Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq

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9781416599586: Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq

IN 2004, AT THE AGE OF FORTY-EIGHT, DR. DAVE HNIDA, a family physician from Littleton, Colorado, volunteered to be deployed to Iraq and spent a tour of duty as a battalion surgeon with a combat unit. In 2007, he went back—this time as a trauma chief at one of the busiest Combat Support Hospitals (CSH) during the Surge. In an environment that was nothing less than a modern-day M*A*S*H, the doctors’ main objective was simple: Get ’em in, get ’em out. The only CSH staffed by reservists— who tended to be older, more-experienced doctors disdainful of authority—the 399th soon became a medevac destination of choice because of its high survival rate, an astounding 98 percent.

This was fast-food medicine at its best: working in a series of tents connected to the occasional run-down building, Dr. Hnida and his fellow doctors raced to keep the wounded alive until they could be airlifted out of Iraq for more extensive repairs. Here the Hippocratic Oath superseded that of the pledge to Uncle Sam; if you got the red-carpet helicopter ride, his team took care of you, no questions asked. On one stretcher there might be a critically injured American soldier while three feet away lay the insurgent, shot in the head, who planted the IED that inflicted those wounds.

But there was levity amid the chaos. On call round-the-clock with an unrelenting caseload, the doctors’ prescription for sanity included jokes, pranks, and misbehavior. Dr. Hnida’s deployment was filled with colorful characters and gifted surgeons, a diverse group who became trusted friends as together they dealt with the psychological toll of seeing the casualties of war firsthand. 

In a conflict with no easy answers and even less good news, Paradise General gives us something that we can all believe in—the story of an ordinary citizen turned volunteer soldier trying to make a difference. With honesty and candor, and an off-the-wall, self-deprecating humor that sustained him and his battle buddies through their darkest hours, Dr. Hnida delivers a devastating and inspiring account of his CSH tour and an unparalleled look at medical care during an unscripted war.

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About the Author:

Dr. Dave Hnida is a family physician and medical commentator. He has worked as a local and national correspondent for NBC and CBS, and has made appearances on the Today show and The Early Show. He lives with his family in Littleton, Colorado.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

I’M NOT A SOLDIER BUT I PLAYED ONE IN IRAQ

THE LAST TIME I talked with my dad was on a sweltering April evening in 2004. It was a lopsided conversation. He had died of a heart attack almost thirty years earlier. But he was one of the main reasons I was hiding in a sandy ditch in the middle of Iraq, and I had some things to tell him before I died. My dad was a good man, although up until a few days before his death, I didn’t always think so. A hard-toiling factory worker, he drank a fifth of cheap whiskey every day, was a mean drunk, and always left me searching for the answer to why any man felt the need to retreat to the safety of the bottle. I had my hints and theories, but never walked in his shoes, or in this case, his Army boots. It took three hours in a ditch to get a firsthand revelation about why the liquor cabinet was permanently open while I was growing up.

As a twenty-three-year-old infantry lieutenant at Anzio in World War II, my dad sent a number of other young men into battle and could never forgive himself for the ones who didn’t return. This member of the “Greatest Generation” was silent about his war until he abruptly and permanently corked the bottle in late 1975, when I was a senior in college.

We were driving from Newark to Philadelphia down the Jersey Turnpike when he threw a couple of quarters into a tollbooth, saying, “That’s not much of a toll in this life, Dave.”

I wasn’t sure what he meant until a painful flood of war memories suddenly spilled from a place deep in his soul. He had never told anyone, including my mom, about any of his wartime experiences. I was the typical college kid who thought I could handle anything the world dared throw at me, but was humbled into silence as each mile marker brought a new and horrible description of the savagery of war.

In a calm and measured voice, my dad told me about being hit with flying body parts as German artillery shredded the men next to him in a foxhole; driving a knife into the throat of a wide-eyed enemy soldier no older than himself; then sending out on patrol a man, no, a boy, really, who had saved his life in an ambush only the night before. A boy whose machine-gun-riddled body my dad dragged back to American lines a few hours later. Finally came the worst story of all: the fear. The fear of failure. The fear of letting your fellow soldiers down. The paralyzing fear of fear itself. Fear was my father’s lifelong bartender.

