What the Iraqi war taught this ob/gyn

September 1, 2008

Brave soldiers in Iraq survive massive wounds, thanks to top-notch care at a combat support hospital overseen by an Army colonel and Ob/Gyn suddenly sent there. An inspiring first-hand account of his 'surreal' journey.

Talk about jumping out of the frying pan into the fire! The academic year was nearly over when we finished our Resident Review Committee site review. I had known what to expect on my second time around as program director. But far more intimidating was the prospect of being deployed to Baghdad in 1 week. I had no idea what this experience would bring.

I was to deploy with a Combat Support Hospital (CSH) as the Deputy Commander for Clinical Services (Chief of the Medical Staff). Not only was the hospital responsible for acute combat casualty care within the southern region of Iraq, but it had two other satellite facilities in the south. My tasks seemed daunting: being responsible for the clinical care in these facilities by supporting the physicians, nurses, and other staffers, as well as covering clinical duties, in the middle of a combat zone.

After talking it over with my wife, I called a family meeting to give our three children the news of my deployment-and let them know what to expect and what I expected of them while I was gone. We talked for a while and shed some tears. Having been in the Army for 18 years, I knew that combat duty was always a possibility, and my family needed to know that I was prepared, both mentally and professionally.

Journey into the combat zone

I left on Father's Day 2005, after writing letters to my wife and each of our three children asking them to remain strong, as I would do. I'd also written a separate letter to my wife to be opened only in the event of my death. It was the hardest day of my life, seeing my family standing at the end of the airport's long hallway as I began the first leg of my journey. I snapped a photo of that last moment, but since they were too far away for the flash to be effective, the shot captured them only in silhouette. Only the sign above their heads was visible, which ironically read: "This way out."

First stop: Fort Bliss in El Paso, TX, where 18 years earlier, I'd interned at William Beaumont Army Medical Center. El Paso was also where my first two children were born, so it seemed fitting to leave US soil from this post. The weather was about 20° cooler than that expected for summer in Baghdad. El Paso was typically 100° to 105° versus a Baghdad temperature of about 120° to 130°. As I would find out, wearing a helmet and individual body armor, and carrying a weapon, ammunition, and water were to make even simple tasks exhausting in the oppressive heat.

ON TO KUWAIT AND BAGHDAD. Being prepared for deployment to a combat zone along with me were many men and women headed over to replace soldiers from different combat units. After training, our group boarded another plane for Kuwait. It was very strange to have flight attendants remind us to, "Make sure you securely place your weapons in the overhead bins!"

My first breath of the nighttime air stepping off the plane in Kuwait told me it was already hotter than the daytime temperature in El Paso. After we were bused to another site, and issued more gear, we caught a few hours' rest before boarding a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft for the flight to Baghdad from yet another base.

DESCENDING IN DARKNESS. Our nighttime combat descent and landing into Baghdad took a toll on more than a few of the passengers strapped into net seating in the cargo hold-making them sick to their stomachs. Baghdad International Airport was quiet when I arrived and proceeded to transient quarters for some food and a full night's rest. How good it was to finally sleep horizontally for more than 2 hours after traveling nearly 36 hours!