Tyler Watson, currently a lieutenant colonel in the Idaho Air National Guard, was driving to work around the point of the mountain heading to Salt Lake when the news of Sept. 11 came over the radio.
“Like most Americans, I was thinking, ‘This couldn’t be real, this couldn’t be happening,’” he said. “Most people felt this patriotism and drive that they didn’t want this ever to happen in America again.”
For Watson, it took about a year to make the decision to join the military, talk it over with his spouse and figure out how it would impact their lives. But he joined the Air Force in 2002.
“It was the greatest career choice I’ve made,” he said. “It expanded my opportunities and provided experiences that not many get to have.”
Watson had earned his master’s degree in public health from Idaho State University and was working for Intermountain Health as an epidemiologist and vaccination coordinator. That particular specialty fit the Air Force. He is now based out of Gowan Field in Boise.
“I essentially run the equivalent of a county health department on the base,” he said.
They do food inspections and checkups for international travel before troops are deployed. And of course, he tracks data and information regarding epidemics.
“COVID has been quite the taskmaster,” he said. “It’s been tough. It’s unpredictable, and the ever-changing policy also makes it difficult.”
From mid-January of 2020 until May of this year, Watson was required to file a daily report on the status of COVID-19. He would comb through all the data and information to compile a full summarization. The report usually took him about two hours. Then he would get online for Zoom, teaching classes at Brigham Young University-Idaho.
Another difficulty through COVID-19 was balancing the challenges of the epidemic while trying to focus on the Air Force’s main mission, which is to fly airplanes, he said.
Watson wasn’t always planning to go into epidemiology, which is the study and analysis of the distribution patterns of health and disease in defined populations. He was working as a clerk at LDS hospital while at the University of Utah, and he had already applied for medical school. His daughter had recently been born. One of the surgical fellows who worked there also had a newborn son.
“I asked him how his son was doing. He said: ‘I don’t know. I haven’t seen him in two weeks.’ I went home and held my baby and cried and decided not to go to medical school.”
While getting his master’s degree in public health, he worked as a teaching assistant and was able to teach some classes.
“I discovered that’s what I loved to do,” he said.
He also liked statistics and analysis to describe how diseases spread. Upon graduation, however, he knew the best teachers also had career experience. So, he took a job working for Intermountain Healthcare as the flu shot and smoking cessation coordinator.
When he joined the Air Force in 2002, he attended officer training in Montgomery, Alabama. Then he went to Tyndall Air Force Base in Panama City, Florida. He spent his last two years of active duty at Altus Air Force in Oklahoma.
He deployed to Iraq from August 2004 to January of 2005 at Balad, which was a very large logistics base 70 kilometers north of Baghdad.
His medical group was the first one since Vietnam to have an in-theater hospital.
“I was responsible for 30,000 people. My job was to keep them healthy and safe from anything that wasn’t a bullet. Bullets are someone else’s problem,” he said.
The hospital did take care of quite a few Marines who had bullet and other wounds since the Second Battle of Fallujah took place during that time, he said.
“That was quite a traumatic time,” he said.
He got home from Iraq in 2005, moved to the reserves and spent a year at McChord Air Force Base.
In 2006, a teaching job opened up at BYU-Idaho and Watson joined the Idaho Air National Guard as the new epidemiologist in 2010.
“The one I replaced had been there 30 years,” he said. “His daughter was in my epidemiology class at the time. The timing was perfect.”
Although he was born in Utah and went to junior and senior high school in Shelley, graduating in 1991, he says he has lived in Rexburg longer than anywhere else.
Among some of the top experiences he has had as an epidemiologist in the military was investigating malaria in Oklahoma, preventing rabies attacks from jackals in Iraq, and tracking vaccines for smallpox, anthrax and now COVID-19, he said.
“It’s been a pretty exciting thing to be a part of,” he said.