Perry County doctor adapts to life as soldier in Iraq
By DR. STEPHEN ULRICH
Today a strong, dust-filled wind blew out of the south, kicked up a loose pop can and rattled it down the gravel street that serves as home to the Headquarters of the 2nd of the 137th General Support Aviation Battalion or GSAB for short. I picked up the can and safely disposed of it, thinking how far from home I am once again.
It is two days past Christmas. Many of the e-mails and cards from patients have asked me if I am going to write again during this deployment. I have not to date because I have been too busy adapting to a new situation with different duties than my last rotation.
I had originally planned on being deployed in February of 2007 to Camp Liberty, which is near Camp Victory, where I served two years ago. However, fate had other plans. The GSAB needed a flight surgeon to fill a 90-day rotation and my name came up next on the list at National Guard Bureau.
Flight surgeons are military physicians who receive special training in aviation medicine, aviation systems and safety issues. Their role is to make sure that pilots are medically qualified to fly safely, to educate pilots on health issues that may present safety issues and to advise the commander of the aviation unit on health issues and human factors that may present increased risks of accidents.
As many of you know, I used to fly my own helicopter to the hospital and even on occasion made a house call or two. It was the love of flying that initially attracted me to the National Guard. I became a flight surgeon in 1988 and served in that capacity for many years with the Ohio Army National Guard. Then I moved on to command and staff responsibilities and finally have served as the State Surgeon of Ohio for the last five years.
I tried to get my assignment passed to another flight surgeon because of my commitment to serve with the Ohio unit that is at Camp Liberty. Another flight surgeon could not be found. We are a rare commodity in the National Guard physician community.
So, after extended discussions with my wife and fellow physicians and staff in the Perry County Family Practice, I decided to do a six-month rotation, three months with the GSAB and three months with the 285th Medical Company in Camp Liberty.
As I prepared to leave for a six-month tour, things were more hectic than the first time. I began to wonder about what I was getting myself into this time around. It had been some time since I had been an active flight surgeon with the Guard, and I was feeling a bit anxious about being an old dog trying to learn new tricks in a very short period of time.
My anxiety was further increased when the physician assistant that I would be working with e-mailed me a copy of the protocols that the flight medics work under and requested that I review and approve them. As I read through them, I realized that they were very similar to the protocols that I review on a regular basis for the Corning Squad. It wasn’t quite as daunting as I had thought.
Then there was the trip to Fort Bliss with its usual hurry up and wait routine. We were delayed several days getting out due to some problems with our airplane. Because of the delay I was able to visit some of our Ohio doctors and dentists who were deploying to Camp Liberty. I would be replacing them in February.
I also took time to visit with Todd Gotke from Crooksville. He is one of our newest members of the Ohio Army National Guard who had just started his training to be an air defense soldier. He is assigned to the ADA battalion in McConnelsville. I had recruited him for the National Guard and he looked really good. I was proud of him.
Finally we were on our way. After a long flight we landed in Kuwait, where I caught a ride on a C 130 to Balad. The pilot was kind enough to let me on the flight deck and to sign off my flight time. I had logged my first official hours of flight time. It was dark but I was able to make out a number of large towns along our route.
When I arrived at Balad I was met by Staff Sgt. Vance Sylvia. I had served with him two years ago at Camp Victory. It was like homecoming weekend. We loaded my bags, four green duffels, a carry-on and my flight bag. It was a much easier process this time and no forgetting of my computer bag. The staging area was well lit, not the total blackness that I remembered from two years ago.
Sgt. Sylvia got me lined up with housing. I have a “wet trailer,” which means a bathroom and shower, which I share with another physician whose room is on the other end of the trailer. No more early morning walks in the cold air. Life is good.
Major Joe Kelly is the aero medical physician assistant for the GSAB. He is a full-time national guardsman and a physician assistant with special training in aviation medicine. He was the one who had e-mailed me on several occasions and informed me of the fact that I would have oversight on over 60 percent of the helicopter medivac missions in Iraq. He gave me a tour of the clinic and filled me in on the medical issues that I would be working with.
He introduced me to the executive officer, Major Monteith, who gave me a radio so that we could keep in touch. He also showed me where the various offices on Blackjack Alley were and made me feel really welcomed.
I then met LTC Chris Petty, commander of the unit. I shared with him my anxieties about coming in new to a strange unit. He assured me that I would do fine. He reviewed the overall structure of the unit and what he expected from his flight surgeon.
At the end of our discussion he gave me a GSAB unit patch to wear on my flight suit. Aviation units often have a distinctive patch that members wear. The patch always tells a story.
The patch provides a unit identity, which helps to form a team from the many different components of the battalion. The picture of the patch is worth a thousand of my words. This unit’s patch features a crossed swords and a skull on a black background with the unit’s designation as the Second Battalion of the 135th Aviation Brigade. It is made up with units from six states that are listed on the upper edge of the patch. The States include Arkansas, Florida, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota and Utah.
The patch was actually based on the emblem that a privateer by the name of Jack Rackham used when he sailed from the outer banks of North Carolina. He was an equal opportunity sort of pirate and had two female pirates as a part of his crew. Blackjacks’ name just seemed to fit the picture. So the modern day Blackjacks, both men and women, fly their ships on the line in service of their country under a Blackjack patch.
As I walk down Blackjack Alley with company flags and various state flags blowing in the wind I know that I am a part of a strong history of citizen soldiers who come together to protect our country, to promote freedom and carry out the direction and will of the American people.
My role over the next few months is to learn how this unit works, make sure its members maintain health, that our medics are trained and resourced to provide the best possible care to our soldiers in battle and in garrison. As I learn the different functions and units that make up the General Support Aviation Battalion, I will keep the readers posted with my discoveries and insights into this historical deployment of an all National Guard GSAB which is successfully meeting its mission in Iraq. I miss Perry County and Zanesville, I miss my patients and I miss my colleagues and family, but it is good to be back with my fellow soldiers who have made me feel so welcome in their community.