Thursday, January 5, 2012

Who We Are

2011 has come and gone. A year that will live on vividly in our memories. Here is the team video created by one of our corpsman, Martin:

Who We Are. We are the 2nd Navy Forward Surgical Team at FOB Lagman. We are ordinary citizens who had a mission. In the fall of 2010 and winter of 2011, we cared for the casualties of surge campaign offensive in the war in Afghanistan. We are proud of our service.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

The Price of Flight

Coming home is relatively easy but leaving the war is more elusive.

Yesterday, US debt was downgraded, the Pro-Football Hall Of Fame inducted its newest members, and it was the single deadliest day in the Afghan war as a Chinook helicopter was shot down killing 30 US service members, mostly SEALs, and 8 Afghanis. As I am flooded with thoughts and feelings, I write this post with compulsion that I haven't felt in some time.

Helicopters revolutionized modern war and are integral to battlefield movement especially in counterinsurgency. But make no mistake they are dangerous to operate even in peactime. How much more so when there is an enemy seeking to shoot you down. I recently read that 10% of US casualties in the war are attributable to helicopter crashes. Over the course of twenty years on active duty, I have been around a few. In fact it seems that every one of my deployments has been plagued by a helicopter mishap. My battle group lost a helo transiting the Straits of Hormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf during the first Gulf War. A few years later, during a training beach landing exercise prior to a Mediterranean deployment, a dozen Marines were killed after two helos collided. It was the middle of the night and my landing craft hit the beach less than a mile from the crash site. Last September there was the unforgettable day for us when 9 US service members were killed in Zabul Province including Denis Miranda, to whom we dedicated the FST building. It is common to find senior officers who avoid flying them whenever possible.

Boarding a Chinook.

I admit I view riding birds as a necessary evil that comes with the job. CH-46's, also known as Chinooks, such as the one shot down are workhorses in theater. They fly passengers around like Delta Airlines does here. This reliance on air transport comes because ground transport is so dangerous due to landmines. Even a sixty mile road trip from Kandahar to Qalat along a major highway was risky. So our FST arrived on a Dutch Army Chinook and, seven months later, departed on a US Chinook. We made the journeys safely but it says much about conditions in the country that ground convoys are avoided.

Reading the news, I felt a vague survivor's guilt of "it could have been me" mixed with deep sadness for the family members of those killed. I felt the rush of urgency when the victims of the crash last year arrived at the FST. I felt perplexed, but then again not really, that this should happen after the death of Bin Laden and in the midst of our supposed draw down from the surge. Finally as I put my sons to bed last night I felt grateful that they are still too young to be worried by the world's, or the war's, troubles.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Zabul Province. Model of Stability?

The NY Times ran a piece about Zabul province about a month ago. I found it interesting that the place where we witnessed so many casualties was being touted as a model of stability, security and hope for Afghanistan's future. Granted, our mission was behind the wire and it would be wrong to imply that our surgical team had the best access to either intelligence or the perspective of the average resident of Zabul. Still it seems remarkable to me that this is the best that we can hope for.

Monday, May 23, 2011


I have been told by others who have deployed to the wars that it takes a year to readjust to life at home.  Here are some of my experiences with that transition and the emotions of reintegration.

Recently I was driving alone when I heard the story of Clay Hunt on NPR. He was a marine who was discharged and returned home after three tours in the wars. He had witnessed the death of  friends and fellow marine in IED attacks and been wounded himself by sniper fire. The collective toll left Clay with PTSD that ultimately contributed to his suicide. While listening to Clay's story I was overcome with unexpected sadness that left me weeping. The news of his death triggered a return to the suicidal death of an army major who we treated at FOB Lagman. He had shot himself in the head and arrived at the end of a long day. Suddenly, I was standing at the head of his litter staring at his wounds and then witnessing his ramp ceremony as his body was taken away. I hadn't thought of it many months.

Then, a few weeks ago, on a visit home, my wife was jogging around my parent's neighborhood deep in suburban Midwest where I grew up. She passed a conservative Muslim man and woman, dressed accordingly, out in their driveways. It was a sight that I never remembered seeing while growing up there in the 70's and 80's. Anyhow, rather than the typical friendly wave one usually gets in the neighborhood, she got an intense glare from the man. She felt like her appearance in jogging shorts was deeply offensive to him. Perhaps it was misperceived but the suggestion it infuriated me. Having devoted months to treating what was mostly Afghani-on-Afghani violence and further bending over backwards to accommodate cultural differences, the idea of conservative Islam encroaching on my childhood home was profoundly unsettling to me. I was willing to serve them but I don't want to be them. I am left to wonder if I was being irrational or hypersensitive but there was no denying the feeling.

Finally, my reaction to the news of Bin Laden's death was subdued. I frankly find it hard to rejoice in anyone's death, even an unrepentant mass murderer. Although I witnessed first hand the prolonged destructive conflict that he helped orchestrate and lay blame on his ideology and "inspiration" for so much of the suffering of the people that my team treated, I could not celebrate. While I am hesitant to fault those who did, I still feel that it is all a grand tragedy not a cause for rejoicing. I remember how repulsed I was at the scenes of Muslims celebrating the attacks on 9/11. It brought to my mind a quote from Golda Meir, the former Israeli prime minister, "Peace will come when they love their children more than they hate us." We seem so far from that state of being.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Remarkable Story

I have been remiss at writing. Trying to be a dad again. What's up with life getting in the way of blogging? Where are my priorities?

