A healer's perspective

Staff Writer
The Chronicle Express
Captain Neil Pritchard, right, receives his campaign star in Afghanistan. He will complete his tour next week.

Editor’s Note: Canadian physician Neil Pritchard, who formerly operated a medical practice in Penn Yan, still has ties to the community.

Last August he wrote an article describing his service as a flight surgeon with the Canadian Air Force stationed at the Kahndahar Air Base in Afghanistan.

He’s nearing the completion of his tour and sent the following letter as an update to his previous article.

To my Friends in Penn Yan: 

Well it’s been 6 1/2 months and I have two weeks left in my tour. It flew past in a heartbeat and took a lifetime simultaneously. I would like to thank all those who sent me letters and apologize to those that I never got around to replying to.

And no, I don’t mind if you call me “Doc.”

I have watched the battles rage all around us, treated innumerable victims of conflict; saved most, lost some.

I was evacuated to Germany for surgery (kidney stone), walked the gold, carpet and fabric souqes (markets) of Dubai, spent Christmas and New Year’s at home in Canada.

Talk about culture shock  — one minute you’re in a freezing rain, mud-covered battleground getting mortered. The next minute, you’re sipping martinis in a departure lounge in Amsterdam, and the next you’re battling the crowd at Wal-Mart. And then in another flash, you’re back in the mud and blood half way around the world. It’s not natural!

We even had a documentary crew here for three weeks and I gather I’m a “natural” (ham more like it). We are to be featured on  “The 5th Estate” (that’s Canada’s “60 Minutes”) in March. 

The weather has been horrible. It drops well below freezing every night and we have had the most fearsome windstorms, duststorms, thunderstorms, sleet storms and snowstorms. It has kept the fighting down, but given the Taliban protection from the “Eyes in the Sky” and they have continued to plant IEDs (improvised explosive devices) with some success.

The cold and wet does, at least, keep down the dust and the stink from the “Pooh Pond”.

What can I say about the experience of working in a combat hospital?

Has it made me a better doctor?

Only if you’re blown up and filled with shrapnel. I’m getting pretty good at that.

Has it made me a better person ?

 I’ll leave that up to those who love me.

Has it taught me perspective ?

YES! But not in the way you might think. My undergraduate study was Anthroplogy and we were taught to look at things from the “natives’” point of view. Indeed cultural relativism is a hallmark trait of the “Peacekeeper” but this is a war.

I’ve seen Afghan National Police skinned alive by the Taliban, their rotting bodies hanging from the lamp posts on both sides of the road leading into a town that dared to accept our medicines.

I’ve treated a dozen children with horrendous injuries because the Islamist extremists use civilian houses, schools and mosques as fire positions from which to mount attacks on our men. (and then they scream, “Atrocity!...The Infidels are killing women and children!”).

That’s how it works out here. I’m afraid I have no warm and fuzzy stories or feelings about my time here — only an ever-strengthening conviction that we are in the opening throngs of the next World War: The Constitutional Democracies vs. Islam.

And have no doubt about it. It is Islam we fight. Because until Islam goes through its “Reformation” and the sacred is subjugated to the secular (the Church subject to the King...rendering unto Ceaser that which is Ceaser’s), there will be no peace!

I was born in the  50s, a child in the 60s and lived free in the 70s’. I have no intention of being dictated to by primitive herdsmen whose barbarism knows no bounds.

Our girls will be educated, our women free to wear what they like and follow whatever path they choose (without being stoned to death).

If I wanPritt a drink I’ll have one, if I don’t like the mayor or chief of police or governor or even the president, I have the right to say so without getting my head chopped off.

I have seen such evil performed in the name of god (their god, which is supposed to be our god too.), that it must be resisted!

If it is your intention to blow me up I will act with extreme predjuice. Oh, I have gained perspective — and it is resolute!

One encouraging thing that I have seen is the ease with which the allied forces work together.

The comraderie and singular sense of purpose displayed by our NATO friends would have pleased  General/President Eisenhower.

At the core are the “Four Eyes” of the U.S., United Kingdom, Canada and Australia (+/- New Zeland), but also contribuiting and working within the framework are the Dutch, Danish, Romanian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Czech Republic, and a smattering of Italians and Germans.

Even the French are being helpful. Since America had to ground it’s aging F-15 fleet, the French have provided “Fast Mover” ground support jet fighter aircraft. (This is) not what NATO was created for, but none the less, it is not unusual to see a Canadian General being briefed by American advisors getting information from a Dutch forward position and ordering a British hellicopter assault.

I only wish Germany and maybe Italy would put men in harm’s way.

Their governments won’t let them fight. We need their help if we are to stabilize this country and rid it of terrorists and Taliban.

What have we learned medically? (this part is sort of for medicos’)

• The destructive power of modern weaponry is awe-inspiring. Modern explosives hit with such a concussive force that you must actively search for injuries well away from the point of impact.

• God bless the Spiral CT scanner.

• Modern surgery is excellent (the hypotensive resuscitation, generous use of blood and plasma, external fixation and abdominal packing),  as are modern antibiotics. But we still have to, at times,  take legs, arms and eyes, just like in the Civil War.

•  “Hearts and Minds” Village outreach clinics are a stupid, futile and dangerous effort that just gets people killed for no clear benefit.

• Diseases like malaria, leschmaniasis, ascariasis, leprosy, measles and scurvy still exist.

• Fresh water and vaccination are still the single most important public health measure that doctors can rant about.

Now how should I finish this letter?

Gentle words to keep the peace at the breakfast table and remind us of the sanctity and security of our beautifull smalltown life or a stirring patriotic call to arms?

 I don’t know.

All I’m left with are cliche’s:

Freedom isn’t free;

 Liberty is paid for in the blood of tyrants and patriots; 

Freedom is never given, it is taken.

There are reasons to fight in this world.

We will strive for peace but not at all costs.

Strange words from a Doctor eh?


  Captain Neil G Pritchard