Forty years ago, I lived my dream and my nightmare. As a boomer raised in the post-WWII and Korean War era, I wanted to follow in my father’s and uncles’ footsteps by serving in the military. I longed to be a paratrooper. I even practiced – without breaking any bones, mind you – by jumping from the roof of our two-story suburban cape. War movies and the reminiscences of veterans made service seem a courageous and bold thing to do. In practice, I found it is brutal, deadly and leaves scars long after the fight is over.
This is the 40th anniversary of the Battle of Sultan Yaacoub. It is also the 40th anniversary of my commitment to advocate for people in urgent need of healing.
I was part of the often-overlooked rescue force called into an overwhelming clash in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, where two forces were locked in battle. While Wikipedia, New York Times and Military History Fandom pick apart which army came out on top, I was among the small group of paratroopers who were like ants dwarfed by the tanks that lumbered across the ground and the attack-helicopters and supersonic jets that battled from above. For us, to survive was to win.
Decades later, I vividly remember people screaming for help and rushing to their sides to stop their bleeding or arrange for their evacuation. In the haze of the battle and commitment to the purity of arms code, I was blind to uniform, language and flag. A broken person – no longer a combatant – became my responsibility. Their life depended on my actions; there was no time to be afraid. Perhaps their need kept my mind clear and my effort focused. Many commanders would cite extensive training as the key to overcoming battlefield terror. We should add that a clear sense of purpose can override panic. I look back at that day and the months and years of service that would follow and recognize that my mission as a health communicator was forged in that fire.
In battle, people discover who they are – as soldiers, friends and human beings. We learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know, things about our ability to think and perform in terrifying situations. As a paratrooper combat medic, I was trained to sustain and save lives. In the 24 hours from when we entered the bloody valley until a cease-fire was called, my destiny – my purpose and passion for the next 40 years – would be cemented. I would become a healer.
Health policy strategist Dr. Glenna Crooks captured my memories as a medic caring for friend and foe in those hours in the bloody valley in her Covenants: Inspiring the Soul of Healing. Her book explores a vital theme: healing as a gateway to global peace and prosperity. She maintains healing is the nemesis of despair and death. Healers are the warriors pushing back the inevitable. We all must leave this world at some point, yet how we live is in our hands. We can prevent illness in many cases, and those in the health system can rally to tackle seemingly hopeless situations through intervention and innovation.
Healing is an enduring calling. I do not forget those years in uniform and call upon those memories frequently; they sharpen my feelings of empathy and renew my energy to answer the call to action from people with serious worries undergoing their trials by fire. I impart accurate information about cancer treatments, heart disease therapies, mental health struggles and the myriad of conditions and illnesses people face so that they can make informed decisions. I represent the needs of patients, their parents, spouses, children and friends – all dealing with serious, often life-threatening obstacles. I must remain sensitive to their fears and anxieties, and know that my work impacts their lives.
Years ago, physician and photojournalist Mathew Naythons, who covered the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the Vietnam and Yom Kippur Wars, gave me a copy of his amazing photographic history of medicine at war, titled The Face of Mercy, with an inscription: “For Gil: Who has been there, and who understands…” It sits in my office as a reminder that generations of people willingly dedicate their lives, often placing themselves in harm’s way, to help others. It is an aspect of the best in human nature that continues to amaze me as I strive to “understand” needless suffering.
Throughout history, we have faced armed conflict. This moment in time is no exception. We still witness the struggle of people trying to breathe free. We still see the brave faces of healers working in cities reduced to rubble and beneath the ground in bomb shelters to save lives. We frequently meet people who face overwhelming diagnoses and press on with their treatments and critical decisions—all heroes and role models who ignite our desire to do more to help.
Since my time as a medic, my energy has not waned, nor has my passion or professional purpose. I am proud to be part of the generations of healers and advocate for people who urgently need care. My wish is that, when faced with the frustration of dealing with the chaos of our fragmented health ecosystem and struggle to secure access to care for those who have pressing needs, we do not give up hope.
The sage wrote, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” Remember that we are all still in the fight and sustaining life is victory.
This article is dedicated to the healers and all seeking to be healed. Through the angst of diagnosis and treatment journey, may they find strength and hope. May the health system address their needs with empathy and compassion – recognizing that these difficult moments are when our humanity is tested.