John Maddox '99: Healing the Wounded
In Iraq and Afghanistan, new medical technology and rapid-evacuation techniques have kept alive soldiers who would have died in earlier wars. Those who are injured are eventually put in the care of someone like Lt. John Maddox ’99, M.D., a U.S. Navy surgeon attached to the Marine Corps 2nd Reconnaissance Battalion, based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. “War injuries are like no other,” Maddox said. “The injuries are incredibly devastating.”
After earning his medical degree at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, Md., Maddox began his work with war wounded at the National Naval Medical Center there. Though the injuries Maddox sees may be physically crippling, they are not spirit-breaking, he said. In military hospitals, he has found, morale is consistently high.
"Often, when civilians are injured … they assume the sick role," Maddox said, "whereas many of the wounded warriors—their lives had changed but the mental attitude was entirely different. They were healthy people who had been injured instead of injured people who were no longer healthy."
And you are connected to others who have undergone the same transformation. Ghaffari felt a bond even with troops he’d only seen below as he patrolled from the air. Sometimes, he said, the mere presence of fighter planes overhead was sufficient protection for troops on the ground. But one night a convoy of military transports that Ghaffari had been escorting regularly for weeks was ambushed. The attackers blew up a Humvee, killing a British soldier. “I never knew this man,” Ghaffari said, “but at the same time, you have an immediate bond with the men on the ground. You’re fighting for the same thing. You’re working together. You’re communicating with them. You’re friends from the start.”
Because of their extensive testing and training and “Top Gun” image, fighter pilots feel they are the military elite. It was easy for Ghaffari to make that assumption too, he said, until he began working with ground troops in Afghanistan. After the Humvee was bombed, Ghaffari’s squadron mates located the bombers and killed them. But he was left with a new sense of the danger to which ground troops are exposed. “That was the first realization that [fighter pilots] are not the tip of the spear,” he said. “We’re supporting the guys on the ground. They may be in a convoy or an outpost, but they are surrounded by people who want to do them harm. I have a huge deal of respect for them.”
He recalled another night when a group of Marines was attacked. “We got overhead and the firing stopped. The militants had scattered.” Ghaffari radioed down to the Marines that the coast was clear.
“Can you imagine trying to fall asleep after that?” said Ghaffari, now a flight instructor in Mississippi. “They were completely alone. … Those guys are true heroes.”
Abe Rogers ’95 was a guy on the ground. His missions lasted up to seven weeks in bitter cold and stifling heat, sleeping in the open or under Humvees. “You don’t get much sleep out there anyway,” he said.
Rogers had men in his unit who were killed and injured as their vehicles tripped the mines that litter the landscape in Afghanistan. “If there was ever a loss of life or a serious injury, then that really sinks in pretty quick,” he said. This year he is working toward a master’s in education at Boston University on the G.I. Bill, but he could be called back to Afghanistan at any time. Last fall two of Rogers’s former unit members went missing in Afghanistan. (The bodies of both men have since been found.) In January a Humvee in his unit struck a roadside bomb, seriously injuring five soldiers. In February another roadside bomb killed one of Rogers’s friends.
“Once you’ve been a part of that war, you feel somewhat connected to it,” Rogers said. “And, as long as it is still going on, there is a part of me that still wants to be over there, especially when you get news like that.” Loyalty to his fellow soldiers eventually overwhelmed Rogers. After the initial interview for this article, he reported back that he had joined the Massachusetts National Guard. He expects to deploy with an infantry unit to Afghanistan in August.
Once again, Rogers will trade one type of education for another.
In facing death, Rogers is certainly not alone. Most of the alumni interviewed for this article had seen death on the battlefield. None wanted to talk about it.
An Army combat engineer, Army Staff Sgt. Jason Meadows ’01 spent more than two years in Iraq and in Afghanistan, scouring the landscape for IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Meadows said the job required “really good eyes and heavily armored vehicles.”
“It’s a really stressful job,” he said. “During the bad times, every day we hit things. Our trucks got blown up. A lot of the job is just luck, let’s put it that way.”
Meadows lost two friends in Iraq. “It wasn’t pretty for a while,” he said. “They have counselors over there to help out. A lot of people sat down and talked to them. We got a day off, and then we went back to work.”
Despite exposure to danger and death in war, Colby veterans interviewed didn’t demonize the enemy or oversimplify other cultures. Hayden, the military attorney, explained that many Iraqis’ concerns are based on their ethnicity, regional loyalties, or their jobs. “There are all kinds of interests pressing on these guys, but so many of them want to do the right thing for their country,” Hayden said.
In the mountains of Afghanistan, Rogers also challenged himself to understand Afghans’ viewpoints. “They may be loosely affiliated with the Taliban, but they weren’t really interested in being affiliated with them,” Rogers said. “Part of our goal is to maybe convince [the ones] who may be on the fence that they should be on the side of their Afghan government.”
Ghaffari received daily intelligence briefings that taught him that the conflict is complex. Even only seeing his adversaries from the cockpit, he understood that they were human beings, he said. “You don’t necessarily vilify who you are fighting...,” he said. “I realize that they probably have wives and children and parents. They are most likely more similar to us than they are different.”
It’s an ability to consider other viewpoints that was honed half a world away. While Ghaffari considered the militants the enemy, he said, at the same time he felt, in a way, the two sides were fighting for the same reason. “You are fighting for what is right,” he said. “I don’t understand their methods. But I do think it’s important to see both sides.”
Robin Respaut ’07 is a freelance journalist and producer for New Hampshire Public Radio, working on a show called Word of Mouth. More at www.robinrespaut.com