Dr. Ernest Perea’s road from the NSA to WCHCS

Newest physician in Corydon still holds Top Secret clearance from Cold War days

0
948
The newest member of the staff at Wayne County Hospital and Clinic System, Dr. Ernest Perea, M.D.

Almost 500 years ago, Dr. Ernest Perea’s ancestors emigrated from Spain to America. Outside the Native population, his family has been in the New World longer than any other clan of European settlers can boast. There is a ghost town of Perea on historic Route 66 near Cibola National Forest, originally a town in Mexico, which became part of the United States after President James Polk’s war of expansion and Manifest Destiny.

The transcendentalist writers of New England like Thoreau, in protest of slavery and the Mexican-American War, refused to pay taxes and were jailed by a government they could not support in this matter.

Along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, the influence of these advocates of civil disobedience has far outlasted Polk’s.

Near the end of America’s involvement in Vietnam, Dr. Perea enlisted in the Air Force. During the Cold War, he combated the Soviet Union and their spy network as a Russian linguist and trainer—a stark transition from fighting battles with musket balls to holstering nuclear weapons and delaying Mutually Assured Destruction.

Bethlehem

Perea was born in the high desert of New Mexico in a small town 30 miles south of Albuquerque called Belen. In Spanish, this means Bethlehem. His father, a member of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, got transferred to Los Angeles when Perea was one year old. His parents raised him in a time of turmoil and a climate that included the Zodiac Killer and the Manson Family.

“L.A.’s always had a slew of serial killers like the Black Dahlia and Richard Ramirez,” Perea said. “All kinds of terrible scenarios.”

After graduating from Cal State Northridge with a bachelor’s degree in biology, he performed postgraduate work in chemistry. Since 10 years of age, Perea’s dream had been to become a doctor.

In July of 1972, he enlisted in the Air Force with that goal in mind.

After basic training at Lackland Air Force base in San Antonio, the home of the Alamo, Perea completed top secret training in technology and the Russian language for the National Security Agency and the U.S. Air Force Security Service.

It was not his choice.

In England, the first asylum for the mentally ill, Bethlem Royal Hospital, or Bedlam, became through colloquial use a term for disorder, chaos and unintelligible voices. It was appropriate, then, Perea was born in Belen, because he would soon be tasked with translating a foreign language masked by code.

“I didn’t get into that voluntarily,” Perea said of his work for the NSA. “After the downgrading of the Vietnam War, there was an emphasis on intelligence—on keeping an eye on enemies and virtual enemies.

“On my second day of basic training, we were all informed we were going to a large classroom area. There were about 2,000 recruits that did this. They wanted to assay the recruit’s ability to take a mock language and conjugate it after receiving instructions.

“Long story short, we did it, I got back to the barracks, and the next day the drill instructor called me out from the dorms. He said, ‘Airman Perea, front and center. Come with me—we have to go see the base commander.

“The commander said, ‘Airman, sit down. I need to talk to you.’

“I said, ‘Am I in trouble?’

“He said, ‘Not yet. What do you want to do in this man’s Air Force?’

“I said, ‘Sir, I have a guaranteed job in avionics, and after two years of service, I’ve been given a guarantee of acceptance to the Bethesda, Maryland uniformed military medical school. I’ll be going to med school.’

“He said, ‘No, you won’t.’

“I said, ‘I’ve been given a guaranteed job—I scored high on my testing.’

“He said, ‘No, you scored number one on Lackland Air Force Base for language learning ability. I need you to be a linguist.’

“I said, ‘I’m not really interested.’

“He said, ‘Well, if you don’t accept the job change, then I can discharge you honorably back to the draft.’

“I said, ‘I’m not afraid of the draft, but what are the options?’

“He said, ‘I need a linguist in an underserved, hard-to-fill area. I need a Russian, a Chinese Mandarin, or an Eastern European linguist.’

“I said, ‘Well, I can help you—I’m fluent in Spanish.’

