The Ghost War

September 1, 2010

As I looked out on my audience of uniformed physicians and nurses, the stories of destroyed lives and war ran through my mind and I thought, “Does anybody besides the military remember that we are fighting two wars?”

I was asked to lecture at the US Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, Va., last week. I had served there from 1999 to 2002 and have fond memories of my time on active duty, including the birth of my son at US NMCP. But the memory of September 11, 2001, turns all the gauzy memorabilia in my mind cold and gray. I can’t think about that day almost 10 years ago without nausea and an ache starting in my spine. 

The single hardest thing I have ever done in my life was to say goodbye to my then 3-year-old daughter on September 12th. The phone rang after a sleepless night and I was ordered to report immediately to the hospital for deployment. Nobody could tell me where I was going or how long I was going to be gone for.

I ran around and collected all the things I thought I'd need to go to war. My wife wrapped up our 5-week-old son and drove our daughter to her preschool in an attempt to maintain some degree of normalcy on that sickening, horrible morning. I kissed my wife and son goodbye and drove to the preschool to say goodbye to my daughter. The teachers all knew why I was there - many of them were married to military men and they cried silently along with me as we recreated an ageless scene in the hallway of that little school. A father held and kissed his child and they traded promises to be good and be safe before leaving his family for the war.

These memories were brought back last week as I drove around Virginia Beach with my children and we visited some of the places that we used to frequent when we lived in that beautiful part of the country. On the morning of the lecture I visited the hospital (which is a marvelous facility), and amid handshakes and backslaps with old friends, I caught up on the lives and careers of the men and women who serve our country and how their lives have been affected by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

I overheard conversations detailing devastating injuries and unbelievable circumstances of injury. A woman related a story about one heroic marine in her son’s unit who rescued a companion from an explosive terrorist attack. The victim of the attack is now a 20-year-old triple amputee and the rescuer returned to battle and was killed the next day. What kind of nightmares must this mother have?

As I looked out on my audience of uniformed physicians and nurses, the stories of destroyed lives and war ran through my mind and I thought, “Does anybody besides the military remember that we are fighting two wars?”

My civilian colleagues are so wrapped up in our day-to-day lives and families and patients that we can go for days and weeks at a time without ever thinking about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s like these wars and the men and women fighting them are some ghosts in a haunted house that you pass on the way home - after a while the country just started taking a different way home and we all forgot about the haunted house.

The President was on TV tonight announcing the end of the war in Iraq. Why tonight? The decision to announce the end of fighting seems arbitrary. All the military ever wanted was clarity in the mission, and the lawyers and politicians let them down. I think that the only people cheering the President’s announcement are the terrorists that anticipate the US withdrawal. They began rebuilding tonight. The President’s speech was morose and his words were bruised and hollow compared to the words of the mother of that young marine and the sacrifices that the military has made since the September obscenities of that terrible time in 2001.