Search This Blog

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Kuwait Chronicle II

To The Color

I was engrossed in my habitual evening run on the track when it blared out from the GIANT VOICE, i.e. the loudspeakers that blanket Camp Arifjan; it was the bugle call for "Retreat" followed closely by "To The Color."  My run abruptly terminated as I came to attention and rendered honors to the Flag.  This is a daily event on Army installations across the US (and the world), but it stopped my usual activities for a moment and caused me to reflect upon the day, the mission and the symbol our Nation.

The history of the bugle call is long and distinguished, but even before there were bugles, there were drums.  Drums constitute the original "you've got mail" messaging system, and their place in tribal history is well-known.  But the use of bugles for calls to arms as well as all the other daily soldiering tasks, is much more modern.  The British introduced the bugle in Colonial America, and the instrument was used as a signal in the American Army during the Revolutionary War. The unique calls evolved out of the interaction between the Continental Army and the French and English armies.  Eventually, each branch of the Army developed its own set of signals.  The Infantry used drum beats while the Cavalry and Artillery used bugle calls.

The day begins with "Reveille," and there are a series of bugle calls that follow until "Taps."  Taps has its own unique history dating back to the Civil War.  It began as a revised version of "Lights Out" to mark the end of the day, and it was likely borrowed from the French.  However, Civil War General Danial Butterfield wanted a kinder, gentler end to the evening, and in 1862, the Taps as we know it was born.

I am a trumpet player through and through, and one of the very first tunes I ever played was Taps.  It is played, of course, at military funerals, and the emotions that hearing that simple, haunting tune evoke cannot adequately be described...they must be felt.  Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines all keenly feel a certain sadness whenever Taps is played.  We wear our military pride and tradition in our hearts, and that lilting melody tugs at the strings every time.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Kuwait Chronicle I

A Bit of History:

It seems like forever, but it really hasn't been that long since Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade and occupy neighboring Kuwait...his justification?  Oil, of course - he accused the Kuwaiti Government of siphoning off oil from the fields along the border and mistakenly assumed that his Arab neighbors would support his claim.  A little later (mid-January 1991), President George H.W. Bush sent US military assets into action in Operation Desert Storm. Along with a coalition of nations to include Britain, France, Germany, the Soviet Union, Japan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a few other countries, air strikes were initiated against the Iraqi communications network, weapons plants and oil refineries. 

The air attacks using laser and infrared-guided "smart" bombs were relentless and effective such that by mid-February, ground forces came in via Saudi Arabia.  They were able to encircle and ultimately defeat Saddam's forces, including his elite Republican Guard.  The war came to an end by 28 February of that same year....we've been in Kuwait ever since.

The Present:

This week marks the second time I have visited Kuwait's sands, and not much has changed.  During my Iraq deployment in 2008, I merely passed through the country on my way to/from Tikrit, Iraq as do nearly all deployed troops.  This time, I am here to stay for a 3 month tour.  The sand is still hot, and the wind still blows it all into my face and into everything I own!  Still, there are good features like relatively comfortable living quarters ("the pods") and an excellent, although small, military treatment facility to work in.

Formerly operated by the Navy, an Army Combat Support Hospital (CSH) now occupies the MTF here.  Most of my colleagues drill together as a unit, but they are all new to me...and they're all consummate medical/dental professionals and clinical support personnel.  It is a pleasure to be associated with such a cohesive group even though I will only get to work with them for one quarter of their year-long tour.  It promises to be a good ride.
There's even a bit of home here at Camp Arifjan, a ubiquitous and very appreciated Starbucks!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Day the Music Stopped - Remembering 911

