Overall Honorable Mention: The life of a military doctor

February 10, 2012

No one hates Mondays as much as a physician in Afghanistan, who must end each Monday saluting fallen comrades as their coffins are prepared for the flight to the U.S. His story is not a plea for pity but a request for doctors on the homefront to support the troops and their families.

If you were lucky and had some time off, you had one too many beers on Sunday afternoon or you stayed up too late because the game went into overtime. The next morning when your alarm clock went off, you hit the snooze button a few extra times. When you finally made it into work, the charts were stacked up and the front-office staff was frantic because you're normally there 15 minutes before the first patient.

My situation is very different. I'm serving in Afghanistan as a military doctor. It's my second deployment here, following a deployment in Iraq. I'm in the intensive care unit (ICU) with colleagues who are nephrologists, rheumatologists, and pediatricians. But here we all function-often well outside of our comfort zones-as ICU and inpatient physicians. We work alongside our surgical brothers and sisters, the flight nurses and combat medics, and all too often, the military chaplains.

WAR'S ULTIMATE VICTIMS

But back to Mondays. Why do I hate them? I haven't had a day off in 6 months, so it's not because it's the beginning of the work week. No, it's because every Monday night, my colleagues and I walk out of the climate-controlled environment of our combat hospital into the angry heat and remorseless dust, and over to Hangar 7 on the flight line. There we stand and salute as the names are read, the flags draped, the coffins lifted and carried, and the bodies stacked for the final flight home. Grown men-tough, tattooed men-cry.

I think about the people back home. Five thousand miles away, a mother or father or wife or husband or son or daughter will get a life-altering phone call. As cliché as it may sound, they'll know even before they pick up the phone. There will be something intangible, something about the time or the place that will alert them that this is the one phone call they should never have to answer. Some will scream, others will drop the phone, but most will stay silent. The price they claimed they were willing to pay has come due.