The drive ended in exhausted silence an hour later when he dropped me in front my apartment at the University of Pennsylvania. His voice was steady for the entire trip but as the car braked to a stop, his eyes were damp. With the exception of drunken bursts of anger, it was the most emotion I had seen from my father in my twenty-one years. We shook hands, said our goodbyes, and that was it. Almost. As he rolled up his window, my dad quietly said, “I’m sorry, Dave. I hope I wasn’t a bad father.” He died of a heart attack four days later.

I think my dad died a more peaceful man, but for me, his stories of war delivered anything but peace. I tried to make sense of the things he had told me in the hour-long monologue, wondering how his experiences shaped him and—as a result—me. And I simply couldn’t shake the last words I would ever hear from him, a questioning statement that was almost a plea for forgiveness. How could I think of him as a terrible father after what he’d been through? I saved myself from a lifetime of regret when I answered with a smile and a quick thumbs-up as he pulled away from the curb.

As the decades following that car ride melted away, the stories did not—they seemed to be on a constant simmer below the surface of my life. I went on to medical school, got married, and started a family. Yet as I watched my own four children grow, there was always a sober thought that the only way to learn what made my father tick was to leave them, and go to war myself.

NOW, IN A classic case of be careful of what you wish for, I found myself lying in some nameless ditch along the side of a nameless road outside a village whose name I couldn’t pronounce. It was a beautiful desert night, with a sparkling sky and a moon so brilliant it made me the perfect silhouette.

“Doc!” The voice came from behind in a stern whisper.

“Get your ass down and make yourself small!”

A wiry young sergeant had silently wiggled up beside me.

“You’re going to get us all killed unless you get the fuck down and eat some sand, sir.”

He was right. Here I was, a forty-eight-year-old doctor, well schooled in medicine but clueless in the ways of war. And fortunate to be getting lessons from a twenty-three-year-old tutor carrying an oversized M4 automatic rifle. Christ, this kid is the same age as my father when he crawled around Italy in 1943.

My night in the ditch had actually started hours before the sun went down. We were on our way back from convoying a wounded Iraqi insurgent from our aid station to a British combat hospital. I was nearing the end of my deployment and had been through a few close calls. Now I needed my luck to hold out for just one more ride. I stared out the small window of our Humvee as we weaved and dodged well-hidden IEDs, trying to make sense of why we were risking our skins to save the life of an insurgent who had cursed and spit on us as we loaded his stretcher into the ambulance.

Along the route, our convoy picked up a number of stragglers, vehicles whose drivers knew there was safety in numbers. Among the group of wheeled hitchhikers were a number of fuel trucks, appetite-whetting targets for anyone with a rocket-propelled grenade. The convoy hauled ass toward our base, making good time until one of our Humvees unexpectedly let out a series of groans and weakly chugged to a halt in the middle of the road. The breakdown left us no choice but to sit and wait for help. And wait we did, watching the sun disappear, and darkness creep up.

It didn’t take long for word to make its way to the wrong ears that an American convoy was stranded on an isolated road. At first we could vaguely see, then only hear, scrunching footsteps in the darkening fields and groves that ran along both sides of the road. The contractors from the fuel trucks huddled as the soldiers set up a protective perimeter around the dead convoy. I settled into my spot in a ditch that was two feet deep, cradling an M16 rifle, and waited. And listened as the scrunching slowly and steadily got louder. I’m a doctor. What the hell am I doing here? And what will my kids do when they get the news I was killed?

AS MY FOUR children grew, I made sure their world was different from the one where I grew up. They would never never worry about their father stumbling around drunk in public or throwing an empty booze bottle at their heads. And they’d never cower in a corner waiting for the alcohol to trigger an artificial slumber.

Though I worked hard, I tried to make it home early every day to have a catch in the backyard or help with homework. And despite offers of more money to work in New York or L.A., I realized the way to have more was to take less, and the best place to raise a family was at the foot of the Rockies in the tight-knit community of Littleton, Colorado.

