Serving Nation and State: W.Va. doctor's storied 46-year career

by Airman Caleb Vance
West Virginia National Guard Public Affairs

Lt. Col. John Lackey is seen as a fixture in the 130th Medical Group here at McLaughlin Air National Guard Base, where many people cross paths with the happy-go-lucky, white haired 65-year-old flight physician, but most don’t know his story. Lackey has 46 years of service treating patients, delivering babies, and performing surgeries to name a few, but there is much more to his story than that.

It all started in 1971 when Lackey was drafted by the Army Inactive Ready Reserve (IRR) as a private during the drawdown of the Vietnam War. Little did he know then, that it was the beginning of a journey that would turn him into a doctor, giving him the opportunity to travel the world and use his skills to treat and impact the lives of thousands of patients.

Four years later, John Lackey made his way to active duty by 1975, which initiated his road to a commission when we was sent to flight surgery school at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

That’s when he was gifted “the bag.” The bag, while ordinary to some, is one that carries special meaning to Lackey. It’s one that he has carried with him to all corners of world and was gifted to him in his first weeks of medical school. Throughout all 42 years of treating patients, the old beat up bag has been with him every step of the way.

“I love that old bag, it’s got stuff from everything I’ve ever done!” Exclaimed Lackey. “I’ve taken care of patients on every continent on Earth except Antarctica with that bag, and my career isn’t over yet so don’t count that out!”

Upon graduating, Lackey, along with that “old bag” started their journey at Fort Hood as a flight surgeon intern at Water-Reed Military Hospital for the 502nd Combat Aviation Battalion. He worked through his internship and eventually worked his way up the ranks in the Army before landing as the 6th Air Cavalry Surgeon.

After his work as the 6th Air Cavalry Surgeon, Lackey was on the move again, doing stints as an Ophthalmologist at Walter-Reed and then on to Fort Knox for two years.

The military lifestyle can take a toll on people and the family life, so Lackey made the choice to leave active duty in 1987.

“All I ever wanted to do was come back to West Virginia and practice medicine at home,” Lackey explained. “And I really just wanted to be here to raise my family.”

But a few years later he got a call that sent him overseas.

“I’ll never forget, we were sitting there on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, 1990,” said Lackey. “And I got called up from the IRR to report to Aberdeen Proving Grounds and very shortly after I touched ground in Saudi Arabia.”

That’s where Lackey would spend the next eight months, serving as an Ophthalmologist, general medical officer and flight surgeon for the 1st Special Forces Group throughout the middle expeditionary area of Desert Storm.

This deployment changed his career forever. It wasn’t the deployment itself, but it was the subtle differences between the Army and Air Force in the operational environment that swayed his decision.

“Goodness we came into and Air Force unit, and they had it all,” explained Lackey. “They had porcelain showers tucked into tractor trailers, a Burger King and Pizza Hut on the flight-line and even hotels that they got to stay in.”

“That’s when I said, ‘that’s it, when I go back in, I’m going Air Force,’” said Lackey.

Lackey would then leave the Army for good, and spent his time from 1991-2008 as a civilian, using his skills from the Army and practicing medicine throughout West Virginia and eventually opening his own practice.

Then in 2008, he started to realize that he missed the military and reflected back on his time in the Army, so he began the process of joining the 130th Airlift Wing.

During this process, he ran into a problem - Lackey was overweight and couldn’t join because of medical reasons, so he set his heart on serving the people and dropped a whopping 130 pounds. It took two long years of hard work and dedication to his goal, but finally on August 15, 2010 he became a member of the West Virginia Air National Guard.

“I just wanted to serve, and I’m going to as long as they let me!” Lackey explained. “The finest people I’ve ever been associated with my life are in the military and they deserve the finest care that we can give them, and I know I can do that, so I’m going to!”

And that’s exactly what he plans to do. Representing part of the Air Force Core Value “service before self” Lackey takes his time to serve the WVANG community. Although he could very much keep practicing medicine on his own, he wants to be able to help the service members and hand down a wealth of knowledge to the next generation of Medical Group Airmen.

In his civilian life, Lackey is also a professor at the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine in Lewisburg, where he’s taught since 1984. He takes students from all three of the state’s medical schools, all while running his own practice and serving as a traditional Guardsman one weekend a month.

When asked if he had any comments about the 130th, he explained with just a few words, “This unit is just so special.”

Lackey’s wealth of knowledge in the medical field and work in various branches and reserve components of the military add special value to his membership in the WVANG. He is the epitome of Guard service today, utilizing his civilian experience to bring invaluable skills to the all-volunteer force that is the Air National Guard.