BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — It's the year 1999 and senior Cale Bonds is the starting quarterback for the U.S. Air Force Academy's Falcons football team.
Fast-forward 16 years.
It's 2015, and now-Air Force Dr. (Maj.) Cale Bonds quarterbacks the surgery bay here. He serves as the post's orthopedic surgeon, and his medical teammates depend on him when they're striving to save a limb or a life.
The commander of the 455th Expeditionary Medical Group here, Air Force Col. Gianna Zeh, said Bonds serves as a leader in the operating room, just as he called plays as a football quarterback at the academy.
A Team Leader
As a quarterback, "Dr. Bonds was required to make quick decisions to execute first downs and touchdowns to win the game," Zeh said. "As an orthopedic surgeon, he is called upon to make medical decisions to save extremities. Sometimes he is even faced with making the call to amputate a limb to save the [patient's] life.
"These are heavy decisions and put a lot of weight on his shoulders, but just as with his football team, he has an awesome team on his side," she continued. "By capturing the talents of all his teammates, which a great leader does, you have better outcomes on the football field as well as with your patients. It takes a team to save a patient's life and a leader to guide them. Dr. Bonds is such a doctor."
Playing football, Bonds said, helped to build his character.
"I learned things outside the classroom, on the field, that are more valuable to me than what I learned in the classroom," Bonds said. "I learned a mental toughness on the practice field. When I didn't want to work out because I was tired and sore, I had to develop a mental discipline to keep going. Some of the most valuable experiences came from being placed in situations on the football field that I had to overcome. I knew what I had to do and what I had to accomplish. These are things you can't learn in a textbook. Some values can only be learned on the field."
Applying Discipline at Medical School
After graduation, Bonds continued on to medical school and applied some lessons he learned at the academy.
"Cadet life isn't exactly easy," he joked, "and when you add student-athlete to that, it gets really tough. You get really good at managing your time and have a leg up on those who haven't learned that yet. I never fell behind at med school because of the discipline I learned at the academy."
Now a deployed doctor, Bonds sometimes looks back and remembers his time as a football player and the bonds he built with his teammates — especially this week, as his former team takes on the University of California-Berkley Bears in the Armed Forces Bowl today.
Having played football provides "some of the best memories I have, especially the bowl games," Bonds said. "You are there with all your best friends, playing the game you love. We would always talk before the game that, 'We are going to war with our brothers' out on the field. That bond with your team is something you never lose."
Bonds said he stays in touch with his former teammates. Many have gone on to be doctors as well, he said. And here at Bagram, Bonds said he gets to interact with seven other Falcon student-athlete graduates who are working in the hospital. From his own experiences he has seen that academy athletes go on to have successful careers.
"There is a reason why our service academies seek out athletes to fill their ranks and I think the values cadets learn on the [athletic] field leads to success," he said.
Now a father of three little girls, Bonds watches every academy football game he can. And, while he may not be able to get back on the field with his gridiron brothers, he still can lead a team every day in an Air Force operating room.