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Surgeon answers call of duty in Afghanistan

Apr. 1, 2013 - 10:57AM   |  
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EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Life is funny this way: Sometimes you run across a small thing that leads you to a huge life change.

That happened several years ago with Dr. Roger Shinnerl, 46, a general and vascular surgeon at Evansville Surgical Associates. For him, the “small thing” was an advertisement in a medical publication: The U.S. military was in dire need of surgeons to treat wounded soldiers overseas.

The “big thing” was Shinnerl's decision not just to volunteer for that program, but to sign up for the Army Reserve Medical Corps. He recently completed his first overseas deployment, as part of a surgical team on a U.S. military base in Afghanistan.

For Shinnerl, it was the fulfillment of something he'd wanted to do for years.

His first taste of military life came during two weeks in the fall of 2010, as a civilian volunteer.

Since 2007, the Society for Vascular Surgery has sent volunteer surgeons to serve at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, an Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. The facility treats American soldiers injured in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the civilian doctors operate as American Red Cross volunteers.

Despite what sounds like a grim assignment, Shinnerl found inspiration among the patients.

“A lot of them approached their injuries with tremendous determination and positive attitudes,” he told the Evansville Courier & Press.

While in Germany, he met a California surgeon who had just recommissioned with the military, so Shinnerl used the opportunity to talk to the man about his experiences.

Though he does not come from a military family, Shinnerl said he's long had the impulse to serve. He considered joining the military in 1994, when he was single and a medical resident. He chose marriage over the military.

His wife, Liz, recalls her husband's expressing interest in military life again several years later. Again, family concerns won out.

“He kind of entertained the idea when the kids were younger. At that time, it was just a little much.”

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The couple has three children: Alex, 14; Andy, 13; and Abby, 11.

His experience in Germany in 2010 finally convinced Shinnerl: This time he'd take the plunge.

He commissioned with the Army Reserve in November 2010, less than a month after returning from the volunteer trip.

Liz wasn't convinced at first that it was a good idea.

“ ‘Crazy' was a word that went through my head,” she said.

But she realized that if this was her husband's dream, she needed to support it.

Because of his age, Shinnerl had to obtain an age-limit waiver to join up. He received it, he said, because of his surgical experience.

He was commissioned as a major with the Army Reserve Medical Corps. He's assigned to the Paducah, Ky.-based 933rd Forward Surgical Team, though his deployment was with a different Forward Surgical Team — the 624th, based in Pennsylvania.

Last October, Shinnerl went to Fort Benning, Ga., for a week of preparation, then flew to Kuwait and then on to Forward Operating Base Shank. The base is in the Logar Province of Afghanistan, about 40 miles south of Kabul.

Shinnerl served in Afghanistan for just more than 90 days. He returned home to Newburgh on Jan. 23.

The base was in a flat dusty part of Afghanistan, with mountains in the distance. The base consisted mostly of tents, and conditions were basic.

“We had the bare bones of an operating room setup,” Shinnerl said.

Conditions were also, at times, dangerous.

A few months before Shinnerl's arrival, in August 2012, members of the Taliban carried out a suicide vehicle explosive attack on the base.

On more than one occasion, Shinnerl said, the base came under enemy fire while he and his team were operating on a patient. (The team continued with surgery when that happened.)

The threat of danger weighed heavily on Liz, thousands of miles away.

The couple made dates to connect online for Internet video chats via Skype. But sometimes Shinnerl couldn't make it: An emergency medical case came in, or the spotty Internet signal wasn't working.

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At those times, Liz said, she just had to wait and hope for the best.

“Your mind goes to a bad place where you kind of go, ‘Oh gosh. I hope everything's OK,' ” she said.

The separation from home and family, Shinnerl said, was the toughest part of the experience.

“I missed two birthdays and a wedding anniversary,” he said. He was also gone over Christmas.

In fact, he said, he found the Skype conversations quite difficult because they made him sad about missing his family.

While overseas, Shinnerl also lost a friend and colleague. Evansville Surgical Associates' chief executive officer, Bill Hammonds, was ill with cancer when Shinnerl left for his deployment. Hammonds died Jan. 5 at 62.

At the base, the medical team's patients included not just U.S. troops but also Afghan soldiers and members of the international military coalition working to stabilize the country. Many patients were Czechoslovakian, Shinnerl noted, because Forward Operating Base Shank included a large contingent of Czech troops.

The Czechs had a special fondness for the medical team, Shinnerl said, because the team had provided lifesaving treatment to a Czech military dog that had been injured in a rocket attack.

Because patients could show up at any time, Shinnerl had to be prepared for action. During his time in Afghanistan, he left the base only once — to attend a military medical conference in Bagram.

Patients were typically transported to the base via Black Hawk helicopters. Many had blast injuries from anti-personnel mines or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). But the medical team also treated gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds, along with some motor vehicle accident injuries. They also handled some noncombat issues — gall bladder surgeries and the like.

The team's main goal: to quickly stabilize patients with major injuries, so that they were in good enough shape for transport to medical facilities at Bagram Air Field.

Military surgical facilities such as the one at Shank, Shinnerl said, are located so that injured troops can reach the closest facility within an hour of injury.

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Wounded troops who can make it to one of these facilities, Shinnerl noted, have a 98 percent chance of surviving their injuries.

Shinnerl and his team had some memorable successes.

He recalled one case, of a soldier who survived an IED attack that killed three of his fellow soldiers. The survivor sustained severe lower-body injuries, but Shinnerl and his colleagues were able to perform an arterial bypass that helped save the soldier's injured leg and foot.

“When you're successful, it's a great feeling.”

Not every wounded soldier recovered.

When a U.S. soldier died, fellow soldiers held a hero ceremony at the base — something Shinnerl witnessed several times. During these ceremonies, troops turned out to salute a fallen soldier's flag-draped coffin. The coffin was then loaded onto an aircraft to begin a journey to the fallen soldier's family back home.

Though Shinnerl said the experience in Afghanistan was about what he'd expected it to be, the realities of war still had an impact.

Shinnerl documented his medical cases with photographs, and several weeks after his return home he showed the pictures to his wife for the first time.

One of the photos depicted a particularly gruesome injury, Liz recalled. Her husband turned the page on that one quickly, and his demeanor changed.

“I've seen that look before. I know what that is. It's the ‘innocent victim' look. Like, ‘That person did not even come close to deserving what happened to them,' ” Liz said.

“I would compare it to how he gets here when he works on a child that's been injured.”

But, Liz said, the experience also had positive impacts on her husband.

“He came back a better person than I sent,” she said.

As compared to before he left, Liz said, her husband is more appreciative and positive about life, and more apt to live in the moment and enjoy time with family.

“From being far apart, we ultimately became closer.”

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