home for a brief period of time for work-ups and then deployed again on the U.S.S. Vinson for about 9 months. So the majority of my fleet squadron time was spent deployed on carriers.

The missions we had on 60 Foxtrot was primarily an anti-submarine warfare platform because the helicopter had a dipping sonar. Now it wasn’t really practical in OEF to have a dipping sonar, but the Hotel version of the aircraft that we flew was kind of a hollowed-out version and you’re able to carry a lot more cargo, people, and weapons. So it was primarily used, at the time, as a SpecOps delivery platform. We did a lot of special warfare insert/extract. The Hotel version has weapons. You carry Hellfire missiles, and big .50 cal guns. These got a lot more use during our first deployment than the dipping sonar.

To be honest, the second deployment was kind of boring. It was while Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) started, but they sent us nowhere nearby. We were off the coast of Korea because at the time North Korea had been making some aggressive remarks. Basically, we had to go watch them while everyone else went to Iraq.

HA: I know you transitioned to the reserves for a while after your Active Duty time. What sorts of things did you do as an aviator in the reserves?

AM: I took a reserve job in TACRON12 which is over at the amphibious base in Coronado, California. I specifically took a non-flying job, but based in aviation. I wanted a non-flying job because I was working on a dissertation and going to school full time. So I wanted a more stable job in the reserves. TACRON included aviators, primarily aviation officers, who dealt with aviation operation planning for our forward deployed ships. I dealt a lot with command and control, helping with air plans and overall operations.

HA: I know you made the transition from an Active Duty line officer to the reserves. And while you were in the reserves you were working on your Ph.D. in psychology. Now that you are a psychologist, you’re back on Active Duty as a Staff Corps Officer. How do you see your background as an aviator playing into your role as a psychologist?

AM: I think it’s been a huge benefit in terms of just understanding Sailors. As a psychologist, you try to have empathy and understand where people come from and I think in the military my background as a pilot has just given me a lot of context and respect for what other people are going through or have gone through. We talk a lot about the military being a culture of its own and I feel like I had an understanding of that with my background. I have an appreciation of the stressors that our Service members go through on a daily basis, not only the Active Duty members, but their family members. Operational tempo, expectations, culture, gender issues, I felt pretty equipped to handle whatever patients were dealing with.

HA: From an aviator’s standpoint, what is the flight community’s view of psychology in the military and what mental health has to offer?

AM: Being completely honest, as an aviator, I really think mental health services are out-of-sight, out-of-mind. You don’t really hear about them, or think about them for that matter, unless it is almost an emergency situation or something comes up. But because flying and mental health are so at odds it really just wasn’t a thought in our minds. I know that people in aviation experience mental health struggles, but it is something you just don’t ask about or pay attention to. I also think that the desire to be in aviation is very high and people really want to be there. There is a great deal invested in aviators from both the Service member and the government. The people who are there are generally there to stay. It speaks to desire to be in one’s job as a mental health protective factor.

HA: Do you see avenues for mental health to do preventive efforts or otherwise in the aviation community?

AM: I think there are a couple of different routes. I think organizationally, psychology could make a big name for itself in aviation. This is because there may be ways to predict who might do better in certain circumstances, perhaps modeled after what they are doing in the special warfare community. So there are certain assessments that could be really beneficial to the community and I think psychology has great promise there.

I am struggling with the clinical side. In general, aviation leadership is extremely open to mental health. Commanding Officers are more than happy to let pilots get the help they need and they watch out for their pilots. However, you are completely hitting your head against a wall when the governing doctrine of aviation says you just can’t have a mental health diagnosis and fly. Because mental health and flying are so incongruent, it still leaves that stigma. This leads pilots to not seek services they may need. So unfortunately the end state hasn’t changed yet and truthfully I don’t know that it should.

HA: At this point, would you say that if a pilot needed significant mental health treatment due to an Axis I disorder that they are probably not going to get back to flying?

AM: There’s a good chance that they will not get back to flying, or if they are they have an extremely long road of obstacles to maneuver and a long period of time to do so. This is not realistic in the aviation pipeline because if you are given an Axis I diagnosis, you have to wait six to 12 months until you are symptom free or off of psychotropic medications. Six months to a year is a lifetime in a fleet squadron where you are expected to meet certain qualifications on a very strict schedule. When you are already that far behind in those qualifications and also taken out of the cockpit for that period of time, you often have to go to a new squadron for more training, which costs more money. So it ends up not being conducive to flying. The bottom line is that keeping people healthy in the first place really needs to be the bigger focus in the aviation community.

HA: I’d like to thank Dr. Murray for her time and unique insight into the world of military psychologists. It’s always great to get to talk to those with such a specialized background and hear how their experiences can help us all in our efforts to provide the best quality care to Service members, Veterans and their families.

Dr. Heather Anson is a Deployment Behavioral Health Psychologist with the CDP at the Naval Medical Center, San Diego.