Christmas Eve 1990, Saudi Arabia, a few miles south of the Iraqi border - it is cold and dark as I lay on my cot, my sleeping bag around me, the constant hum of the generators in the background. I am listening to Pachabel’s Canon in D minor on my cassette player. Rain pelts the tent I share with nine other Army doctors. The sides move rhythmically with the wind, my heart beating in unison, a concert of emotions being played in my mind.
Two months earlier, I, along with two hundred plus soldiers, left Ft. Campbell, Kentucky for the desert of Saudi Arabia as Operation Desert Storm began gearing up. I was the Chief of Medicine for the 86th Army Evacuation Hospital based at Ft. Campbell. Two months prior to this Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait and the normalcy that was my life disappeared. After weeks of preparation and too many “go/no goes”, we finally left not knowing what to expect or how long we would be there. We only knew that war was imminent and we faced a crazy man who had already showed he would use chemical weapons.
We landed in Dharan, Saudi Arabia. The next two months were spent preparing for the war to come. We stocked up supplies, equipment, and medicine. Physicians cross -trained the nurses and corpsmen so that together we could best care for the 600 new casualties we expected every 24 hours, mainly from the 101st Air Assault Division. Many of our nurses were married to those soldiers. Would their husbands be among the dead and wounded? That weighed on everyone’s mind.
On 23 December we moved the 400 - bed hospital 8 hours north to the Iraqi border by 112 flatbed trucks. We got the hospital set up by the evening of Christmas Eve. It was a dismal time. Our only contact with our families was through mail. There were no phone lines established. Internet, cell phones, emails, and Skype did not exist, only letters. How special every letter was! We lived for mail call. I wrote home every day. Letters were my only connection to my family, to home, and to the hope that one day I would see them again.
That evening word came down from the 101st Command Center, that a large armor (tank) contingent of Iraqi Republican Guard was less than 10 miles north of us poised to attack. At that time, we had no defensive perimeter and no armed security. That night, and into the early morning hours of Christmas Day, in the cold and pouring rain, the Engineer Battalion from the 101st worked tirelessly setting up anti-tank barriers and digging deep trenches between us and the Guard. I quit feeling sorry for myself as I thought about what those soldiers were doing. How could I ever repay them except to insure, if and when they needed our medical help, we would be there for them? It gave me a new appreciation of sacrifice and what it looked like to be part of something much bigger than myself. My perspective on life, my family, and my priorities had changed.
I know how hard you work, the frustrations you face, and the sacrifices you make. It is easy to lose “perspective” on what is truly important in life. Keeping a good perspective can be critical as you do the work you do. It won’t necessarily solve the problems nor remove the frustrations you face. Remembering past challenges or hardships, though, can help you view things through a different lens. Like those soldiers on the front lines working through the cold and rain that dreary Christmas Eve, I thank you for the sacrifices you make and all you do to care for our patients. You are greatly appreciated!
Andy Lamb, MD