I joined the military in January 2001. I was an unusual recruit as I was 29 years old at that time and most people join much earlier. My motivation for joining was that I was looking for another opportunity to serve my community and country, especially members of the reserves, who at that time, were usually uninsured (over 50% were uninsured) and most came from lower income households. At that time, I was working full time as a primary care provider at an FQHC/Community Health Center and I saw many of them as my patients. I joined the military in January 2001 and then 8 months later, 9/11 happened. I was notified in February 2004 that I was to be deployed. In June 2004 I left for an 18-month deployment to Iraq. I returned home at the end of 2005. My kids were 2 and 4 years old when I left in June and 4 and 6 years old when I returned. While deployed, I was responsible for helping to develop relationships with the Iraqi health care leaders in one of the provinces. I was in Kirkuk, which is the capital of that province and home to 1.5 million people. It is the most diverse city in Iraq, which at that time, created a lot of tension. During my time there, I developed deep relationships with the ministry of health, hospital leaders, and individual doctors. We worked together to determine what investments were needed to rebuild healthcare infrastructure as they had gone from being a premier place for health in the 1980’s to a severely underfunded, declining system in 2004-2005. I developed long-standing relationships with many of the doctors and leaders there, many of whom I am still in contact with today. My other job was to take care of around 800 infantry soldiers and respond to any events in the city of Kirkuk. During my time there, I took care of over 900 trauma patients. Many of these were Iraqi Army, Iraqi police, including some civilians as I was tasked with assisting with their care along with any injuries of US military. Being away from family and friends for that extended period was pretty difficult, as was constantly being on call and responding to so much trauma. But these experiences are a part of who I am. It has given me a firsthand understanding and appreciation for those that serve. I went in as an advocate for military members and I left with a much better understanding of what military members experience and as a result, a deep understanding of what their unique healthcare needs are and it has made me an effective advocate over the years.
One of my most impactful memories was in 2006 when I was walking through one of the Senate buildings in DC with other FQHC/CHC leaders and on one of the stairways were names and pictures of members of the military who had died in Iraq and Afghanistan. I went through the list and found the members that I had taken care of during my time there who had not survived their injuries. It really impacted those with me, as they understood that these were not just names and pictures to me.
I am not in any way pro-war and am a pacifist by nature, but I have spent the last 20 years taking care of military members and their families and advocating for their needs. This is my way of honoring the importance of Veterans Day, as we remember and recognize those who have served honorably for our country and each of us.