Tanya “Doc” Friese felt a mix of emotions as she watched her country withdraw all military forces from the Kabul airport in Afghanistan at the end of August.
Watching what she called the “humanitarian travesties” she was seeing on her TV screen brought her back emotionally to the First Gulf War in which she served as a Navy Hospital Corpsman, aka medic, mainly with the Marines.
“The work of corpsmen,” the Forest Parker said, “is humanitarian. We fix people. We don’t kill people.”
Although officially classified as a “noncombatant” she experienced what it’s like to be on a battlefield. When Doc Friese and the other corpsmen heard “Marine down,” they immediately would risk their lives, sometimes in the middle of a firefight, to retrieve and treat a wounded comrade. So her emotions 20 years later have been hard earned.
“Holding a dying child or a dying Marine in my arms,” she said, “knowing that I was powerless to change fate. … These are my ‘ghosts of war.’”
Although her years of active duty are well in the past, she is still connected to Afghanistan. “I have friends and colleagues who are in a conundrum about our longest war. Friends who are Gold Star mothers who lost their children and now really do not understand why.”
Paul Roach is a surgeon from Forest Park who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Marines. In 2014 his memoir was published, and in it are echoes of what Doc Friese told the Review. “For every injured or killed service member,” he wrote, “there is also a circle of family and friends directly affected by those wounds.”
It got very personal for Doc Friese when she recently heard that one of her former colleagues had died. “All lives are precious,” she said, “yet I lost a true brother, another Hospital Corpsman, Maxton W. Soviak who was one of the service members killed recently while supporting evacuation operations in Kabul.”
“I am home now,” Roach wrote seven years ago, “but memories of the deployment keep finding me. An Afghan child struck by a Hellfire missile, skin bleeding head to toe from shrapnel wounds and we cut her open stem-to-stern but death steals her abruptly from our hard-pressed hands, as the injuries were too many and too deep.”
Friese used the word “disheartened” to describe one of the emotions she felt as she watched one C-17 Globemaster after another take off from the Hamid Karzai International Airport. “It was disheartening,” she said, “to see how many individuals who wished to seek refuge and their family members were unable to leave. Watching individuals attempting to cling to the outside of departing planes only to drop off was almost too much to bear.”
“I remain very concerned,” Friese said, “especially when it comes to the safety of women and children and also future access to education that girls and young women will have as the regime has changed.”
Asked if she thought that the withdrawal had been bungled, Friese replied, “In my opinion, there is never a good way to evacuate. My only piece was that equipment (again) was left that even though ‘disabled’ that could be repurposed to be used against peaceful nations.”
Friese, who currently works as a professor in Community Mental Health and Systems Nursing at Rush University Medical College, seemed to leave it up to historians to judge whether the 20-year war was worth it. According to the Watson Institute (International and Public Affairs), 241,000 deaths and trillions of dollars.
Rather than making broad policy judgments she again got personal, saying, “My time in the service, the places I served in, the people I both served with and served (meaning largely foreign nationals and civilians) were worth the risks I took. Certainly, we all ‘pay a price’ for our decisions but I wouldn’t have traded my time for anything.”
Toward the end of his memoir, Roach wrote, “Perhaps, opposite to the notion that the world exists for our consumption, the real reason we humans exist is in order to make the world a better place. That, by definition, means going to the difficult areas, investing and immersing into them, taking your chances, and giving it all that you have to give. That is the peace that I have made with it, anyway. That is how I have come to accept the fact of Afghanistan.”
Lasting effects. Friese says she suffers from Gulf War Syndrome. Roach went into more detail. “We got home and celebrated and normal life resumed,” he remembered, “[but] I could not exactly return to whom I was before I left. … I could not find that same person who used to be me — like when you’re looking for something that you know you left safely behind but unfortunately now it’s nowhere to be found and you get on with things, thinking it will turn up sooner or later but it doesn’t. …”
Paradoxically, Roach said that his time in Afghanistan was some of the most meaningful in his life.
Friese agreed saying that although her service in the military was meaningful and rewarding, what really bothers her, especially as a vet who is a medical professional, is that the rate of suicides among both veterans and active-duty persons and their families is 20 each day.