Get to know: Danielle Cermak ’00, one of the Air Force’s elite leaders

Of the nearly 336,000 U.S. Air Force airmen serving on active duty today, fewer than 1% have achieved the rank of colonel and less than a quarter of those are women. Only after dedicating a minimum of 22 years serving in the military and three years in the previous rank of lieutenant colonel, can a field grade officer be entered into the competitive zone of promotion.

The rank of colonel is elite; it takes a person with a passion for service and an internal drive to be appointed to pin the O-6 insignia to their uniform — a person like Danielle Cermak.

Cermak graduated magna cum laude in 2000 from University of Detroit Mercy’s College of Engineering & Science with a degree in Biochemistry. That same year, on May 3, she raised her right hand and was commissioned into the U.S. Air Force — where most would imagine her life of service began.

In reality, Cermak had always felt a need to serve; it’s a passion she credits Detroit Mercy for fulfilling.

“I’ve always been very service and community oriented, so having that in the ethos and mission of the University was very appealing to me,” Cermak said. “One of the things that drew me to the school was the chance to get involved — I felt like there were so many opportunities.”

Danielle Cermak, in fatigues, with a skeleton model of a handDuring her years as a Titan, Cermak earned several leadership and service awards. She served as the Student Senate secretary, charity chairperson in her sorority, Kappa Beta Gamma; led the Academic Research Center assisting students with their study skills; was involved in the Institute for Leadership & Service; and volunteered at soup kitchens and in programs assisting local mothers and children suffering from HIV, just to name a few.

“That sense of community, it was something that I just felt right away when I first toured the Detroit Mercy campus,” said Cermak. “I very much have been a person that goes with their intuition and on that tour, it immediately felt like home. I just followed that feeling knowing that it was where I needed to be.”

After graduating, Cermak attended Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine as a Health Professions Scholarship Program recipient. The unique U.S. Military program commissions students as a second lieutenant and not only covers the cost of medical school, but provides a living stipend and reimbursement for any required books, equipment and supplies.

“I always knew I wanted to be a physician and to figure out how to pay for that was a different matter,” said Cermak. “It wasn’t until my junior year that it clicked and applying for the HPSP was what I needed to do. It checked all the boxes; It would help me pay for school, I would be able to serve my country, it’s where I need to go and how I need to go forward while still fulfilling my need to serve.”

Cermak’s journey would continue with the five-and-a-half-week Commissioned Officer Training held at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., where she was not only tested physically, but mentally while learning and building upon the valuable leadership skills she already obtained during her Titan education.

“My leadership philosophy revolves around the four T’s — taking care of people, trust, transparency, and teamwork,” Cermak said. “A lot of those values came from my younger years growing up and going to Detroit Mercy. As a leader, I encourage those around me to follow those same values because they’ll never steer you wrong.”

After completing medical school in 2004, the whirlwind that would become Cermak’s career began. After first fulfilling her residency requirements at the National Capital Consortium at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital, Va., in 2007, she was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Academy Family Health Clinic in Colorado Spring, Colo., where she was immediately welcomed with a surprising task.

“When I got to the U.S. Air Force Academy and began in-processing, I was stopped at the readiness section where they essentially shook my hand and said ‘You’re deploying in 120 days,’” said Cermak. “I was a brand-new doctor and had very little experience, but next thing I know I’m in the desert in Ali Al Salem Air Base [Kuwait], but it was the best thing that could’ve ever happened to me.

“It allowed me to solidify my practice, I saw things that a family doctor would never see stateside. I was a first responder to an airline fire, I was involved in responding to multiple mass casualties, and responding to accidents that needed to be taken care of in my tiny clinic — it was life changing work.”

After returning from deployment, and much like her time spent at Detroit Mercy, Cermak continued to seek out leadership positions, and was rewarded for her service.

From winning the prestigious Paul W. Meyers award during her time at Shaw AFB, S.C., to being competitively selected for a one-year USAF Medical Corps Force Management fellowship program at the Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Va., to then serving as the clinical services chief at Pacific Air Forces Headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, Cermak made success look effortless, but she’ll be the first to argue its difficulty.

“A lot of these life-changing experiences that the military gave me weren’t easy; they were hard, but they helped me grow and hopefully made me a better person and a better leader,” said Cermak.

Today, as a part of the 1%, Cermak looks forward to her biggest role to-date as she’s recently been appointed to become the commander of the 27th Special Operations Medical Group at Cannon AFB, N.M., a clinic that provides a full spectrum of medical care to nearly 13,000 eligible beneficiaries.

“I have an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards those who shaped and taught me throughout my life because I definitely did not get to this rank by myself; it was my mentors, my colleagues — those that helped shape me and saw value within me that’s why I’ve achieved all that I have,” said Cermak. “I’m just grateful. Grateful for the education I received at Detroit Mercy, grateful to my friends, my family, and my colleagues — it’s those folks that helped me to get to where I am today and continue to inspire me to live everyday as a servant leader.”

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