There wasn’t much about life in the military that surprised anesthesiologist Cathie Jones, MD. Because her uncle had also served in the Air Force, she had a primer on life at a military base. The medicine she practiced there wasn’t much different from the work she had done during her fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital. And she learned quickly that it was best not to mention the mortar bombs regularly striking her base when Skyping with family. What she didn’t know was how to respond when her 3-year-old daughter, Lillian, asked her “do you kill people?”
While Cathie was stationed in Iraq for six months in 2009—and for months after she returned—Lillian returned to the same question. “She had a hard time as a kid separating out that mom’s a doctor and mom’s in the military,” Cathie says. She had good reason to be unprepared for that question; Lillian had not even turned three when Cathie deployed for Iraq. “People said ‘Oh, your daughter won’t remember anything’ but she does,” she says.
With her time in Iraq now well behind her, it’s strange to think Cathie was once actually happy to find out she was being deployed to Iraq.
Cathie, then a recent medical school graduate, started active duty for the Air Force in 2007 to pay back time she owed the military for covering her medical school costs. Initially stationed at a base in San Antonio, Texas, Cathie knew that it was only a matter of time before she would be deployed and was not surprised when her flight commander gave her paperwork detailing a yearlong tour in Afghanistan. When those orders changed to a significantly shorter deployment in Iraq, she couldn’t help but feel relieved.
The trilogy of life
When she arrived, the first things Cathie noticed were the dust and heat. “Lots of rock, dust and sand everywhere,” she recalls. The base was large enough to require a makeshift public transportation system of buses for military personnel. Twelve-foot high portable, steel-reinforced concrete walls specifically designed for blast protection enclosed the base, replacing stacks of sandbags the base’s previous owners had used for protection.
In many ways, her life there was much simpler than it had been at home. Cathie and other clinicians lived in short walking distance of both the base’s hospital and dining facility. While she lived on the base, she didn’t have to worry about everyday concerns like housekeeping, laundry and grocery shopping. “The hardest thing is that you’ve essentially moved somewhere,” she explains. “You have to kind of settle in and find people, because you need people to talk to, to feel like you can unwind.”
When she wasn’t Skyping with her family, eating in the dining facility or at the gym, Cathie could be found at the hospital, where 12-hour shifts, six days a week became her regular routine. “Everyone calls it the trilogy of life: you go to work, you go to the gym, you go eat and that’s all you really have to do,” she says.
Cathie treated many of the base’s 100,000 active duty and contract members as well as local Iraqis for injuries both common and severe, with a typical day beginning at 7:30 a.m. After a review of new and old cases with other clinicians, Cathie could expect to spend most of her days treating patients and handling paperwork—provided there weren’t any trauma calls.
Other aspects of life at the base however, were less familiar and far less comfortable. For the first time in her life, Cathie was taught how to use a gun and was expected to carry it with her everywhere she went. Short-range bombs became an expected if unwelcome part of her life—a lesson she learned quickly when an especially large one landed and detonated in the exact spot she and her colleagues had been standing mere minutes before they left for lunch. Cathie admits that, at that point, “a big stack of loans seemed much better than being in that crazy place.”
When she was able to work around the nine-hour time difference to make contact with her family, she decided to leave those parts of her life out of the conversation, not only for her daughter’s sake, but also for her husband’s and her extended family’s. “It’s not something that you really want to tell them about until there’s no chance you’re going to go again,” she says.
The fog of war
Cathie’s time in Iraq ended November 2009, just days before Thanksgiving. Because she owed the military four more years of service, she returned to her position at the San Antonio base and tried to reintegrate into her life there—a challenging task considering military staff at the base were constantly being deployed. “It’s almost sad that you get used to people being deployed and gone all the time,” she says. “People were always deploying to the point where it just wears on everyone.”
Adjusting back into her home life presented its own challenges. “When you’re home, you’re an integral part of things,” she explains. “It’s strange to come home and realize ‘Oh, when I’m here they seem to not be able to survive without me and all of a sudden they’re functioning fine.’”
Since there was still a chance that she would be deployed, Cathie avoided talking about the dangers she faced in Iraq. “If you have to go again,” she reasons, “they’re just that much more worried.” When Lillian started asking questions about news reports on the war, Cathie and her husband stopped watching the news at home and tried to reassure their daughter that they were safe. Cathie noticed that, as months and years passed, it became easier to simply not talk about those experiences as if bringing them up would make them seem more real.
Although those experiences are now more than four years behind the Joneses and Lillian is now 7 years old, memories of that time linger. When Cathie returned briefly to San Antonio in September, after the family had already moved to Boston, Lillian insistently asked why she needed to go at all. “I had to explain that I needed to go and take care of things so that I won’t end up being deployed again,” Cathie recalls.
When Lillian is older, Cathie plans to have a more in-depth conversation about the experience. She’s not sure what they’ll talk about, but already knows the more important lesson she wants her daughter to take away from the conversation. “I hope she recognizes that not just the person who serves is in the military, the whole family is involved,” Cathie remarks. “The kids have to almost provide their own service because they sacrifice part of their family being gone and they have to cope with that.”