Life in Littleton, in fact, seemed to revolve around kids: My family medicine practice was more pediatric than grown-up; I coached Little League baseball, basketball, and football; and I volunteered as the team physician for so many schools, there were days I didn’t know who to root for. Life was good and I was content. I had even made peace with my children’s grandfather—telling my kids the stories of the good times of my childhood, while leaving out the bad.

Then came two events that shattered my world, and started the wheels that would take me to the ditch.

The first happened in 1999, a seismic blast that shook the country, as well as my life—the Columbine High School shootings. My office was literally a stone’s throw from the high school; I knew most of the students, parents, and teachers; and most importantly, of the thirteen who died in the shootings, nine were patients of mine, some of whom I had cared for since the day they were born. And as they fell, so did I.

Soon after, my daughter Katie made history at the University of New Mexico as the first woman ever to play and score points in a major college football game. But her groundbreaking journey was a long and painful one. Katie was originally recruited as a placekicker by the University of Colorado, but a coaching change right before arriving on campus abruptly chilled the atmosphere for a female playing a traditionally all-male sport. It was clear the new head coach, Gary Barnett, didn’t want Katie around and a few of the players picked up on the unwelcome message. The harassment started the first day she stepped onto the field, and never let up. She was cursed, groped in the huddle, and had footballs thrown at her head as she practiced her kicking. Soon after the season ended, the nightmare of every father took place: Katie was raped. He was a teammate she considered a friend, the last guy she ever thought would harm her.

It would have been easy to quit, but she never considered it. Katie left Colorado and found a home at the University of New Mexico where she played for a team that accepted and encouraged her to make history. I was proud beyond words the day she trotted onto the field to kick against UCLA on national TV.

She had accomplished her goal, and went on to play in another game the following year at New Mexico. Despite her successes, Katie still had days of darkness, and with them came a struggle I woke to each morning—one inner voice goading me to kill the guy who had raped her while another mocked me as a failure for not protecting her.

My life became a bottomless well of guilt and it seemed the only way ...

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Book Description SIMON SCHUSTER, United States, 2011. Paperback. Book Condition: New. Reprint. Language: English . Brand New Book ***** Print on Demand *****.IN 2004, AT THE AGE OF FORTY-EIGHT, DR. DAVE HNIDA, a family physician from Littleton, Colorado, volunteered to be deployed to Iraq and spent a tour of duty as a battalion surgeon with a combat unit. In 2007, he went back--this time as a trauma chief at one of the busiest Combat Support Hospitals (CSH) during the Surge. In an environment that was nothing less than a modern-day M*A*S*H, the doctors main objective was simple: Get em in, get em out. The only CSH staffed by reservists-- who tended to be older, more-experienced doctors disdainful of authority--the 399th soon became a medevac destination of choice because of its high survival rate, an astounding 98 percent. This was fast-food medicine at its best: working in a series of tents connected to the occasional run-down building, Dr. Hnida and his fellow doctors raced to keep the wounded alive until they could be airlifted out of Iraq for more extensive repairs. Here the Hippocratic Oath superseded that of the pledge to Uncle Sam; if you got the red-carpet helicopter ride, his team took care of you, no questions asked. On one stretcher there might be a critically injured American soldier while three feet away lay the insurgent, shot in the head, who planted the IED that inflicted those wounds. But there was levity amid the chaos. On call round-the-clock with an unrelenting caseload, the doctors prescription for sanity included jokes, pranks, and misbehavior. Dr. Hnida s deployment was filled with colorful characters and gifted surgeons, a diverse group who became trusted friends as together they dealt with the psychological toll of seeing the casualties of war firsthand. In a conflict with no easy answers and even less good news, Paradise General gives us something that we can all believe in--the story of an ordinary citizen turned volunteer soldier trying to make a difference. With honesty and candor, and an off-the-wall, self-deprecating humor that sustained him and his battle buddies through their darkest hours, Dr. Hnida delivers a devastating and inspiring account of his CSH tour and an unparalleled look at medical care during an unscripted war. Bookseller Inventory # APC9781416599586

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