Living a life dedicated to public service

By Anne Riker Garlington

Captain Ayessa Toler
Captain Ayessa Toler

Life in public service is both an honor and a commitment. For University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions alumna Captain Ayessa Toler, being a dedicated public servant is a way of life. 

Toler, who earned her Master of Health Administration from PHHP in 2003 and a UF Master of Business Administration in 2019, is the chief of medical plans, operations and exercises for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.

With 20 years of dedicated service in the Navy and Marine Corps, Toler’s military life has taken her across the globe, undertaking responsibilities ranging from administrative planning to designing medical support strategies and coordinating operations.

Captain Ayessa Toler on an eight-mile hike with full combat load, which is approximately 50-60 pounds.
Captain Ayessa Toler on an eight-mile hike with full combat load, which is approximately 50-60 pounds.

In April, Toler will assume the role of commanding officer of the Second Medical Battalion in Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, where she will oversee 800 military personnel who serve the battalion.

The Medical Battalion provides health service support to U.S. Marine and Navy military personnel to enable worldwide mission success in any contingency or crisis. The United States Marine Corps does not have its own health care system, they are supported by the Navy’s medical infrastructure, which is staffed by Navy Medicine personnel, Toler said.

Reflecting on the medical battalion’s role, Toler cites a favorite quote from Roman author Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus’s tract “De re militari”: “If you desire peace, you prepare for war.” If ever there is a conflict and U.S. Marines are deployed, Toler and her team will have prepared the essential services, necessary health care supplies and plans to ensure the U.S. Marines have all the medical assistance they require.

“My team and I prepare for the worst-case scenario so when someone gets hurt, they get the medical care they need immediately,” Toler said. “It is all about saving people’s lives and ensuring the safety of each fellow Marine and Sailor serving in active duty.”

Throughout her distinguished career, Toler has earned numerous accolades, including a Defense Meritorious Service Medal, three Meritorious Service Medals, Joint Service Commendation Medal, and four Navy and Marine Corps commendation medals.

One of the most meaningful medals she received was the Navy and Marine Corps commendation medal from her deployment to Afghanistan between October 2009 and March 2010.  While deployed, she served as the coordinating medical plans officer for coalition forces operation in southern Afghanistan.

Captain Toler receives her captain/rank 06 shoulder boards.
Captain Toler receives her captain/rank 06 shoulder boards.

“So many things happened during that deployment, ups and downs … it was such a roller coaster,” Toler said. “Receiving that award means so much to me. It reminds me that I can do hard things, overcome adversity, and accomplish the mission. I am proud that I earned this medal early in my military service. I have looked back at it often and it has kept me motivated when things got tough.”

Toler talks about her time at UF and shares her advice for others who are considering a military career.

Question: What is the best lesson you learned at UF?

Answer: Learning to be independent, resilient and do things on my own. I learned to make my way at UF and served in several leadership positions in campus organizations.

While in the master’s in health administration program, I had an internship at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Hospital in Houston, Texas. That opportunity created amazing relationships through networking, helped me learn the business culture in a medical environment and instilled dedication and a strong work ethic.

Q: Who is the UF faculty member who influenced you most?

A: Murray Côté, Ph.D., who now teaches at Texas A&M University, taught health care statistics, business health care, business analytics and how to use those in decision making. He made the topics fun and bridged the gap of a school topic and practical knowledge. It helps to translate those academic topics to real world ideas which you will use. 

Captain Toler at her captain promotion ceremony in October 2023 with her husband Charlie Toler.
Captain Toler at her captain promotion ceremony in October 2023 with her husband Charlie Toler.

For me, it was important to understand how to use data and back up your gut feelings and your intuition with facts. Military decision-making is all about facts, so this was an important lesson for me to understand.

Q: What advice would you give others who might be interested in going into military duty?

A: Be ready for hard work. Once you’ve selected military service, you’re allowed the career opportunity for a diverse and dynamic path, but there is potential for constant change. At one point, I was transitioning every one to two years and felt I was in a constant state of motion. If a person is not able to embrace constant change, active duty in the military would be difficult.

Another favorite quote which embodies my success with the U.S. Marines is, “You have to bloom where you are planted.” Do a good job in the job you have.

Q: What would people be surprised to learn about you?

A: I love to run and have participated in seven marathons and 10 half-marathons. In addition, during down-time, my husband, retired U.S. Navy Nurse Corps Officer Charlie Toler, and I love to travel and work out at the gym.