SHANDS SURGEON SHARES WAR STORIES

UF doctor recounts the violence of Iraq


Maj. Thomas Beaver, left, shared quarters with another Gator while stationed in Iraq. Capt. George Tillson, right, is a radiology nurse at Shands at UF and served as Beaver's OR nurse in the field. The pair hoisted a Gator flag on this Humvee.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Thomas Beaver
Published: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 3, 2005 at 12:21 a.m.
Dr. Thomas Beaver is home now, back in the operating room at Shands at the University of Florida.
But the thoracic and cardiac surgeon's recent experience during 90 days spent "boots on the ground" in Iraq are imprinted in his memory.
The 40-year-old from Madison, Wis., is an assistant professor in the College of Medicine. He joined the Army Re- serve in 1991, after Operation Desert Storm.
He got the notification via e-mail July 25 that he would be mobilized for service as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. For the next three months, he would be Major Beaver, stationed with the 933rd Forward Surgical Team outside Tikrit.
Beaver kept a journal of his time in Iraq and Afghanistan. He shared excerpts for this story.
He confessed going in that he had mixed feelings about U.S. intervention in Iraq, but felt good about serving there.
"The average age of the American soldier in the Southwest Asia theater is 19 - which means most of the Army is really 18 and young 20-year-olds. I feel fortunate to help take care of these kids who didn't ask to be put in this situation," he wrote in his journal.
On July 29, he flew in a Chinook helicopter into Tikrit, and Beaver said he quickly realized he was "not in Kansas anymore."
"We landed in a dark field and scrambled off as new troops scrambled back on. The copter was off in five minutes. It was pitch black, and we were met with Humvees from our unit. I had finally arrived in Tikrit."
Beaver was stationed at FOB (Forward Operating Base) Speicher, located on an old Iraqi air base away from the city itself. He found the operating suite set up in a tent to be surprisingly well stocked.
He joined a Forward Surgical Team of 20 surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses and medics trained to deploy and set up mini-operating rooms where the fighting was hot. His unit moved only once, however.
In the OR, he said, the lessons from his trauma days at Denver General Hospital came back to him quickly. In another entry, he reported that he was continuing to "stamp out appendicitis on the front lines of Iraq."
American troops are getting the best possible medical care in this combat theater, the surgeon said. Mortality rates are down, and soldiers who are severely injured are airlifted back to Germany within 48 hours.
Beaver's journal for Sept. 7 tells of another day in surgery, caring for three Iraqi policemen who were victims of a car bombing outside the police academy in Kirkuk. Two later died.
"It's hard to imagine such a brazen attack in the U.S., yet it occurs monthly - probably weekly - over here. The perpetual violence is discouraging. In order to show the Iraqi people a new future we must maintain security," he writes.
Sept. 11 was marked with a memorial service at FOB Speicher. Beaver writes that "an awful lot of ordinary Americans are over here doing their best to somehow try and keep an event like 9-11 from happening again."
On many days, Beaver reports in his journal, he was operating on soldiers who had legs mangled when their vehicles struck an IED, or improvised explosive device. The only way to protect yourself against such an encounter, he concluded, was to stay "within the wire," never leaving the relative safety of the base.
He would travel by helicopter to another forward base in northern Iraq, and return in a ambulance in an armed convoy along the main supply route, called "Tampa."
"I told myself the next time I drove to the real Tampa, I would remember this day."
Beaver describes talking with a group of convoy drivers, who sometimes made the trip four times a day, despite the risk from IEDs.
"They told of IEDs blowing up a mile in front of them and then seeing car parts land next to them . . . or being shot at from mosques along the highway," he writes.
"It is these guys and their medics who are the heroes over here."
Back home, Beaver said he worries about U.S. forces "developing a bunker mentality, where we stay on our bases and don't get out and work with the local population."
It is, he admits, a Catch-22 situation, because "our forces need to establish security before they are safe to go out there."
In October, Beaver reports, the unit got a call to be expecting a group of Marines coming in on medevac helicopters. So it was a surprise when they unloaded four boys between 10 and 12 years old, who had been injured by an IED close to the Syrian border.
It was, he said, as if these youngsters had stepped through a time warp. One night they were four boys watching their sheep, and the next day they were in a 21st century combat support hospital, watching DVDs of American movies.
"When I finally got to meet some of the Iraqis on a medical mission, (I found that) kids are kids and people are people," Beaver said. "They just want what we want, and we need to somehow help them get it."
That, he concedes, is going to take some time.
On Oct. 14, the unit was moved to Afghanistan to provide support in case there was trouble (and casualties) after the elections in that country. For his last two weeks of duty, Beaver traded the dust of Iraq for the fresh mountain air and snow-capped peaks of Afghanistan's high plains.
Oct. 30 brought the chance to catch a "red-eye" Air Force flight to Ramstein, Germany, where a rainbow welcomed the Army doctor back to the world.
Soon Beaver was back at work at Shands at UF, trading fatigues for a crisply starched shirt and tie.
"Now I'm back and caught up in my life here again," he said, but adds that he worries about those still "on the ground" in Iraq.
"We don't hear about them, but they're over there working for us, even on the holidays," he said.
Beaver concluded his journal with a message to those at home: "Please remember the thousands of ordinary Americans, just like you and me, who continue to serve our country.
"There's a lot of normal, everyday Americans, 140,000 of them, who have left their lives behind and are doing the best they can."
Diane Chun can be reached at (352) 374-5041 or chund@gvillesun.com.

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