Oral surgeon volunteers skills in Iraq
Anyone who thinks Wheaton has had uncertain weather patterns lately should spend some time in Iraq with our armed forces. That is just what Dr. Greg Doerfler, a local dentist and Wheaton resident, did from late January to mid-May this year.
"The day I landed in Anbar Province, the temperature was in the low 20s and it snowed for the first time in 80 years," he said. "By the time I left, the temperature varied from 100 to 130 degrees. Though it's dry heat, it sucks the life out of you, but as long as you drink lots of water, you're fine."
Doerfler, a specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery with his office in Glen Ellyn, volunteered to serve in the Iraqi war zone because, as he put it, "That's where the need is the greatest."
As a previous volunteer on medical missions to South America, he would perform facial reconstructions, tumor excisions and cleft palate repairs.
As a dentist, he was motivated to volunteer in Iraq after meeting a number of soldiers in his local practice.
"They were excited about where they were going and where they had been," he said. "I felt this was something I could do for the people in this country. I have a lot of knowledge. There aren't a lot of surgeons who do what I do who are in the service."
He joined the Illinois National Guard and was commissioned as a Lieutenant Colonel in April 2007.
"I came from a military family and I wanted to follow a family tradition," he added. "My family is grown and I have more freedom now. My son and daughter are old enough to be in the service. I felt that if my children could take that responsibility, why couldn't I be there for someone else's children. It's now an all-volunteer army. Everyone's a volunteer."
Like any officer candidate, Doerfler had to go through basic training before he left for Iraq. At Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, he went through physical fitness and weapons training, had to demonstrate mental fitness and learn about the military hierarchy.
"I was up at 5 a.m., ran one to two miles. I needed to be as physically fit as anyone because you're so dependent on one another. It's a group that acts as one," he said. "You also have to learn how to obey orders. That's sometimes difficult for doctors because we are used to being in charge. You have to take orders like other soldiers. You have to do this for the betterment of the troops. You realize that you are being called on to serve the citizens of the United States. If need be, you will give your life for them. It's called 'Selfless Service.'"
Doerfler, at 61, was older than most of the other surgeons. He was "grandfathered" in because there's a particularly strong need for his MOS (Military Operational Status) as a dental specialist. He was based in a Combat Support Hospital 50 miles from the nearest habitation.
Most of the wounded would arrive by helicopter, a Blackhawk Medivac, from secondary forward operating bases.
"I operated on any individual who was brought in who needed the type of care I could provide: Iraqis, insurgents, soldiers, civilians, contractors, even a few children," he said. "All were treated the same because the Geneva Convention decrees that all noncombatants must receive the same level of care."
He added, "High velocity military weapons are awesomely destructive. The facial repairs came from accidents, blasts and weapons fire."
If the injured were American soldiers, they would be stabilized, and, if they were fit to travel, would be transported to a hospital in Germany or the United States.
"If they had to be taken care of in our facility, we could do just about anything; but under battlefield conditions, sterility is a problem."
Doerfler plans to be deployed again sometime in the next 12 to 18 months.
"I'll go wherever they send me," he said. "The great thing about the Army is the 90-day 'Boots on Ground' program. It allows someone like me to take three to four months out of my practice, but not lose my practice."
Doerfler has a new understanding of what's happening in Iraq.
"War is terrible," he said. "There are injuries and suffering for all the people in that area. We worked with Iraqi doctors who said that the people did not want terrorists, but they can't talk for fear of retaliation. This is hard for us to understand. We can say anything. They can't.
"My attitude in life has definitely changed," he said. "I really do appreciate what we have here in the United States. We live in the best country in the world. We have so much; we sometimes lose sight of that."