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Commanding Influence

by Jonathan Imbody on July 7, 2006 in Articles

Between dissuading unmarried Air Force cadets from sexual activity,
encouraging consensus between discordant federal agencies, and
translating the gospel for patients overseas, Col. Donald M. Thompson,
MD (MA/CM, 2005), could consider himself a communications expert.
He doesn’t.

In a Dallas Seminary class required for his recently completed master’s degree in cross-cultural ministries, Don remembers listening ruefully as Dr. Mark Young described critical factors in measuring communication competence.

“It just nailed me to the wall,” Don confesses. “I’d been having some relationship struggles, and the critical communication factors showed how much I still needed to grow. I winced as I evaluated myself on key communication factors such as showing respect and positive regard for others, understanding the issues with which the other person is dealing, tolerating ambiguity, and responding to others in a way that is not critical, evaluative, or judgmental. I just realized how responsible I am for the problems I have in communicating with others.”

Don’s wife of twenty-six years, Miriam, reflects on that revelation.

“I used to think that residency was the greatest test of communication in our marriage,” she observes. “Some of the other couples in our residency program dropped out, divorced, or had an affair. Now I have to say that the greatest test of communication in our marriage was the eight years in seminary.”

After Don took Dr. Young’s course, however, Miriam recalls that “communication suddenly improved like night and day. That class changed him.”

Bridging gaps
Discerning a need to bridge communication gaps actually prompted Don to enroll at the Seminary. While serving in Albania on one of his first medical mission trips, Don and his group encountered an Italian-speaking Muslim physician who expressed a personal interest in spiritual matters. Though he spoke fluent Italian, Don found himself searching frenetically for the right response. Finally Don’s more experienced medical mission colleagues intervened and provided succinct answers—using Don as the interpreter.

“I made the decision at that point,” Don recalls, “to try to become more conversant in scriptural matters. I wanted to always be prepared to give a gentle, reverent defense for the hope that is in me. This led me to DTS eight years ago.”

Attending DTS meant logging thousands of miles on the road and in the air, first shuttling between one of DTS’s extension sites and Brooks Air Force base, both in San Antonio, in 1996; later between DTS’s main campus in Dallas and Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado in 2000, where he served at the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD); and finally between DTS and his current home near
Washington, DC.

Newlin Morgan, a friend at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Bethesda, Maryland, where the Thompson family attends, observes, “Commuting between the Washington, DC, area and Dallas for his seminary classes was a challenge that most would find daunting, but Don, with the support of his family, somehow was able to do it. Don is a solid man of God. We’ve talked about how he felt God’s calling to equip himself better to communicate the gospel in various cultures. As I’ve gotten to know him better, I continue to be impressed with his gentle, humble nature and also with his willingness to do whatever it takes to follow God’s leading.”

Helping others
A licensed physician and a colonel in the U.S. Air Force, Don serves as senior research fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy, a division of the National Defense University in Washington, DC. He traces his life’s mission of helping and protecting others back to high school.

“I got my start in helping others in tenth grade,” he recalls, “when I became a volunteer firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician. I spent a lot of time in high school with volunteer firemen who regularly put their lives at risk.”

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in zoology, Don decided to help others through medicine. “I went into medicine to serve my fellow man,” he relates, “to meet both physical and spiritual needs.”

Don graduated with his MD from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland. He obtained board certification in family medicine and in general preventive medicine and public health. His first tour of duty at Aviano Air Base in Italy quickly baptized him into cross-cultural challenges.

“Americans and Italians see the practice of medicine very differently in terms of pain and the power distance between the doctor and the patient,” Don explains. “We Americans are trained to make every effort to alleviate pain with medications, while Italians feel that a little pain and suffering is good for the soul. I remember having to sneak in pain medications to a patient with fractured ribs and a chest tube just so he could get enough pain relief to breathe!”

Confronting threats
Subsequently stationed at Brooks Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, Don developed the disease surveillance process for deployed forces. He then took up an assignment at the U.S. Air Force Academy as deputy commander of the Cadet Clinic.

“I worked on improving the health status of cadets,” Don notes, “focusing on reducing risky behaviors with sex and alcohol and substance abuse. We were witnessing an alarming increase in unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, date rape, and sexual assaults.”

Transferred after September 11, 2001, to the Surgeon’s Office at the new U.S. Northern Command and NORAD, Don’s mission of protecting others shifted to bioterrorism preparedness.

At both NORAD and his subsequent assignment to the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, Don says he has focused on “tackling the challenging communication and coordination barriers that exist between federal agencies and state, local, private sector, and nongovernmental organizations.”

A fast-spreading disease such as the plague, introduced by bioterrorists, could quickly overwhelm the capacity of U.S. health facilities. Communication and cooperation would spell the difference between life and death for potentially millions of Americans.

“The greatest need in homeland security right now,” Don urges, “is coordinated response planning and exercising that includes local, state, federal, private sector, volunteer, and nongovernmental organizations.

Engaging churches
“I think churches will play a major role in communication with their members. Churches provide a network of support to those in need and are ideally positioned to provide this support in the midst of a catastrophe.”

Church leaders, Don asserts, “should familiarize themselves with the most appropriate actions to be taken in the event of a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Congregations will depend on pastors to help shepherd them through these crises. Now it is the time to prepare” (www.christianemergencynetwork.com).

Don notes that his DTS courses “are already being useful in my military responsibilities. I was recently invited to speak at a seminar for senior military officers at the National Defense University. So I presented a lecture on the intricacies of effective cross-cultural communication in a seminar entitled ‘Pearls, Perils, and Pitfalls in International Humanitarian Assistance.’”

Pursuing missions
As Don heads toward the close of his military career, his thoughts are turning overseas—to pursue a lifelong dream.

“I’ve been interested in medical missions since high school. My first on-site exposure to missions came in a two-week medical missions trip to Vlore, Albania, while I was stationed in Italy. I witnessed so clearly how God overcomes obstacles thrown up by Satan—from getting medications through customs to the powerful lifestyle witness of medical service.”

That first mission lit the fire for Don.

“Since then, I’ve participated in five short-term medical trips to Honduras and Mexico in the past ten years, and have taken my wife or children along on most of them. I like to go with Global Health Outreach (GHO)—the medical missions arm of the Christian Medical Association—because GHO links healthcare delivery with local church ministry. These churches provide manpower support to the medical team, but most importantly, evangelism and discipleship of new converts.

“I plan to use my master’s degree in cross-cultural ministries more directly in international medical missions work when I retire from the Air Force in a few years. Currently the Lord has me in a setting where I can effectively impact national security policy using my DTS training. I eagerly look forward to moving into a more missions-oriented ministry, but for now God seems to be directing me toward work in the public square.”

Jonathan Imbody, a senior policy analyst for the Christian Medical Association
( www.cmda.org ), writes for the LA Times,USA Today, and the Washington Post.

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