Here is a remarkable story about a soldier with live RPG ordnance that impaled his abdomen and the team that removed it. This was a situation for which we had contingency plans but fortunately never had to face. Essentially the plan was clear the OR of all unnecessary personnel, strap on that body armor collecting dust in our hooch, and cross your fingers. The surgeon was from the 759th Forward Surgical Team which was one of our predecessors at FOB Lagman deploying there in 2009. The event took place in 2006 so it must have been an earlier deployment for the 759th.

Thanks to my friend Donna for bringing the video to my attention.

(I tried to link the video directly to the post but Blogspot only seems to accept Youtube links.)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

How Was It?

The past two weeks have been a period of adjustment. It is good to return to the world of soccer games, yard work, and birthday parties. Even doing the taxes seems to be an oddly pleasant distraction. Soon enough, I will be back at my day job. Eventually normalcy is bound to follow, right?

I continue to be asked the question "How was it?'

It vexes me.

I haven't figured out a good answer. "Fine" is absurd. I have been using "complicated and violent" but that too seems inadequate, not entirely accurate, and maybe too sensational. One person asked me if I "enjoyed" my deployment. That question caught me so off guard that I could only reply that "enjoy" was not a word I would use to describe a war deployment. But perhaps that is not a universal sentiment.

It was both a rewarding experience and one that I am not anxious to repeat soon. Maybe the answer to this question will come with more time and perspective. Perspective is topic that I have yet to post about. I intend on finishing up this blog soon and that will be part of the final chapter. Hopefully, there will be an answer somewhere even if I expect it will evolve down the road.

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Reunion feels wonderful but it can also be unsettling. I was part of several reunions over the past few days and I wanted to share some of those.

In Germany our flight stops to refuel. Here we are reunited with the concept of having to pay for a bottle of water. This sounds funny but remember for months, our water has arrived boxed on enormous palates. We've become connoisseurs of which strange-sounding brand of bottled water tastes best...Dibba or Hayat or Oasis. Now bottled water costs us $2 from the vending machine. Also, we are also reunited with our first western-clean toilet. Beautiful. I have nothing more to say on that subject.

Volunteers welcoming a service member home.
Our plane touches down at BWI. There is an organization called Operation Welcome Home that welcomes back troops on the transports returning from the middle east. As I pass through the customs inspection they are just around the corner.  I hear the applauding volunteers. I stop.

It is the final stop for our team that came together so many months ago and has been family for that time.  It is the family that has lately been showing some warts. Tempers have been shorter. Politeness is in a more limited supply as we got closer to the end. But it has been family. So I stop there to say goodbye. Once we round that corner, we go our separate ways. I feel sadder than I would have guessed at this moment. I say goodbyes and thank you's and wishes for safe travel and pass along the navy's traditional salutation "fair winds and following seas." It is a small navy but the truth is that most of us will never see each other again.

After this I turn that corner to cheers from the volunteers. I shake their hands as I pass by. If you are ever in the DC area and looking for something to do, maybe consider shaking hands at BWI after a troop transport lands. At the end of the line, I see the first of the family reunions. Dave, our orthopedist, has met his family. The kids are hanging on his legs. He has a large family and many have made it. I stop to enjoy the scene. I will witness other reunions later in the day. Some are similar, others quiet and low key. Some service members return without a reunion, just a ride home to an apartment or barracks room.

Happy reunion
I wander through the airport feeling detached from the proceedings. Throughout the day, strangers in airports shake my hand and thank me for my service. I have not figured out how to reply to this. I appreciate the sentiment but it is awkward, nonetheless. I stop at a sports bar in the airport. Here I am reunited with a beer and a burger. I savor the taste. I wonder if the waitress knows that it is the best beer she has served all day. It tastes like home. Some kind stranger picks up the tab. I wish to thank him but the waitress tells me that the person has requested to remain anonymous. So I will thank him here.

I board one of my connections, a flight that I have just changed to catch. I am sitting in the last open seat. Next to me is a young woman. After take off, she begins to read a lacrosse magazine. The pages give reviews of each of the NCAA title contenders for the upcoming season. There are also stories about the hottest high school prospects from each region. I can tell from the way that she lingers on each page, that she is a true fan of the sport. The situation seems divinely preordained.

I am considerably introverted. I almost never talk to strangers on planes. Yet here I am, just returned from the war, sitting next to a obvious lacrosse fan and all I can hear in my head is 'Brendan Looney', about whom I wrote many months ago. Brendan was a member of what might be the first family of Naval Academy lacrosse. In 2004, Navy reached the NCAA lacrosse finals but lost to Syracuse. Brendan and his two brothers were on that team. I thought that Brendan had been an All-American but, in fact, it was his brother Steve. Knowing his lacrosse association, I am compelled to tell this woman about Brendan.

"Excuse me, are you a lacrosse fan?" opening with the obvious.


"Have you ever heard of Brendan Looney? He played lacrosse for Navy. They went to the finals but lost in 2003 (I get the year wrong). I was told that he was an All-American (I confuse him with his brother)."

She immediately establishes her lacrosse cred by saying "Hmm. 2003. I thought that was Notre Dame and Georgetown but maybe Navy too in the final four. I don't know his name but then I didn't really know the Navy guys so well. I'm from Ohio. Why do you ask?"

I tell her that Brendan was a SEAL and that he was killed in a helicopter crash in September in the province where I was. I tell her that he was well-known in Naval Academy circles but I am curious if he was known in lacrosse circles.

Her reply is simply "That is tragic."

Initially, there is no more said. Maybe that is the final word on the subject anyhow. Perhaps it is to harsh a thought for polite conversation. But then after awhile, she starts to ask me questions about where I've been and what I've done. She is pleasant company and it feels right to tell her some of it.  We talk for a while about the war and life choices. It is a good conversation. But mostly I just wanted her to know Brendan's name.