By Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.)
Many a youngster dreams of becoming a military pilot. Some might even refine that dream to naval aviator or, very specifically, carrier naval aviator. Others hope to become a doctor, helping people and saving lives.
For Andrew G. Mortimer, the choice was difficult at first. Growing up hearing his father’s stories of two deployments aboard aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War, Mortimer knew all about Naval Aviation.
After graduating from the University of Maryland with an economics degree in December 1989, along with an ROTC commission as an ensign in the regular Navy, he entered flight training. His initial carrier qualifications in a T-2 jet trainer with Training Squadron (VT) 4 in October 1991 aboard USS Saratoga (CV 60) led to gold wings in June 1992, assignment to Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 110-the West Coast Fleet Replacement Squadron at Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar for E-2 Hawkeyes-and finally to VAW-117 aboard nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72). Now a “jaygee,” Mortimer made two deployments between June 1993 and December 1995, participating in Operations Southern Watch and Restore Hope in Iraq and Somalia, respectively.
After leaving active duty in 1999, he flew MD-80s, MD-90s and Boeing 737s for American Airlines. He immediately affiliated with the Naval Air Reserve, joining Fleet Logistics Squadron (VR) 57 at NAS North Island to fly C-9s and C-40s. During his time with VR-57, Mortimer served as a maintenance officer and officer-in-charge for a detachment to NAS Signonella in Italy in December 2004.
By then a commander selectee who had screened for aviation reserve command, he heard about the Navy Health Professionals Scholarship Program (HPSP). He had planned on going to medical school when his service commitment expired in 1999. A base aviation safety officer and C-12 aircraft commander during his shore tour at NAS North Island in California, Mortimer took requisite courses in biology and chemistry. He was selected for the Navy HPSP at the age of 39 with an age waiver. In August 2007, he entered medical school at Touro University California at Mare Island in the San Francisco Bay Area. The catch? He had to accept a reduction to ensign during his medical training. The rank reduction was required by HPSP, probably so students did not outrank their instructors. During his time in medical school, Congress changed the laws that provided for prior commissioned officers to receive basic pay at their highest held rank, while continuing to wear the lower pay grade.
In June 2011, he received a doctorate in osteopathic medicine. On graduating with all his previous time on active duty and rank, he was elevated to mid-grade lieutenant commander, Medical Corps.
As an intern, he was class president at the Naval Medical Center, San Diego, and continued training as a psychiatry resident from 2012 to 2015. Among other duties, he served as chief psychiatry resident from 2014 to 2015, earning the American Psychiatric Association Resident Recognition Award for his leadership and clinical excellence as chief resident.
Now a commander, Mortimer is currently the department head for the Mental Health Clinic and Substance and Alcohol Rehabilitation Program and staff psychiatrist at Naval Hospital Oak Harbor at NAS Whidbey Island, Washington. During his transition from aviator to physician, he had the support of his wife and two children.
Although he naturally misses flying and the camaraderie of squadron life, Mortimer “appreciates the chance” to fulfill his medical ambition to help others in the Navy and, especially, support aviation squadrons. His career is an excellent example of how today’s Navy Air Reservist can make use of his personal and professional skills and aspirations to enjoy a full and satisfying career: first as an aviator, then as a SELRES aviator helping his squadron transition to the next generation of mission aircraft, and finally, to finding his place helping his Navy shipmates.
Mortimer sums up his career with a phrase he picked up during his tour with Third Fleet Joint Forces Air Component Commander Unit in Hawaii: Ho’okahi Ka ‘Ilau Like Ana, meaning “together with one purpose.”
Cmdr. Peter B. Mersky, USNR (Ret.) is a contributing editor to Naval Aviation News.
In His Own Words: Cmdr. Mortimer Shares His Story
“I was planning to go to medical school after my service commitment ended, but many of my squadron mates, from Carrier Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 117 and flight school, were getting hired by commercial airlines. They really were enjoying it and thought it was a great deal (easy travel, great retirement, time off). So, I talked to my brother, who is a CPA, and he ran some financial projections. The results seemed to be pay-neutral for either path. I needed to make a quick decision, given the seniority system for the airline hiring, and decided to give the airlines a try in 1998 and 1999. Initially, the airlines were fun, but things abruptly changed after 9/11, resulting in furloughs and multiple airline bankruptcies.
After leaving active duty, I continued on in the Reserves. I love the Navy and knew I would stay in the Reserves because it was related to my exposure to Naval Aviation.
My father was originally an active-duty air intel officer during the Vietnam War and later served in the Reserves with Light Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (VFP) 306, which flew RF-8s. He proudly served in the Reserves and active duty for more than 30 years. I have fond memories as a child going to Armed Forces Day air shows at Andrews Air Force Base, just outside of Washington, D.C., seeing the Blue Angels, and especially sitting in the cockpit of an RF-8 during the squadron’s open house. This was obviously my motivation for becoming an aviator. So, I felt very fortunate to get a flying billet flying C-9s with Fleet Logistics Squadron (VR) 57 at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, as soon as I separated from active duty.
In 2005, I was recalled to active duty for six months to assist VR-57 in our transition to the Boeing C-40, which was based on the Boeing 737 I was flying at American Airlines. Again, I was lucky, and a group of my squadron mates and I were part of the training cadre. I was still thinking about medical school after the airline gig soured after the 9/11 attacks—careers stagnated, and pilots were furloughed. I was actually spending more time flying with my squadron and less with the airlines. During this time, I learned via a squadron mate’s wife that the Navy was short on physicians. I called the Navy Health Professionals Scholarship Program, and they said they would give me an age waiver, and the rest is history.
Bottom line: I was enjoying being back on active duty and working in the squadron in 2005, and I could not see myself going back to American Airlines, given the corporate culture and financial situation. I loved the Navy and figured, why not? If the Navy will pay for school, you only live once.
“Only in the Navy do you have the opportunity to do all the wonderful things I have been so fortunate to achieve and participate in with top quality teams in medicine and aviation.”