Photo from Salon Magazine. AP Photo/ Vadim Ghirda.
I’m not sure what Dr. J. thought of me on the first day that we met, but I’m sure he was wondering what he had gotten himself into when he agreed to take weekend call at my hospital. He knocked on our unit’s front door, and I told him that I wouldn’t let him in unless he was bringing breakfast for the nurses. I said that all the other doctors brought us food on Saturday, and we weren’t going to make an exception for him just because he was new. He believed me, and I had to run out of the unit and catch him before he walked onto the elevator and left for the hospital cafeteria.
Dr. J. was a Navy man, and he was earning some extra money by working weekends on our unit. Ordinarily military personnel aren’t allowed to freelance, but our community desperately needs more psychiatrists, so the military allowed Dr. J. to work weekends during his time off from a local military hospital. Dr. J.’s first day on our unit didn’t go well. In fact his first day was pure hell. Dr. J. had gotten a shabby orientation to our unit, and every nasty patient in town had decided to check into the hospital. They all demanded narcotics, and they threatened violence on the unit if they didn’t get what they wanted. During his first day on the unit, Dr. J. broke up an altercation between two patients, and a food fight in our kitchen during lunch. He also helped the nurses subdue a patient who was about to throw furniture in the dayroom. I thought Dr. J. wasn’t coming back after he abruptly left our unit after working 8 hours straight without a break. The nurses had ordered Chinese takeout, and when Dr. J. finally came back to the unit after calming down, we offered him dinner. He sat and ate with us and he teased me about the eating arrangements. He said he expected dinner from the nurses every weekend and we told him what we wanted for breakfast next week. By the end of the day, we adored our new doctor, and he liked us, too. We made him promise that he wasn’t going to quit, and that he would be back the following week.
Dr. J. worked weekends with us as the war in the Iraq escalated. More young men from our area were shipping out for the Middle East every week, and we worried that Dr. J. might be next. He said that the military needed him stateside, and he promised that he wasn’t going anywhere. I think he said that because he knew that we were really scared, and that we didn’t want to see him leave. Then one weekend he announced that he had great news. He smiled broadly when he told us that he had been promoted, and as part of his new job, he had volunteered to lead a team of mental health specialists going to Iraq. He said that he was going to be stationed in the Green Zone. We were stunned. I was speechless, and we were all fighting back tears.
I asked Dr. J. for a few minutes of his time after he was done seeing his last patient for the day. I shut his office door and bluntly asked him what he was thinking when he volunteered to go to Iraq. He smiled and said that I sounded just like his mom. He explained that he needed to see the front for himself so he could better assess the needs of the troops. He also told me that the government wasn’t telling the American public about what was really happening to the troops in Iraq, and that troops were trying to commit suicide in the battlefield at an alarming rate. Dr. J. said that he and his team needed to go to Iraq so they could teach frontline medics how to handle depressed and suicidal soldiers in the field. He confessed that he didn’t really want to go, but that he felt it was his duty to go and care for the troops. He predicted that military hospitals wouldn’t be able to deal with the onslaught of soldiers returning from Iraq who would need mental health services, and that his ultimate goal is to improve the military’s mental health system. I hugged him and made him promise that he would come back home in one piece. He was deployed to Iraq the following week.
Dr. J. left a year ago and we haven’t heard from him since. He’s in my thoughts and prayers.
Will wars ever end?