Dr Geoffrey Thompson

While initially joining the military was unexpected, having been called up in 1967, Dr Thompson quickly realised the benefits that time in the RAAF could bring.

31 January 2020

From Australian Defence Force to NT Australian of the Year 2020

Dr Geoffrey Thompson first joined the Defence Force back in 1967. His previous love of flying and already having a pilot’s license saw him quickly transfer to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), where he was able to complete the final two years of his medical training. In 1974, when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin, he assisted with the RAAF effort to evacuate the city and oversaw the team providing medical support. What he learnt while serving positioned him well for the transition back to civilian life, where he is now sports physician.

Life in the RAAF and overseeing support for cyclone Tracy recovery efforts

Dr Geoffrey Thompson in 1974 RAAF uniformWhile initially joining the military was unexpected, having been called up in 1967, Dr Thompson quickly realised the benefits that time in the RAAF could bring. He was able to complete his medical training, and gain further skills in the medical field that he could use later in life. Dr Thompson says ‘a military career was one of the best things for me to do, I was like a pig in mud. I got to undertake courses that interested me and could further my career’.

Having held many positions while serving, including as the Senior Medical Officer at East Sale in Victoria, it was always a dream of his, and his wife, to move to Darwin. They made the move to the top end in November 1971, and loved the work and lifestyle so much that they extended their stay until the 1974, or so they thought.

When they were about to leave cyclone Tracy intervened, and the RAAF played a major role in the recovery efforts. This involved endless sleepless nights and working closely with hospital facilities. Dr Thompson oversaw reservist doctors who provided medical checks to individuals before they boarded planes to go elsewhere for help. In a twist of fate, this also meant he’s planned transition out of the RAAF was also further delayed. He intended to leave and set up his own medical practice, but due to the cyclone, there was no one remaining in Darwin.

While this changed the plan, a reservist career was calling him, and he re-enlisted for another 12 months. This allowed him to continue a military career, something he loved, while allowing time for residents to return back to Darwin so he could make the simple transition to civilian life and have his own medical practice.

RAAF skills and a pilot’s license put to good use

A love of flying and helping people is at Dr Thompson’s core. He owns his own plane and even set up his own Aero Club back in the day, which had instructors from the local RAAF base, so members were in good hands. Up until the age of 65 he would spend every Tuesday as a charter pilot.

When it comes to combining flying and medicine, then there is a good chance Dr Thompson is the person to speak to. He Joined the West Australian Royal Flying Doctors Service as a Director. The Service required people to be a commercial instrument rated pilot as well as an aviation medicine trained doctor. There wasn’t many of them around, so the job was a perfect fit for him and his skills where in demand.

Out of his own goodwill, he would fly to Arnhem Land Aboriginal communities to deliver medical clinics using his own aircraft. This was something he continued for three years before the Government placed doctors out in those regions. He remained a designated aviation medicine examiner, to ensure he could still play some sort of role in delivering this support.

What he learned while in the RAAF allowed him to be able to do all this, in particular, the skills he developed in evacuation, in-flight care and assessment, allowing people to travel safely by air and being able to address the various physiological challenges that air travel brings.  

Given all this, his transition was smooth as his skills were put to immediate use. Nowadays, Dr Thompson has many military and veteran clients, who immediately relate to his background and vice versa.

Dr Geoffrey Thompson in receipt of his Australian of the year award

The Ken Cooper effect

Dr Thompson became a sports and exercise physician, which was a new speciality back in the day. His interest in that started through his RAAF career. He went to lectures delivered by US Doctor Ken Cooper which is where the interest sparked. Ken established the Defence Force fitness test, some parts of the test are still used in Air Forces and some militaries all around the world today. In South American countries they still call it the Cooper test.

After attending the lectures and striking up a friendship with Ken, Dr Thompson took study leave and worked with him in Dallas, Texas. It was there he started to really think about the importance of exercise to health. That inspired him to enter the field, and he was one of the initial 100 to graduate as a sports physician in Australia. So this new found career was all brought about through his time in the RAAF and the contacts he made, mainly Ken Cooper.

Tips for young players and the military bond

Dr Thompson has two main tips that he would like to pass on, firstly, you should never discount the benefits of a period of time in the military. Both the benefit to your chosen profession and to your own development.

Secondly, the military bond is like no other. There are ups and downs but they are lifelong friends. He would feel guilty if he drove from Townsville to Melbourne without stopping at all the places where he has ex-Air Force friends, and he has been out for 40 years. But they are the people he has continued to remain in contact with. When he was nominated for NT Australian of the Year 2020 award, people he hadn’t seen in over 30 years where able to message him over Facebook to say congratulations. ‘If you ever find a time where things are a bit tough or you feel a bit isolated, they are the people you reach out to - your military peers’.