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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

SSG Shilo Harris and the Warrior Ethos

No one can imagine or begin to understand the living hell that struck like a bolt of lightening one dark day on the sandy byways of Iraq.  An armored vehicle was blown apart, and three American soldiers lost their lives at that moment.  Although two soldiers in the driver's compartment survived, one would suffer severe burn injury to his hands, upper body and face in addition to orthopedic injury.  That man is SSG(R) Shilo Harris.  With his wife by his side, Shilo has begun to move beyond his own devastating wounds and into the realm of reaching out to other wounded warriors.  He also takes a moment now and then to speak to those of us who need to hear his story...the story of an American Soldier...without ears, the tip of his nose and some fingers...but with a big heart.

I was privileged to meet this heroic wounded warrior extraordinaire at a luncheon in San Antonio, Texas.  Shilo was speaking to a group of civilian and military doctors, nurses and hospital/medical administrators in an effort to educate us all in exactly how the warrior ethos plays out in real life.  SSG Harris has an amazing tale to tell, and he continues to share his ongoing transition to civilian life after receiving those horrific burn injuries in the IED blast in 2007.  He feels that his story is an important lesson in managing the needs of both the soldier and his family when a catastrophic injury occurs.

His story is especially inspiring to those whose mission it is to care for wounded soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines as they defend our freedoms from far away.  Shilo and his wife Kathreyn share their experiences in the Army medical system and the lessens that those experiences bring to all of us who medically serve these very special Americans. In the days immediately following his injuries and subsequent evacuation to Germany and then to Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, not everything worked for Shilo and his family as well as we would all have hoped.  But the Army Medical Department took heed of the  deficiencies and made end-roads toward developing a more compassionate and comprehensive system of wounded warrior care and family support on a global scale.

The Army Medical Department has established Warrior Transition Units to assist the individual soldiers as well as their family members in navigating the labyrinth of issues involved in recovery and integration back into civilian life.  This system is not yet seamless, but the advances since SSG Harris was injured in 2007 have been substantial.  Privately garnered funding (individual donations and corporate sponsorship) has made state-of-the-art facilities like the Center for the Intrepid a reality.  The Fisher House, an unprecedented project to shelter the families of wounded warriors as their loved one recovers over months or even years, was made possible by the generous gifts of Zachary and Elizabeth Fisher.  These facilities meet an otherwise neglected need to put a soldier's support system, his or her family, in immediate proximity to where their rehabilitation is conducted.

SSG Harris is now actively involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, a worthy cause that supports the multifaceted issues that come with catastrophic injuries of war.  SSG Harris and his comrades in arms across the world in service to this Nation embody the Warrior Ethos:
I will always place the mission first.
I will never accept defeat.
I will never quit.
I will never leave a fallen comrade

In these ongoing wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, our American heroes who have sustained combat injury, whether it is visible as in an amputated leg or invisible as in traumatic brain injury (TBI), need our support now more than ever.  The advances of Army medicine on and off the battlefield have allowed many more soldiers to come back home alive, but they sometimes return with physical and psychological needs that must be met for years to come.  Their families cannot bear the burden alone, and all Americans need to step up with a helping hand to these courageous and selfless men and women of our Armed Forces.

Meanwhile, Shilo Harris goes on speaking and inspiring and opening the eyes of civilians and military alike with his unbridled enthusiasm for the Army Medical Department and the role that his doctors, nurses, corpsman and others played in his recovery and rehabilitation. He told a few anecdotes about what it's like to get along without the benefit of his God-given ears, but he was very pleased to report that he had a new set of prosthetic ones.  "So where are your ears today?" I couldn't help but inquire of him at the end of his lunchtime talk.   He said that his brand new "regular" ears needed some further adjustment to alleviate soreness on his skin, but next time, he promised to wear his "Spock" pair just for fun...who knew?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Farewell To The Old Walter Reed

It was an unlikely place for me to be since I normally found any excuse to miss a military ball, but there I was – it was May of 2009, and I was surrounded by a crowd of revelers to celebrate 100 years of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center (formerly known as Walter Reed General Hospital). This was the last hurrah before the medical center was moved to Bethesda, MD.  It was strictly a black tie affair, so the military attendees were bedecked in their Dress Mess uniforms making dancing a ridiculous proposition, but dance they did.  There was a great deal to celebrate that night because the history of Walter Reed is rich, but to think of it in the past tense made me more sad than celebratory.
 Its beginnings were quite humble with the forerunner of the hospital being a health clinic at Fort McNair.  But in 1909, the new Walter Reed General Hospital was born.  Unfortunately, its namesake, Major Walter Reed, had already died some seven years earlier of a ruptured appendix at the young age of 51.  He had already accomplished more to advance medical science in his middle years than most of us can dream of in two lifetimes of medical practice.  The honor of his name was bestowed on the hospital because of his landmark work in combating deadly yellow fever and the many lives that were saved.

