Physician Soldier Fights More than One Enemy

November 12, 2012 — 6 Comments

War and terrorists have become everyday language.  Our media rarely covers stories of the extraordinary individuals serving in the military anymore.  Although we appreciate our military, they are not always at the forefront of our minds.  And yet these heroes continue to work in many different capacities keeping us safe, preserving our freedom, and defending those who can’t defend themselves.

Many soldiers do not share their stories because they become vulnerable and civilians are unable to grasp the full effect of a soldier’s feelings, environment, and decisions.  They prefer to relate to fellow veterans who have a clear understanding.  So it is a true honor when a veteran is willing to share.  It allows us a small glimpse into the personal feelings, living conditions, and difficult decisions soldiers live with daily.

My nephew, Timothy Livengood, serves as a physician with the US Army.  While serving in Iraq, he sent a letter to family and friends that gave us a peak into some of the struggles that plagued him as a Christian physician serving in a war zone.  In honor of all of our Veteran’s serving now and in the past, Timothy agreed to share his letter with you:

Dr. Timothy Livengood

Imagine you’re a physician or other healthcare professional taking care of soldiers brought in after an attack.  Let me paint more of a picture with some background.  Every once in a while the terrorists or so-called militias will fire rockets or mortars into American bases.  We call it indirect fire.  Some of these attacks are more coordinated than others.  Recently we had one such attack.

Now put yourself in our shoes.  Morning.  We get word that a base close to us has been hit.  Several casualties are brought to us.  They all have significant burns.  One of them is paralyzed and in shock.  Taking care of patients like this is very different for most of us.  Oh we’ve seen burns before.  We’ve seen plenty of gunshot wounds and sick trauma patients.  But in the States, the majority of trauma patients we see tend to bring their injuries on themselves.  Even with those who aren’t at fault, it’s not hard for us to compartmentalize–to focus on the injuries and shift the patient’s identity and humanity to the back of our minds, at least until the acute life- or limb-threat is over.  But this is a different population.

Ideally, based on the higher calling we all think we have as medical personnel, you would think we would see all patients the same.  Not so. These aren’t semi-anonymous victims of motor vehicle collisions.  These are universally our people.  Each one is one of us.  They represent us. We always, always see them as victims, and almost always we realize that their fate could be ours.  On top of that, they’re usually kids relative to us, and we look at them with respect and extreme compassion.

They weren’t the only ones.  Several died or were taken to other locations.  We only got some of the more severely injured ones.  They weren’t out looking for trouble.  If you talk to senior leadership or the politicians who are keeping us here, this isn’t a “combat zone.”  Read: we don’t get to fight back.  Most were hit as they were sleeping in their housing units, or they were hit as they ran to their bunkers.  Victims.  More emotions come into play besides compassion.  Anger rises as we attempt to ease their pain and as we work to save their lives and limbs.  Seeds of hatred begin to be sown.

We hear that one of the terrorists blew himself and his vehicle up and we all but cheer.  At least one less rocket killing our helpless friends and at least one less misguided (or idiotic, evil, cowardly, brainwashed . . . choose your own adjective) militant to launch another attack.  Frustration wells up at the idea that so many of us are stuck here in some nebulous non-mission, essentially making us nothing but targets who can’t fight back.  Naturally, on some level, fear enters the picture for the reasons I’ve already mentioned. Whether or not we admit its presence, it has a synergistic effect with those other negative emotions.

Somehow, we pull through it.  The patients go to the OR, then to the wards, and then are quickly evacuated out of theater for more definitive care.  We go back to our mostly boring shifts or back to our beds, but those feelings fester or at least linger.

Now picture taking care of one of those responsible for the attack.  A few hours after the event I just described, special forces medics bring in a detainee.  He’d been injured while trying to fight our soldiers, and they brought him in for care.  The mechanism of injury and the severity of the wound aren’t the issues here.  The guy was stable.  He was going to do fine.  And that was kind of the problem.

