September 11 Inspired me to Join the Army
“Rockets just hit the World Trade Center in New York,” Buff said to me, with concern.
What!? That made no sense, especially as I was just waking up. I had taken that week off from work and was still laying in bed when she came from the kitchen to tell me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
She explained that a girlfriend had just called to tell her that we were under attack and that rockets or missiles or something had just struck the buildings. We had been married for 18 years and had never owned a television, so we dressed quickly and went to the grocery store in the small town where we lived in Idaho, where we knew they had a TV.
Sure enough, there it was. We stood there for a couple of hours looking up at the television set suspended near the ceiling, watching along with the rest of the country.
My first impulse was to go to New York City. I’m an orthopedic surgeon and, while New York has plenty of trauma surgeons, it seemed like they probably would need more, and I had a strong desire to help, much like most of the country. But quickly it became evident that no one had survived the towers and there were very few injured people on the ground. The devastation was total.
My wife and I quickly hooked up cable television and we spent the rest of that week watching the coverage all day and night. The President said we were going to war. Like so many people, I searched my soul for a way to help my country.
Ultimately, I decided that I could be of most help by joining one of the armed services. Many members of my family, going back generations to the Revolutionary War, had served in most of America’s wars but I never had. I checked with the Air Force, but most of their doctors were either stateside or in Europe. The Navy used naval reserve doctors to back-fill bases while they sent their active duty doctors into combat. The Army had a relatively new structure called a Forward Surgical Team (FST), whose doctrine was to go as far forward as possible – often within 10 km (6 miles) of the forward edge of battle area (FEBA) to render life- and limb-saving care as quickly as possible. Only 20 personnel comprised these highly mobile FST’s, compared to nearly 200 in a MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital).
Army Reserve had several FST’s, including the 934th in Utah, which needed an orthopedic surgeon. It was a perfect post for me. So, in January 2002, shortly after my 47th birthday, I flew down to Salt Lake City to take the Oath of Office with the rank of Major.
We drilled on weekends and had an annual training exercise that summer. In December of 2002 I attended Officer’s Basic Training (OBT) at Fort Sam Houston and Camp Bullis in Texas. I met some of the most remarkable people during that two weeks. Many of them had immigrated to the United States from their home countries, and joined the Army after 9/11 to show their appreciation to the country that took them in.
A few weeks later, while in my office clinic on a Friday in February, I received a call from a captain in my unit saying that we needed to report on Sunday. Our unit had been activated. We spent the rest of February and most of March getting ready to go to Iraq and we made it to Kuwait in time to go in at the “tip of the spear,” as they say. It was too profound of an experience to recount in a brief story here, but in 2010 I wrote a book about it composed of my diary and photographs I made during that deployment. It was an honor and a privilege to have served.