Dr. Richard Jacob is going skydiving at the Monroe-Walton Airport on Saturday. It won’t be his first time.
Jacob is a general surgeon and the newest addition to Piedmont Walton Hospital. But before coming to Walton County, Jacob was a trauma surgeon in a Special Forces unit, parachuting into parts of the world he’s not supposed to talk about to support secret missions.
He was the first Army surgeon to go through HALO training, meaning he could perform controlled high-altitude jumps into precise locations.
Over the course of seven years with the Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, Jacob amassed over 200 jumps and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.
He retired in 2017 and, after about a year elsewhere, joined Piedmont Walton this month. Jacob had his first day in the operating room on Monday.
Years in the field with special operations honed his ability to do his job, Jacob said, even if what he deals with today is more mundane than what he did in his past life,
“I’m pretty good at making decisions late at night when something bad happens,” he said.
Jacob was actually born in Fort Bragg, as the son of a Vietnam veteran.
He tried college for a time, but dropped out and joined the Army. He was an enlisted soldier for nine years, which Jacob said was a formative experience.
“It was where I grew up. … It was where I became an adult,” he said.
In his latter years in the Army, he decided he wanted to go to medical school. While still enlisted, he took classes part time at University of Texas at San Antonio and worked in the burn unit of the hospital.
This time, school came easier. He graduated toward the top of his class and got into Texas Tech for medical school. He started in the fall of 2001, right as planes flew into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon.
“I called the Army and told them I wanted to be an army surgeon,” Jacob said.
He worked his way through med school and then took a residency in Augusta for five years. After that, he volunteered to join JSOC at Fort Bragg, with very little idea of what he was getting into.
JSOC oversees the special forces of all branches of the military, including elite and shadowy units like Delta Force and SEAL Team 6. Jacob provided trauma surgery to those operatives.
He went through Airborne School at age 42, with a bunch of kids half his age, Jacob said.
Then it was on to HALO school, the kind of precision skydiving that could put 10 to 12 people, fully geared for war, onto a football field from high enough to require oxygen masks
After that, he was one of the only surgeons with HALO qualifications at Fort Bragg, meaning he was almost always on call.
“You kind of live with a bag packed,” he said.
And these were not normal calls.
“One time I got a call and we were gone for 48 hours. Another time it was 66 days,” Jacob said.
He can confirm that he deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, but nowhere else. He can’t really talk about anything he did anywhere, besides that it was mostly trauma surgery, plus some dealing with tropical diseases.
In between calls, he worked as a normal surgeon at the base.
But in 2016, Jacob lost much of his hearing in an incident overseas and started having trouble communicating over the radio.
“I thought it was bad enough that I could miss something important,” he said.
He went to non-deployable status for a while, but it wasn’t the same as being part of the special operations unit jetting off somewhere every other week.
He retired from the Army in 2017 as a lieutenant colonel.
He certainly misses the Army, with the camaraderie and mission and structure, but is settling quickly in Walton County, having moved here a few weeks ago.
“When I first got here, I thought ‘There’s got to be something wrong with this place’ but not really, it’s been great,” Jacob said.
On Saturday, he’ll be back to his old ways, jumping out of an airplane.
But this time, he’ll land much closer to home.