Saturday, January 19, 2008

"Back home, a struggle to reconnect - Medical reservists return, changed indelibly by war" *

Among the medical units that Soldiers Angels has supported was the 399th Combat Support Hospital, which is based in Massachusets. The 399th is a reserve unit, whose 450 members were called up and sent to take care of our guys in Iraq. When the 399th was in Iraq in 2006-07, the medics often came under mortar and rocket fire as they treated more than 30,000 US and Iraqi forces, contractors, civilians, and detainees. I was glad when they came home last October; it had been a long deployment.

I recently read this article in the > Boston Globe, which interviewed several of the returned medics and learned about their experiences; and the impact it has had on them.

Returning to civilian life hasn't been easy for all of them; some are struggling. A licensed practical nurse who served as an intensive care unit nurse in Iraq, has nightmares about "rooms full of really hurt people whom I can't help." Another, whose job as an emergency room nurse meant he was the first to assess trauma patients, has dreams of war victims whose flesh has been ripped apart by shrapnel.

One reservist, who in civilian life is an intensive care unit nurse, brings along a heavy denim diaper bag she found in the closet of her house after returning from Iraq. She has put her planner, makeup, wallet, checkbook, pens, and a winter hat in the bag, to bring its weight up to a familiar load, and slings the bag over her right shoulder. She carries it with her everywhere, she said, "so that I don't miss my M16 so much."

Unlike most active duty troops, who continue to see one another daily after they return from deployments because they live on or near their military base, members of the 399th live all over the country, and their civilian lives rarely intersect. After a year of treating the victims of war together, such abrupt separation deprives the reservists of an important support network. Their monthly drills serve as an important chance to reconnect.

In time, I hope it will be easier and they will all find peace. Healing takes many forms. Carlos, one of my former adopted medics lost his best friend in Iraq. He and his wife just had their first child, a son who they named Nathanial after that friend. Little Nate was born on his name-sake's birthday, and Nathanial's mother came to meet him and stayed with them to help.

My uncle Harry, who is 86, was a medic in WWII. He landed at Normandy, went through France, Belgium and into Germany all the way to the end of the war in Europe.
He told me about one of the soldiers he couldn’t save. He drove an ambulance then, and described driving to the company aid station with one hand, while he held a bandage over the patient’s chest wound with the other. But he said that the soldier didn’t make it. It was plain on his face that 60 years hadn’t dimmed his memory of that event. But you could see he was at peace with it. I asked him how he felt about that memory, and he just gave his very wise, soft smile and said “I feel all right, because I did my best for him”. That’s all you can do, remember that you did your best for them.


*Quotes and passages used with permission of staff writer Anna Badkhen, and The Boston Globe Newspaper.