STEPPING UP TO SAVE LIVES
By Mardi Ford
As he talks about Iraq, his family, the war and a prestigious appointment to a state medical board, Dr. Dan Hamre's body language transitions between ease and intensity.
It has been just over a year since the La Grande surgeon and Army lieutenant colonel was sent home with a Purple Heart. He took some time, then quietly went back about his business. But his dedication to service before, during and since Iraq has not gone unnoticed by his peers.
In July Hamre, who is director of trauma medicine at Grande Ronde Hospital, was given a prestigious four-year appointment to serve on the Oregon State Trauma Advisory Board. He is pleased to be a voice for rural Eastern Oregon.
"I think there's one guy from Bend," Hamre says. "But besides that Â— for everything east Â— I'm it."
Hamre was also invited to address the June 2004 Trauma and Critical Care Conference sponsored by the Legacy Health System. Although up to now Hamre has been reticent, he stepped up to the plate.
His presentation? The Challenges of Combat Medicine. Sharing the experience for the benefit of his colleagues was a challenge Â— and an honor.
"It was tough," Hamre admits, "but I did it. I'm just starting to get comfortable talking about it."
It has been a hard year. Hamre admits to struggling with post traumatic stress when he first got back. And although he remembers his family coming to meet him in Boise and spending a few days together there, he doesn't remember much about his first two weeks home.
"I've completely blanked it out," he says, shaking his head, baffled. There are, however, plenty of memories of his service with the 915th Forward Surgical Team.
Now 44, Hamre was just 18 years old when he joined the Army Reserve.
"I was a patriot," he says, smiling.
And though it was almost 25 years before he was called to serve, on Jan. 24, 2003, Hamre was activated for duty in Iraq.
"That's what I signed up for," he says, relaxing back into his chair.
But neither Hamre nor his wife, Dawn, or children Amber, Ben, Drew and Tiffany, were prepared when the notification came. The Army had given Hamre two days to report to Fort Lewis.
"It was a shock," he admits. "I thought I'd have more time. It was crazy. I had scheduled surgeries that had to be canceled." Hamre pauses, relaxes and leans back in his chair again.
"But when you're called to serve," he adds firmly, "you answer that call."
Two hectic days later, Hamre had joined a 20-person surgical team in Fort Lewis who were, Hamre says, "mostly from Oregon. I think there was one guy from Washington, too." The then Major Hamre was one of four surgeons on the team.
"A forward surgical team is small," he explains, "designed to be in the front. We did emergency surgery on guys that couldn't wait to be evac'd, and we'd stabilize them so they could be shipped back to a hospital."
Hamre says the soldiers they worked on were "terribly injured and would never have made it to a hospital" without the efforts of the surgical team.
"We contributed an important service. Â‘Let's do it,' we'd say. Â‘Let's save some lives.' It was hard, but valuable work," he says.
As support for the 4th Infantry Division, Hamre says his unit moved all over the country Â— exactly where he isn't supposed to say for security reasons.
"Well, we went to Kuwait and headed north with a huge convoy," he will say. "We went through Baghdad. We were actually with the guys who would capture Saddam," he says, smiling.
Always on the move
Just like everybody else at the front, Hamre says the surgical unit traveled light and traveled fast Â— eating MREs (meals ready to eat) and drinking water that was always hot.
Day-to-day duties consisted of setting up the surgical unit, performing surgery, tearing the unit down, moving to the next place and starting the cycle all over again.
"We were constantly on the move," he says. "When the infantry stopped, we stopped," Hamre says. "We'd just pull off the side of the road anywhere Â—nowhere Â— and that would be camp." He pauses for a moment looking back. "It was a wreck."
Although the inconsistency of their nomadic journey was unnerving, and they usually functioned under severe sleep deprivation, Hamre says the efficiency of the unit as a team and the needs of the injured brought everything into focus during surgery.
"We were there to do a job," he says, "and we did it. As surgeons, we're trained to do that."
