Paul Roach is a Forest Park resident and a Navy surgeon who was deployed to Afghanistan twice in the last six years, the latest deployment ending in October 2014. He recently published his memoir of the experience, “Citizen Surgeon,” as an e-book.
When Captain Roach was deployed for his second tour of duty in Afghanistan in January of 2014, his family served with him — not physically, but emotionally and spiritually, they were right there with him.
Helen, the oldest of three Roach daughters, just graduated from St. Ignatius High School.
“I would say that we definitely are in the Navy with him,” she said. “I think a lot of sacrifices go into my dad’s job, but the most important aspect is that we’re like a unit. In the Navy there are companies and squads. We’re like a little squad.”
Fiona, who is the youngest of the Roach girls and goes to Ascension School, said, “When he’s in Afghanistan, it’s really hard for him, but it’s hard for us too.”
Maeve, who will be a junior at Nazareth High School next year, added, “We contribute when he’s gone. We send care packages for everybody out there, but it’s definitely a lot easier when he’s here.”
Paul’s wife Megan said, “I felt like a part of us was in Afghanistan with him. Paul was filling us in so much on what was going on that I felt like we were serving with him.”
Captain Roach has written a memoir, Citizen Surgeon, which recounts his experiences in his first deployment as part of the Marine Corps’ 1st Medical Battalion’s Alpha Company in Helmand Province. The memoir helps explain how he came to love such a demanding, lonely and sometimes depressing job in a very dangerous place.
Roach is clear in the book that his deployment was hard on him. He wrote, “I am home now, but memories of the deployment keep finding me: standing inside a poorly lit tent in a foreign place, a ragged, muddy blast victim on a stretcher shrieks in agony and scratches at life with desperate, shredded limbs; an Afghan child struck by a Hellfire missile, skin bleeding head to toe from shrapnel wounds … but Death steals her abruptly; lonely, homesick, waiting in a cold line outside a phone tent to call my family at Christmas.”
“We became attached to some of his patients that he told us about,” said Megan. “He would call when he had lost a service member. It was very hard on him and we would grieve with him. Paul would always say, ‘I couldn’t do what I am doing without the support of you four at home.'”
The entire Roach family sought strength and comfort in the Catholic faith. “Families at St. Bernardine [first deployment] and Ascension [second deployment] were incredible and awesome,” Megan recalled. “I prayed more when Paul was gone — prayed for his safety, prayed for all our service members, prayed for our girls to be OK and for God to give me strength and patience. While Paul was gone, we kept a note on our refrigerator by Mother Teresa that said, ‘I know God won’t give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.'”
Yet in the midst of the horror of war, Captain Roach found tremendous meaning in the work he was doing. On the day he was to return home, he visited the tent in which he had tried to put so many broken bodies back together. He wrote, “Standing in the silent O.R. tent looking about, I had the sense that soon I wouldn’t be this important ever again — at least not professionally. Plus this was the finest, most deserving patient population on the planet.”
The entire Roach family shares this sense of purpose with their father and husband. Helen explained it this way: “Watching everything that my dad has done and my mom has been there to stand by him and she’s been taking care of us when he’s gone, it makes you grow up in a different sense. I don’t feel like I was robbed of anything. I actually feel like it was a blessing. I have a perspective that not a lot of people get. It makes you appreciate what you have, but it also shows you how much you have to give.”
The whole family was, of course, both excited and relieved when each of the two deployments ended. The Citizen Surgeon wrote, “I will always remember with gratitude and relief the crystal moment when my darling wife, the devoted mother of our children, my inspiration and best friend on Earth, was there in Camp Pendleton after a long, difficult year to welcome me back to my country, my family, and to my life.”
Maeve said they went back to having fun together. “One of the greatest things about him coming back was we got to go out to dinner every night for a week. Now we’re going to Europe, and we were doing all these fun things.”
Returning home, however, turns out not to be the end of the deployment — at least not psychologically and spiritually.
“They say it takes a full year for a family to recover,” Captain Roach explained. “I have some personal issues to iron out; I haven’t returned home yet in my own head or in my heart. It’s like the intensity and the sharpness of the experience carved channels in my mind. I need some time, some regular living to fill those channels back up so that things can get back their proper patterns. But I don’t know if they’ll ever get back to ‘normal,’ whatever that was.”
“When Paul got home from his deployment,” said Megan, “it was super-exciting. We felt euphoria for a few days, but then he started having a hard time. He got depressed sometimes. When he came home after the first deployment, I was a little bit more confused. The second time I knew what to expect and we worked through it. Families probably need more support when the service member gets home.”
A sign that the Roach family loves military life and finds meaning and purpose in it, despite the hardships, is the fact that Helen will be part of the Air Force ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program when she begins her studies at St. Thomas College in Minnesota in the fall and Maeve, who will be a junior at Nazareth High School, is thinking seriously about a career in the military as well. Fiona said she is more interested in an acting and singing career than serving in the Navy like her dad, but then added, “I’ll probably marry a guy in the military.”