It was going to be such a perfect day.  I had just done something nice for someone who didn’t expect it, and I was still basking in the good feelings that go along with giving gifts.  There was no way I could have known that a horrible disaster was befalling our Nation at that very moment.  “Debbie,” I hailed one of our nursing staff as I walked to the back of my medical office with a giant smile on my face.  “I have no idea why, but I feel so good today.”  The words were barely out of my mouth when I noticed that she paused, as if listening to something in the distance.  
Our office radio was tuned to a local pop station when the music suddenly stopped, replaced by a newscaster’s serious voice announcing that a commercial jet had hit the World Trade Center.  The events that followed are now burned into our collective memory.  We watched replay after dreadful replay of the tragedy at both the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on a tiny portable TV brought in by one of our staff.  My joyous smile was a distant memory.
It was tough to see patients that day and in the days that followed.  They sensed my difficulty in focusing on the tasks at hand, and I found myself losing a train of thought often.  I was supposed to be heading out to a medical conference with my practice partner in the weeks after September the eleventh, but the event was in New York City.  “I really don’t see myself getting on a plane to New York right now,” my partner told me. 
Actually, that trip was the last thing on my mind.  I was thinking about the fact that I already had an application in place with the US Army Reserves and was in the midst of an attempt to become re-commissioned in the Medical Corps.  After accruing nearly twelve years of prior service toward retirement, I had resigned my commission in the US Army in the late 1990’s.  I was not thinking about the long-term repercussions then; I was only thinking about the commitment I had just made to a private gynecology practice.  The US was involved in various world conflicts as I was leaving active duty, and I really didn’t want to get a callback.  The easiest way for me to diminish my risk then was to resign, giving up the equivalent of a good 401K plan in the process.  In order to get back in, I would have to go through a somewhat cumbersome re-commission process.
            “Surely you’re not going to join the Reserves right now,” was the most common statement made to me over the days that followed the terrorist nightmare.  Friends and colleagues asked me to reconsider, citing the fact that numerous Reserve units had already been activated.  At first, those types of comments offended me, and I thought, how shallow do these people think I am?  That was exactly the right time to join, in my view.  Still, I had two small children, a spouse, and a good job to consider.  The decision was not straightforward.  My patients were not happy with me either.  More than a few of them wondered aloud whether or not I would be there for them in the future, thinking that I could be called at any moment to go serve. 
            It turned out that I waited three years to get any sort of call-up for duty after I was re-commissioned, and the duty was here in the US for three months.  It was actually pretty easy to get away for that limited amount of time, and there was little danger involved with moving temporarily to Fort Knox, Kentucky!  Still, I admit that it was difficult to be apart from my family for that mobilization.  In my absence, the gynecology practice survived and even thrived such that my patient’s worries proved unfounded.
            Since that first mobilization tour in 2005, I have gone to various places including Iraq and other places, and through it all, I have never regretted my decision to re-commission for even a fraction of a moment. People say that the world as we knew it changed forever as a result of terror on American soil, but I’m not so sure.  The threat has always surrounded us, we simply filtered out the noise of hatred against our lifestyles and freedoms in favor of going about our daily business.  I joined the Army Reserves just as I had planned before September 11, 2001, and I also got back to my normal life.  In my heart, I knew the hatred wouldn’t stop the music forever.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Why do We Serve?

When I get the chance to sit down with a soldier and really talk, I almost always ask them why they entered into military service.  I usually get answers in one of these categories: they have a career goal but need money for education; they have a close family member who has served, and they want to carry on the tradition; they are looking for adventure and like the idea of going to exotic places to serve.  In my case, there was more than just a single answer, and the desire to join the Army encompassed the need for education funds, upholding a family tradition AND the desire for adventure.

Medical education is not cheap, and the costs are rising by the year - yet the income of most physicians has been stagnant for the past decade.  That makes paying off huge educational loans a real challenge.  Back in 1985, I didn't really have a plan B regarding how I would manage the medical school bills, but the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) stepped in to help.  I had to have my letter of acceptance from an accredited US medical school in hand before I could apply for the program, and once I received that notification of approval, I was on my way.  I had NO idea what a ride it would be, but looking back, I wouldn't change a thing.  More on that in a future blog post.

The family tradition piece comes from my father, a WWII-era veteran.  He enlisted in the Army as soon as he could after high school, and although he never got a chance to serve overseas, his heart was clearly on the battlefield.  He was a typical teenager in the 30's - jobs were hard to come by, and military service was clearly an option for many to consider even before America entered the war. With basic training completed, my dad was sent to Camp Murphy in Florida for Signal Corps specialty training in radar - he always did love electronic gadgets.  It was at West Palm Beach that the reality of the war hit home.  Here is an excerpt from his memoir:
"One night as I walked down the beach with a friend we saw a huge flash of light out on the ocean. This was followed by the sound of a huge explosion. We knew at once that a German U boat, many of which prowled these waters, had scored a hit."
With the attack on Pearl Harbor, many raced to to join up in all branches of service, and clearly there was a similar rush after 911.  We continue to be a nation at war with over ten years in Afghanistan and nearly that many in Iraq under the belt.  Men and women with a desire to serve are an ongoing need, and even though there are potential risks to military service, the benefits are clearly there.
The adventure aspect of my why-I-joined-the-Army story is complicated.  I could have chosen to go to Airborne School, but I didn't.  I could have been a Flight Surgeon, but I wasn't.  I might have opted to go to Somalia in the place of one of my OBGYN colleagues in the era of "blackhawk down" - but I stayed home.  So where was I getting my adventure fix?  Just delivering babies and doing surgeries turned out to be plenty of adventure for me, and I had all I could handle!  Still, it is nice to know that many of these options to serve remain open to me even 22 years into my career.  I can still go to Airborne School, Flight Surgeon training or Afghanistan - and maybe I will.  I did appreciate the opportunity to serve in Iraq in 2008, and soon, I will begin a tour in Kuwait to round out the year - the service to my fellow soldiers and fellow Americans goes on - they are my "why."