“He said, ‘No, one of those three.’

“I said, ‘Well, the hardest one is Russian. I’ll be a Russian linguist and I’ll stay in the Air Force, but I want you to know I want to go to med school.’

“He said, ‘No. I need you. You have a penchant for learning languages.”

Prophecy

Deciphering the Cyrillic alphabet was step one. Before that, Perea could not speak a word of Russian. It was his path to gaining Top Secret clearance.

For six months at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, he was trained in computer, radio printer and intercept operator technology. For a year, he attended Russian language school at the Presidio of Monterrey, Calif., called the Defense Language Institute, West Coast.

After extensive training, Perea was stationed for 18 months on the northern tip of the largest Japanese island of Honshu in the city of Misawa. Today, around 10,000 American military personnel still reside on this strategic U.S. signals intelligence base. Perea was an intercept operator trainer.

As an elementary student during the Cuban Missile Crisis, monotone tests of the emergency broadcast system became ingrained in his fiber.

“I remember taking that very frightfully and personally. That tapped into my zeal to be the best Russian linguist possible. The gains weren’t made with boots on the ground, but with good intelligence. It was very fragile. Anyone could’ve pushed the button.

“In Japan, we got familiar with the reporting sources on the Soviet side. They got familiar with our presence, as well.

“I’m glad I did it. It made me a better doctor.”

After Misawa, he was sent to work for the NSA in Washington, D.C. as an intelligence operative. His role was that of prophet.

“It was a time of extreme development of technology. I was able to intercept military actions before they actually occurred, and notify Washington, D.C. of an impending military movement based on my interception of Russian language. That was very exciting.

“I was also very moved by the NSA experiences where the content of the intelligence was beyond what I ever imagined—the actions going on under the radar between operatives of different countries, like the U.S. agencies and their representatives or spies, and information on foreign persons of interest—all of that interchange was very interesting.”

At the NSA at Fort Meade in 1976, this interaction became too close for comfort.

“An individual approached me when I was off of work,” Perea said. “He introduced himself as a ‘new friend’ from the Soviet Union. He wanted to talk about some exciting business opportunities.”

On occasion, the Russians were able to stumble upon a person more interested in wealth than the welfare of their neighbors, or intrigued by the excitement of spying—the opportunity to be James Bond—or a combination of both. If the informant got caught, however, it meant treason and the prospect of capital punishment.

“He was trying to offer me money or some sort of gift to talk about stuff. I was able to get a description. I cut him off at the pass, but I tried to do it in a way I kept him there: ‘Excuse me, sir, I need to take care of something—I don’t feel well—I’ll be right back.’ But he gleaned the gist of what I was doing. Of course I called the military police, and he took off running.

“I was good at what I did. I felt like I helped our country with the recovery of information the Soviets didn’t want us to have. I assisted the NSA and the Pentagon in deciphering code that was camouflaged and aberrated.”

After his four years of service as a linguist, the NSA offered Perea an intelligence position as a civilian.

“It would have been a mid-GS-9 paygrade, which was a lot of money back in 1976. It would’ve been a great career, but I refused the offer. I wanted to go to medical school. I left Maryland and came home.”

Healing energy

What helped Perea become a great linguist in only a few years of training continues to help him in the field of medicine.

“I know when there’s energy around me,” Perea said. “You first have to be a little anal-retentive and OCD, you’ve got to be a stickler for detail, for smells, for what you hear and what you see, and also for how the conditions around you are changing.

“The requirement I adapt to a new situation with new individuals and have to work with them cohesively—the collective takes over the personal. You find yourself doing things that you on your own personal directive would never have done.

“The Vietnam era was especially tough for separating veterans to assimilate back to society. I found the same difficulties, but was able to adjust both culturally and academically.”

As a volunteer for the Los Angeles County Coroner, Perea accustomed himself to gore.

“I participated in autopsies, saw processing and decomposing remains of suicides and burn and plane crash victims. It really hardened me and made anatomy lab in medical school a piece of cake. Some of the other students were pretty freaked out.