Living conditions for the team were primitive. They slept on World War II army cots, sometimes under mosquito netting and camouflage, sometimes not, smack in the middle of the incredibly hot desert, Hamre says. However, they had environmentally controlled tents for surgery and sometimes limited supplies to do their job. It all came out of a single Humvee.
Moving into battle with the forward infantry division meant the surgical team was in constant danger. When camped, they were safest, Hamre says. It was when they were moving that they were most vulnerable.
"You can never clear the way well enough," he says.
Driving through a village, he explains, they never knew "who was going to wave and who was going to shoot."
Ironically, the devastating attack that wiped out the 915th Forward Surgical Team came when they were at the rear, camped near an army hospital, waiting to move out with a support unit.
The team's equipment was destroyed. Of the 20-member surgical team, 16 were injured, including Hamre. Six were severely wounded and eventually flown to an Army hospital in Germany.
After that, much to Hamre's surprise, the 915th Forward Surgical Team was released from duty and sent home. Hamre had figured the Army would patch them up, regroup and put them to work again.
"There wasn't anybody to take our place," he explains. "They needed us there."
Proud of what his team did in Iraq, Hamre simply repeats, "We saved some lives."
Despite the harsh physical conditions, despite being shot at and wounded, despite the exhausting ceaseless moving with the front, the worst part of Hamre's tour of duty was not in Iraq at all. It was what he left behind.
"I knew it was going to be dangerous," he begins quietly.
Leaning forward in his chair again, Hamre absentmindedly fingers the strap on a nylon bag. Staring at his hands, mastering strong emotions, he finally says, "It's really our families who suffer more than we do."
Hamre says there was a period of about six weeks after the 915th Forward Surgical Team reached Iraq that it had no way to contact family.
"I understand the reason," he says. "The last thing the infantry needed was some satellite zoning in on where we were through a cell phone or computer. I just wish I'd known that was the way it was going to be."
With no way to reach the family, Dawn and the children were left with little reassurance for Hamre's welfare for a long month and a half.
And, he adds, the Army pays about one-fifth of what a surgeon usually makes in private practice here at home.
"And even when you're serving over there," he says, "back home, the same old bills keep coming.
"That was the hardest part Â— worrying about my family. It wasn't the heat. It wasn't the bugs. It wasn't the spiders, or even getting shot at."
Ready to serve again
Even though he now knows what he would face, Hamre, who remains on active reserve, is ready to serve if called again. He does, however, seem more determined than enthusiastic.
"They need surgeons," he explains, "and I don't see any more signing up."
Hamre would like to see some new surgeons "step up to the plate" and share the load, although he understands why they don't. Currently, he adds, there are only three Oregon surgeons on reserve. One of the surgeons Hamre served with is already headed back to Iraq.
With a year's perspective at home, Hamre, who professes a much greater appreciation of veterans, considers every day in La Grande a gift.
"This day-to-day life is what we have," he says. "Living here is heaven. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."
Hamre is pleased to see the support this community has given the troops' families.
"It's always good to help the families," he says, "because this is what those guys are going to come back to."
It does, however, bother him to see so much negativity Â—especially in the national press Â— regarding the war effort and the administration. Second-guessing the effort and the method, he says, undermines morale.
"All I know is, my commander in chief called and I went," he says. "I have complete confidence in that and in my country. Saddam is an evil man and he needed to be taken out. There is no way for the average citizen to know all the details. It's way too complex. How can you say if this or that decision was wrong, if you don't have all the information?"
And, for security reasons, Hamre says, full disclosure should not be an option.
"You've got guys like (TV reporter) Geraldo (Rivera) over there trying to get specific information Â— giving away details and locations Â— putting people's lives in danger."
Hamre is outspoken and intense when he talks about the things that matter most Â— his family, his work and his country.
But when the focus moves to put him in the spotlight, he looks slightly uncomfortable. His words are self-effacing.
"I don't know if anybody is going to be interested in any of this or not," he says. "I had a job to do and I did it Â— that's all."