Imagine taking care of this person.  It might not be so easy, as the reader, to think back and take all the emotions I previously listed and project them on this patient.  Conversely for those of us in that situation, it was extremely difficult not to do just that.  The fear was not so much a factor, but the anger was.  The closest I’ve come in the past to feelings like this were toward drunk drivers in Austin after taking care of the patients they killed just a few beds over.  This was different, though.  Those drivers didn’t yet know what they’d done.  This man did.  And here he was crying about his arm, asking for water and pain control and blankets and consideration for his religion (he told us he was fasting and asked if we could make sure the surgery was after dark).  He got everything he asked for (except for water, but that was for his own good). 

We gave him the same care as we gave to our own soldiers, all the while feeling like reluctant saints.  He groveled and talked to us like we were his best friends.  We probably were, considering what we were doing for a man who killed our friends, considering we weren’t encouraging him to murder, or convincing him that there are rewards in heaven for strapping bombs to mentally challenged children or pregnant women while their family is held hostage.

I have to confess that more than once I had to throw up my defense mechanisms and push the inconvenient facts to the back of my mind while I focused on the injury.  In the heat of the moment it was hard for me to see him as being worthy at all of any care or comfort.  Why was this man in my ER?  What’s that?  Oh he’s in pain?  Well of course he’s in pain.  He got his arm broken trying to kill us.  Give him some fentanyl and maybe he’ll shut up a little.  He’s a murderer.  He’s a terrorist!  He hates us and would try to kill us if he could.  He does not regret what he’s done and we’re working to save his hand so that he can do it again.  What kind of insane world do we live in?

Once my job was done and the decision was made for him to go to the OR, I left the room and only came back when called (my desk is adjacent to the wall of the trauma room).  When I did come in, it was a relief to see they’d put a mask on him for security purposes.  It had the secondary effect of dehumanizing him further.

Now I don’t say all this because I’m proud of those feelings.  I don’t say it all to draw attention to the fact that we, as Americans, are willing to give to those who would take any opportunity to kill or maim us—though that is true, and those who would try to draw attention to, and make generalizations about, rare exceptions to that rule are fools.

I’m sharing all this partly because it had a major effect on me and most of you would be interested in it. When Jesus said to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us, surely he didn’t mean this, right?  He meant figuratively, or only people who hate us because of our faith.  Or he meant that we shouldn’t hate them or try to kill them or return wrong for wrong, but he didn’t necessarily mean we need to like them, right?  Well I guess it depends on what you mean by “love your enemies,” or “do good to those who hate you,” or “turn the other cheek,” or “do to others as you would have them do to you.”  Those directives don’t leave much room for interpretation.

I took care of the guy.  I did good to him, but my heart wasn’t in it.  I had two good reasons to offer this person good medical care.  First, I’m a doctor.  Second, I represent the USA.  In my opinion both of those are excellent reasons why I should rise above the temptation to treat this man poorly.  But both of those reasons leave me free to hate him in my heart, to secretly hope his arm cannot be fixed, and to even take comfort in the idea that he might get infected and die a slow, agonizing death.  Just as long as I did my job and followed my human ethics.

But my calling as a follower if Christ is higher than that.  I can’t truly love someone with actions alone.  I can’t love someone with hatred in my heart.  I have to be able to look someone in the eye and say, “I love you because Christ loves you and I’m an extension of Him in this world.”  If Christ can have compassion for those who are actively crucifying him, I’m expected to do the same for people who want to blow me up.  I don’t have the power to do that.  Only God does.  But he’s given us that power in the Holy Spirit, and I’ve heard and read countless stories that testify to that truth.

Pray for me.  I don’t know that I’ll have that kind of experience again.  I hope I won’t.  But I want my heart to continue to be free of the hate and anger and fear that surround me.  Maybe my attitude can affect someone around me for the better.

Dr. Timothy Livengood with his wife, Dr. Andreea Livengood and daughter Sophia

©2012 Connie Davis Johnson


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