Former Academy QB under center as deployed orthopedic doctor

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — It’s 1999 and he steps onto the gridiron as a leader. It’s his team now. With big shoes to fill left by a record-setting signal caller, senior Cale Bonds is about to begin the final season of his college career as the starting quarterback of the U.S. Air Force Academy Falcons football team.

Fast forward 16 years.

It’s 2015 and he steps in the surgery bay as a leader. His team surrounds him. He’s the deployed orthopedic surgeon at Bagram Airfield, and others turn to him when they need to save a limb or a life. With big scrubs to fill from the doctors that preceded him, Maj. Cale Bonds continues his career as an Air Force surgeon.

Bonds’ unique opportunities as a USAFA football player helped shape him in to the doctor he is today. His college coaches chose him as the starter for a reason, and the commander of the 455th Expeditionary Medical Group, Col. Gianna Zeh, sees those same leadership traits. 

“As the quarterback of USAFA, Dr. Bonds was required to make quick decisions to execute first downs and touchdowns to win the game,” she 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 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,” the commander added. “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.”

However, the leadership Bonds displays didn’t only come from the classroom and military training. He attributes the gridiron to building his character.

“I learned things outside the classroom, on the field, that are more value 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.”

After graduating from the Academy, Bonds continued on to medical school and took the lessons he learned as a Falcon with him.

“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 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. He still keeps in touch with, and tracks, the success of his former teammates. Many have gone on to be doctors as well, and here at Bagram, 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 fields, leads to success,” he said. “Sports teach people to develop an ‘always strive to be better’ attitude that builds natural leaders.”

With his football days behind him, Bonds, now a father of three little girls, still watches every Academy football game he can. 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.

This feature is part of the “Through Airmen’s Eyes” series. These stories focus on individual Airmen, highlighting their Air Force story.

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