“I’m happy to see patients who speak only Spanish—I’m happy to see patients from any culture. I need to be culturally competent. I can’t help a patient if I don’t understand their non-traditional medical beliefs.

“I grew up around gigantic farms. New Mexico is a place of great joy and great suffering historically, a calamitous mix of the American Native, Hispanics and the Caucasian white man.

“I’m really impressed with the State of Iowa and how they’ve welcomed people of Hispanic descent into places like West Liberty, Muscatine and Iowa City far beyond the cohesiveness of California and Texas. Iowa’s got its normalcy, and maybe a recalcitrance to change, but it’s very accepting—it’s hard to accept people of foreign descent like Governor [Robert] Ray’s facilitation of the folks from Asia and Sudan, but Iowa has done very well. I love seeing the diversity here.

“In my experience, having been in Texas, California and New Mexico—it’s difficult in the states that border Mexico, there’s a lot of conflict in job filling and folks who are not going through the immigration vetting system. That’s a charged subject. Iowa’s done an amazing job in all ethnicities melding together.”

Perea was introduced to the Midwest when he attended medical school at Creighton, spending his residency at Mercy Medical Center in Des Moines. He found the environment to his liking—though not the climate, at first.

When he landed in Omaha, Neb. in January of 1992 at 5 a.m. for his interview, the wind chill was minus 50 degrees.

Wayne County

“I’m comfortable with an agrarian society,” Perea said. “Corydon is refreshing to me. I love the rural nature of it, the livestock, the wide-open spaces, less cars and less hustle and bustle. I plan on renting an apartment so I can stay on selected weekends. My wife and I have discussed maybe building or purchasing a home in or near Corydon.”

Perea began serving patients at Wayne County Hospital on Sept. 25. For the last six years, he has worked in Iowa City in the Mercy Network, primarily in occupational and family medicine and urgent care.

“I heard about the opportunity, so I contacted the medical staff here,” Perea said.

The Hospital’s reputation precedes itself.

Perea has also been a friend of Dr. Babar Ahmed, a native of Pakistan who works in the Hospital’s Emergency Room, for 11 years.

“He told me, ‘Dr. Perea, I could go anywhere I want to go. I have the best training and skillset, but I stay here. And I’m going to tell you why. I love it here. I’m respected as a physician. I’m allowed to work autonomously. The community’s amazing. The nurses are the best and my colleagues are respectful and very consistent in that way. I encourage you to come down and meet CEO Daren Relph.

“Daren was instrumental in my recruitment. He said one of the things that made him focus on me adamantly was a phone call we had where I did not get disconnected. So, I was still on his speakerphone, unbeknownst to me, and he said he heard me for about two-and-a-half minutes giving a very personable directive to one of my nurses and emphasizing how we wanted to make sure and take care of this patient who was urgent.”

Perhaps the lesson here is to make sure you hang up the phone after calling Daren Relph. But in this instance, it worked in Perea’s favor.

Today in family medicine, there is an emphasis on documentation.

“So, every time you go to a different clinic, they have a chameleonic hybrid of different electronic health records. That’s the only thing slowing me down currently—the learning curve. I’m doing great because of great nursing and IT support. I consider myself pretty sharp, but this is a tough, multi-appendaged system.

“I have no compunction saying this clinic is a pearl in a sea of obscurity. I have worked in this region before. Without maligning other clinics, they don’t have the culture Corydon has, they don’t have the communication.

“I’ve been nothing but welcomed.

“The past three days, I’ve seen patients from Missouri, from Centerville, from Leon, from Chariton, and they all have hospitals.

“I’m not just saying this—Corydon has an excellent medical facility, in the clinic, hospital and OB. It’s a place I’d bring my family to. Adding me helps with the waiting period. You don’t want your family going to a quick-care facility—you want them to come here. There’s no reason Corydon can’t have a huge regional draw. There’s just good energy.”