EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

May 20, 2010

Salem doctor, Sandown soldier help veterans

By Terry Date
tdate@eagletribune.com

It began with a chance meeting last year in an East Hampstead supermarket.

The Salem doctor and Sandown soldier lingered for more than an hour amid the bread and milk, concluding they could help injured soldiers heal better by providing lessons about the military to doctors, psychologists and others who care for veterans scarred by brain injuries and stress disorders.

On Saturday mornings over the next year, Dr. James Whitlock of Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem and retired New Hampshire National Guard Lt. Col. Kevin Major hammered out and refined the program. Major forged the arrangements with the New Hampshire National Guard.

It was called Military Orientation Training for Veterans Administration Clinicians and was held last week.

Whitlock, a neurologist, has no military training. He realized, after being recruited more than two years ago to treat brain-injured soldiers at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Manchester, that he and other medical professionals could benefit from military training.

They would be able to ask their patients better questions and form better relationships if they became familiar with military life, its terminology, equipment and experiences.

Injured soldiers, as a rule, don't like to complain, he said.

Returning home after living and fighting in a war zone can lead soldiers to feel isolated from those who have not gone through similar experiences, he said.

Major, who is not a combat veteran, saw promise in the idea of training medical professionals about military life.

Some injured National Guard soldiers say they suffer a second trauma when they come home, he said.

They are deployed as a group and do a lot of difficult things together and, typically, come home as a group. But when they are injured by explosions, rollovers or other trauma, they receive treatment and come home by themselves, Major said.

This can be isolating.

Some of them tell fellow soldiers: "I have no network. I can't sleep. I can't work. I can't do anything," Major said.

On Friday, in Center Strafford and Rochester, the military training for doctors opened eyes and sparked laughter for 25 to 30 medical professionals and an equal number of military veterans.

The doctors donned helmets, vests and other gear — "battle rattle," the soldiers call it. They heard explosions, rode in Humvees, loaded patients, and climbed into Black Hawk helicopters.

They were thrown around inside a Humvee and felt the hard edges of a gunner's turret. They even experienced a Humvee rollover in a vehicle that simulates the experience.

Two parts of the training stick out in Major's mind. One was a panel discussion where two injured soldiers answered doctors' questions.

One doctor said that a difficulty combat soldiers face is when they come home and realize their days are no longer organized by military routine.

One of the injured soldiers said there is nothing routine about war, Major recalled.

The soldiers' days are random chaos.

Their day could start at 7 a.m. or 10 p.m., going 36 hours without sleep.

There was a moment early in the day's training when the doctors realized they had a lot to learn, Major said.

They leaned forward and asked more questions, he said.

Lunch was another memorable experience.

They dined on a variety of MREs — Meals, Ready to Eat. Doctors were impressed by how they were heated: by clapping the package and triggering a chemical reaction, Major said.

The doctors and soldiers — like solders in the field — swapped meals and joked. In short, they bonded, he said.

Whitlock thinks the experience will help doctors better empathize with their patients and better understand the environment in which they were injured.

He will survey the orientation participants to see what worked and what didn't.

If the participants thought it was worthwhile, the program might be offered again, perhaps to more medical people who treat veterans in New Hampshire or to medical professionals who treat veterans in other states, Major and Whitlock said.

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