Over the course of a century, the hospital grew from 80 beds to the enormous medical center that it is today.  Building 1”, as the original hospital was known, admitted the first patient in May of 1909.  Hundreds of thousands of military personnel and their families have subsequently received treatment.  But Walter Reed is most recently renowned for the treatment of wounded warriors from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In 2007, a series of reports in the Washington Post sparked a scandal that was highly publicized and politicized but ultimately led to positive changes in the way soldiers in transition from war are treated.
As part of the culture of change that was needed to bring back the bruised reputation of WRAMC, Disney Corporation, world-renowned for their customer service focus, was brought into the organization to help set things back on track.  A one-stop-shop Warrior Clinic was founded that made access to care much more convenient and efficient.  A concierge service for families of wounded warriors was adopted, and greeters were strategically placed at all the hospital entrances to begin the day with a smile and an offer of assistance.
While Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were quite helpful, ultimately, it was time to move on from the old Walter Reed.  As of September 15, 2011, Walter Reed Army Medical Center has relocated and renamed as planned under the Base Realignment and Closure Act (BRAC).  Combining with the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, the new facilities constitute the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) where the care of soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen goes on.  I will miss the old campus with its historic beauty and significance in the advancement of medical science.  I will miss those amazing hallways of Building 1 with the portraits of commanders past (and perhaps a few ghosts).  I will miss the basement tunnel and Building 1's rickety elevators…ok, maybe not the elevators!  Farewell WRAMC.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Dr. Mary Walker - An American Heroine

From the first moment that I read about this amazing physician, a woman well ahead of her time regarding social issues of her day, I adopted her as a role model for my own life in Army medicine.  She was the first female Congressional Medal of Honor recipient for her selfless sacrifices on behalf of humanity during the Civil War.  In truth, she spent her entire life in the service of others, and she championed many rights for women.

Born in 1832 in New York State, Dr. Mary Walker was the youngest  of five daughters and a brother in her farm family.  Her parents made sure that she received an education despite the sentiment of the day that higher education, was reserved for men.  She was the only woman in her medical school class at Syracuse Medical College, graduating in 1855.  She married a fellow physician in her class, Dr. Albert Miller, but she kept her maiden name as the couple began a private medical practice together in New York; however, this business endeavor was not ultimately successful due to the general anti-female doctor sentiment in the community.  That did not stop her from continuing forward to the next milestone of her life.

When the Civil War began, she volunteered to serve on behalf of the Union Army as a civilian; however, she initially had to work as a nurse because the Army did not allow female surgeons. Later, she became the first female field surgeon (an unpaid position), and worked near the front lines of battle in the Battle of Fredricksburg, Chattanooga and the Battle of Chickamauga.  Eventually, she took up a paid position as an Army contract surgeon and secured her place in history as the first female US Army surgeon.

Dr. Walker was fearless, and she was not infrequently found to be crossing the lines of battle to treat civilians.  In the spring of 1864, she was captured by Confederate troops and spent time as a prisoner in Richmond, Virginia (accused of being a spy).  She was released that summer in a prisoner exchange and went on to serve in the Battle of Atlanta.

Once the war was over, Dr. Walker was recommended to receive the Medal of Honor by Generals Sherman and Thomas, and in 1865, this was awarded to her by President Andrew Johnson for her service at the First Battle of Bull Run.   In 1917, a major review and revision of the Medal of Honor Rolls was conducted such that only those with actual combat involving the enemy were included.  Approximately 911 names were removed under the new rules. Dr. Mary Walker was one of those names. She was ordered to return her medal but declined to do so, and she wore her Medal of Honor proudly until her death in 1919 at age 86. In 1977, President Carter reinstated the Medal of Honor to Dr. Walker, a long overdue event. The following is the citation:

Whereas it appears from official reports that Dr. Mary E. Walker, a graduate of medicine, "has rendered valuable service to the Government, and her efforts have been earnest and untiring in a variety of ways," and that she was assigned to duty and served as an assistant surgeon in charge of female prisoners at Louisville, Ky., upon the recommendation of Major-Generals Sherman and Thomas, and faithfully served as contract surgeon in the service of the United States, and has devoted herself with much patriotic zeal to the sick and wounded soldiers, both in the field and hospitals, to the detriment of her own health, and has also endured hardships as a prisoner of war four months in a Southern prison while acting as contract surgeon; and Whereas by reason of her not being a commissioned officer in the military service, a brevet or honorary rank cannot, under existing laws, be conferred upon her; and Whereas in the opinion of the President an honorable recognition of her services and sufferings should be made. It is ordered, That a testimonial thereof shall be hereby made and given to the said Dr. Mary E. Walker, and that the usual medal of honor for meritorious services be given her.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

General George Patton and His Peacemaker

General Patton knew what he liked, and he surrounded himself with those things that he loved including his prized handguns.  When I visited the General Patton Museum, Fort Knox, Kentucky last year, I spent hours walking around the displays and soaking in the history of the Patton era.  He liked to design his own uniforms, and he was fond of carrying a riding crop along with the very special Colt .45 with ivory handles.  If you ever have occasion to visit Fort Knox, the Patton Museum is a must.

