Military to Medicine was born on a blistering evening in the barren desert lowlands that stretch between Kuwait and Iraq. The young Marine was not the first and would not be the last, but his story was symptomatic of more than a thousand shared with me in confidence during the days following the US’s initial military operations into Iraq in 2003.
He was a young Marine and this was his first experience of war. Thousands of miles away, his young wife had given birth to a new daughter whom he had never seen apart from a few photos sent in post. Unlike others in the area, he was part of a detachment in a remote landing zone that didn’t have satellite connection to the outside world, so calls were few and electronic communication nonexistent.
The Marine clasped his hands in his lap. I could see them shaking slightly out of the corner of my eye as I read the scrawled sentence on the page before me. We were sitting behind a screen in the medic’s tent. I’m not a physician, nor a psychiatrist, and though trained as a counselor, I’m a chaplain first and so I struggled with the decision that lay before me that night. “I cannot stop myself from committing harm to myself or others.” His signature followed.
The marine was one of perhaps a dozen of the most difficult situations with which I was confronted during that time in the desert. But I can say with certainty that as combat operations have progressed over the last decade, the stories and life challenges I am confronted with have only grown more abundant and more severe. I made a decision that night in the desert, a commitment to stand for those that cannot stand for themselves. And on that promise I will not waver; on that premise I founded my part in what is now called Military to Medicine.
The young marine had been exposed to the horrors of war. He shared his story with me that night, along with his fears for a new wife and child, for the tense relationship between his separated parents, a financial crisis that was only being held at bay by the fact that he was deployed . . . He bore the weight of worlds. And he was struggling to cope with it. He’d been getting in to fights with his platoon members and placed into discipline for the third time in as many weeks. He couldn’t solve the problems at home and couldn’t see his way forward, and didn’t know where to turn.
I’d been able to connect with our legal officers who were working with his wife and creditors to keep them from being evicted from their apartment. He had been activated from the individual ready reserve, and lived in southern Texas, away from any military base. One phrase he said sticks with me to this day, “I don’t see any light chaps, only darkness ahead. When I get home. I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t have a job, I don’t have a way to take care of my family.” And then in a whisper, “but if I die out here at least she’ll get the insurance.”
I folded the paper in my hands, confirmed his permission one last time, and placed a hand on his shoulder for a moment before standing and walking out of the tent to the doctor and security detail waiting outside. They were going to drive him far south to the only available psychiatrist that could see him. It was the only thing I could think of at the time that might make a difference. I know better now.
Eight hours later, sleeping to troubled dreams in my tent I was awakened by a stern call from a familiar voice. “Chaplain, get up … we need you out here.” It was the Executive Officer of the unit making a personal call … never a good sign. We walked swiftly through the darkened camp, with the loud hum of generators, and the stench of burning diesel fumes. The ExO didn’t say much, only that the marine I’d seen earlier had been sent back that same evening. For a moment I thought he was furious with me for wasting the time and fuel of his drivers in making the trip. And then we walked through the flap of the tent.
He was being tended to. The cuts were everywhere, his uniform in tatters, and the medics were still trying to remove pieces of the metal wire still left in him. He’d broken down upon his return and thrown himself into the barbed concertina wire that ran along the perimeter of the camp.
Few things in life have stirred me to such fury and passion as the look in that young man’s eyes. Being a chaplain, I believe what came next was inspiration, though looking back on it I could see how I might have looked insane myself. The medics carried a satellite phone with them and I asked for it. In my civilian job I was working at the US Department of Labor, serving in an organization called the Veterans’ Employment and Training Service. I kept some of their contact information with me in a little resource book I kept with me. It was 5 pm in Texas, and a live voice picked up the phone.
I told him briefly that I was calling from a long way off, but I had a veteran with me that needed some help. He’d be coming home soon and he would be unemployed. Could he talk to him for a minute and help connect him with someone that could help. That was all the warning the veteran on the other end of the line received, and then I handed the phone over to the young marine and told him that he mattered, that there were people that cared about him, that could help him get on his feet, and that there was hope.
Military to Medicine is not a business; it is a mission that makes good business sense. I have cared and continue to care for the needs of hundreds of our military families, war-wounded veterans and their care takers. And I have found that of all the resources that I can provide, there is nothing as powerful as helping a person find a job in an environment where they can thrive in a career that they can grow to love.
Military to Medicine is not interested in creating jobs that go nowhere. We are not interested in teaching information that has no practical use in the workplace. We are about creating a healthcare workforce at the ready, and being a driving force to transform the lives of military families and in so doing to build a network of talent and training powerful enough to reshape homes and communities around the world.
I watched. I looked into the eyes of that young marine as he listened to the voice on the other end of the phone. And though he had shed not a tear as strips of twisted razors were taken from his arms and legs and side, I saw him weep for the joy that a new hope had been given back to him. But he couldn’t get it from email. He couldn’t get it from a letter or a brochure or a website. Hope is best and most effectively transacted through living beings.
We have a powerful opportunity before us. The vast majority of the world does not have the healthcare it needs to face the challenges of today, let alone those of tomorrow. In the US alone, thousands of interested students are being turned away from career training in healthcare because there are not enough to teach them. Countries around the world are being stripped of what little talent they have as nurses have become a major export to developed nations like the US. There is a vast amount of confusion among people seeking entry into entry level healthcare jobs and high failure rates because the quality of education has eroded and become disengaged from hospitals and care providers. The US healthcare system is undergoing dramatic technological change while facing a future of tightening restrictions and demands for quality results.
We believe we can make a difference, to meet the talent demands of an industry in crisis while delivering hope and returning meaning to those whose sacrifices have proven their devotion to community and to their fellow human being.
Each day I awake with a story like that of this marine, for I carry a thousand stories with me. And each day I carry visions of what could be, of how a small village in a far off place could be transformed if we could bring healing skills to many hands, and how the mother of a wounded soldier could rebuild a shattered family after two years away from home while nursing her son through a thousand surgeries.
This is why I go to work each day. I want to welcome you to our growing community. Some of you are unfamiliar with our name, but have worked with many of our staff who created the heart of Military to Medicine by delivering career assistance services as Operation Life Transformed. To OLT Alumni and friends I give my warmest welcome, as i do to our Inova Health System staff who have labored long and hard to make this dream a reality.
One thing I ask, which was asked of me when I received help from a fellow member of the military community. Join our community, provide a helping hand, (and to steal from a recent movie) “pay forward” the good that is done to you that the heart of service will beat long and strong in this land and this world that we love.