Thoughts and opinion from the wards
Recollections of a soldier doctor
For two years of my medical career I was a soldier doctor. Not just a rank carrying uniformed doctor in a sickbay or a medical outpost, but a weapon-carrying kick-ass fighting soldier, whose main job was firstly to fix injured soldiers, and secondly to take over their roles as fighting men if need be.
In 1987 South Africa was at war. Nelson Mandela was still in jail, and the African National Congress was a banned political organisation. Communism was alive and well. Every white South African male was conscripted into the armed forces. We had a choice not to go, but that meant leaving our families and homes into self-imposed exile.
I was keen to experience military life. Every generation of men in my ancestry for hundreds of years had fought in some conflict, and I had grown up listening to stories of close escapes, ambushes, major campaigns. I read book after book as a teenager about war and soldiering.
When I was conscripted, I had a choice between the mundane and the ordinary route or excitement and adventure. I volunteered, underwent a selection process, and found myself one of twenty recruits that year who would provide medical services to Special Forces teams.
The conflict in 1987 was predominantly across the border in Angola. South Africans were fighting Angolans assisted by Cubans, East Germans and Russians. The enemy had complete air superiority and advanced ground-to-air missiles. Our helicopters could not fly during the day. Our forces fought far from home across enemy lines. Standard policy was ‘a doctor within an hour’ for any wounded soldier. This meant doctors would have to go with the teams into action, however far away from home that would be.
Any soldier knows a chain is as strong as its weakest link. We had to be able to walk, fight, survive, antitrack, and escape as well as the others in the team. I learned how to freefall from 15 000 ft at night with 40kg of equipment and my weapon, how to strip and reassemble an AK47 in the pitch dark, fire an RPG7 rocket, how to make fire without matches, how to set up an operating theatre in a submarine, how to walk miles with 50kg of gear on my back.
We carried enough instruments and drugs to do a full laparotomy. One day I amputated a leg underneath a thorn bush to save an allied soldier’s life.
Other than the enemy fighter jets overhead I never saw an enemy soldier. Shells fell around our positions on occasion. On one particular standoff I dug a large covered bunker for a medical position, but decided to leave a small fist-sized skylight for light. A shell hit our position and a piece of shrapnel flew through that hole into the soil inches from where I sat. I still keep that jagged piece of steel as a lesson.
And yet malaria and accidents killed far more men on both sides than direct military activity. I treated predominantly malaria and gonorrhoea, and every now and then a minor shrapnel wound. As complex, high tech and vicious this war was, the daily numbers of injured and killed were seldom, if ever, more than the casualties of crime and alcohol-fuelled violence in any one major city back at home. It was bizarre.
Two years goes by very fast. I left the army, and within three months was looking after patients, my own patients, in another country, and who were avowed supporters of the regimes I had been fighting. Within six months the war was over, and South Africans turned their attentions to the internal struggles that preceded the handover of power and true democracy in 1994.
I understand the addiction of war, the adrenaline rush that makes mundane activities of life in a warzone thereafter thrilling, and the dissociation that civilian life can bring. I can understand the violence behind political ideals, but not the alcohol-fuelled violence that permits friends and family members to fight and shoot and stab each other as is so often the case in our ‘normal’ communities.
Any regrets? None whatsoever. I grew up during those two years, as do many men, some too young, in combat zones around the world. I carry more scars from my work in urban trauma units than I do from my military experience.
Funny thing, that! The military war has been over for over twenty years, but the urban war, the conflict born of poverty, continues.