General Patton’s choice of personal sidearm was as legendary as his eccentric behavior, but he is remembered as a true American hero for his exploits over the decades.  Beginning with Pancho Villa in 1916 under General Pershing, followed by his tank achievements in WWI and finally with his WWII campaign across Europe, General Patton carved his indelible mark on military history.  I will always remember his famous speech to the Third Army made even more famous in pop culture in the movie “Patton.”  George C. Scott was impressive in his interpretation of the man and his image as a War God. Patton Speech (not the movie version).

It was a rather sad ending to his life in a freak car accident only a few months after the end of WWII.  He never really had a chance to enjoy many accolades for all his heroics during the war before his life was over.  He is buried with the fallen of the Battle of the Bulge, and I have to imagine that he would have been happy with that place of rest.  I can also imagine that he would not have been completely happy in civilian life given his affinity for the battlefield where he always sported his favorite personal sidearm with flare.  Ronald Reagan narrated a newsreel brief on Patton's WWII triumphs and untimely death.

Video Slideshow

The Legacy of Colt

Many years ago, my dad gave me his Army sidearm, a Colt .45 Commander.  What a gift!  I had no idea at the time that this represents a piece of history as far as weaponry goes, but I recently had occasion to do a little research on this gun’s legacy especially as it relates to the Army.

The Colt .45 Commander was considered as a possible replacement for the Colt M1911A1, and the Commander was intended to fill a military need for a lighter handgun for issue to officers. Ultimately, this weapon was not chosen; however, Colt went ahead with production of what turned out to be a very popular design.  The Colt Manufacturing Company has a legacy of producing weapons of interest to the military.

One of the more famous colt products is the Walker Colt, used by the United States Mounted Rifles in the Mexican-American War.  By placing a huge order for these guns, this group of pre-Texas Rangers assured the financial viability of the Colt Manufacturing Company.   The first of four Colt .45 models was the Single Action Army, also known as the Peacemaker that debuted in 1873.  The Peacemaker was the most popular firearm of the Old West, and Colt still produces this gun.

The Colt .45 model of 1878 was bought by the US Army and issued to the Philippine Constabulary Corps and also used by US troops in Alaska. Later, the Model 1909 became the new service revolver to be adopted by the US military.  It had faster loading, a new method of ejecting cartridges and an improved trigger as compared to the Model 1878. The fourth Colt .45, the M1911 (designed by John Browning) was the standard issue military sidearm from 1911 until 1985.

The rich history of the Colt .45 and the US Army was previously unknown to me, but I’m glad to have discovered it.  This little gem of a sidearm that my dad handed down to me will remain with me for as long as I can foresee.  Sure, she has some issues of weightiness that make it hard for a small woman like myself to handle, but I plan to take it out every now and then and remember…

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Reflection on Iraq 2008

Now that it's been 3 years since I left Fort Benning on a huge transport plane bound for Iraq, I've had plenty of time to reflect on those who have had multiple tours both before and after mine as well as those who sacrificed their lives and limbs.  The reflection always leaves me exhausted because I've had a chance to hear many more stories about things that went on in the FST's (Forward Surgical Teams) and the CSH's (Combat Surgical Hospitals).  I did not participate as fully as I had hoped I would as an activated Reservist OBGYN doctor, but I was happy to be able to contribute even a little to the medical support of our troops down-range.  Those who serve our Nation in uniform are my heroes, and I have to say that the combat medics inspire me the most.  Theirs is a long and distinguished tradition of service and sacrifice to save the lives of their buddies in combat.

There are many examples in history where combat medics earned distinction.  I found one such amazing soldier from WWII, PFC Frederick Murphy.  His story is laid out on the Army Medical Department's history website.  He was wounded so many times in the course of a single battle at Saarlautern, Germany, that it defies the imagination as to how he saved so many lives.  Ultimately, he could not save his own and was awarded the Medal of Honor.  His story is worth reading as are the countless other accounts of valor under fire.

I salute all my fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines and coast guardsmen for their selfless service - there is no draft, and it's an all-volunteer effort now.  Even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wage on, recruiting efforts continue to have success because America still has many heroes yet unsung, and unborn.