Brigadier General (Ret.) Gerald Dieter Griffin, MD, PharmD
BG Griffin (Ret.) served 41 ½ years in the US Army after completing medical and clinical pharmacy/pharmacology degrees and a residency in emergency medicine. Dr. Griffin currently serves as an ER physician in Pacific Grove, California with over 31 years of experience in clinical and basic research as well as in clinical medicine. In addition to his medical practice he conducts clinical research on traumatic brain injury (TBI) and consults with various biotechnology companies. He is the author of numerous publications on TBI and PTSD. In addition to sitting on the Board of advisors for Resurrecting Lives Foundation, he also sits on the scientific advisory board of the Geneva Foundation, a non-profit that advances innovative medical research and excellence in education within the U.S. military.
After two deployments in war-time Iraq, he met up with post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD). This is his story.
My friend PTS(D) and me……..by Gerald (Jerry) Griffin, MD
I was privileged to go to war twice in Iraq………the first time was in 1991, when I was sent to work in the ER at Landstuhl Medical Center, and I cared for the patients coming to us from that war- Desert Shield initially and then Desert Storm, abbreviated DS/DS. It was a busy time- more war wounded than were reported in the press and lots of trauma. That phase of the war – Desert Storm- was over quickly and we were looking to rotating out and home soon!
Well, being a critically shortage specialist (ER/62A) emergency medicine kind of doc, I was kept longer. And after a few weeks of seeing routine sick call patients medevacced from the war zone (only the previously injured and trauma/wounded patients still in the treatment chain on the path to LRMC) we looked forward to some R&R……..not!!!
After a day of relative ER ease, I was asked to come to the operations ‘shed’ for an info session… hmmmmm…what is going on (or down?)…. Why do they need to talk to an ER doc?……. And so in short order I was told I was on orders as the senior doc on a special mission to Iraq!!!!…… Ohh…oy veh…!! ….Really?… Who chose me? ….well…the CG of 7th MedCom in Heidelberg……….. gee thanks…. and so, in rapid succession I and other team mates from LRMC were driven to Wuerzburg, Germany MEDDAC to meet up with other members of the team from all over USAREUR, and an in depth brief by the Division Surgeon & USAREUR Operation Provide Comfort Team. We were to go to the Turkish-Iraq border in Silopi, Turkey, and into Iraq daily to support the Kurds as they came from the hills to where they had escaped from Sadam and his genocidal killers… and back to Turkey at night because it was too dangerous to stay there after dark…. (I sensed a lot of ‘discomfort, at least for us…) Off to Vilseck to pick up more medics and the Charley Co from the 1st Bgde, 3rd ID admin & support structure, and to Ramstein for the flight to Incirlik Airbase (Adana), Turkey.
We were briefed by a team in Incirlik on the situation and mission update, and completed passport stuff and Turkish requirements. Two days later we were issued more stuff just before we boarded a bus to drive overnight to Diyarbakir, Turkey, a NATO airbase as a base of operations with many other NATO and UN partners on the same mission. We were not alone and became a part of a NATO/UN Rapid Response Force (to what I had no clue….)! We stayed at Dyarbakir airbase for about a week, could not go to Silopi, Turkey, right by the Iraq border because the Turks had locked us down. We missed our first mission- to provide medical care and support to the Kurds who escaped to the hills between Turkey and Iraq to avoid being killed by Sadam and his armies……we were stuck! Eventually I got our group to Silopi with “backhaul” on the US choppers that landed there. We repacked all of our “stuff”- a duffle bag of ammo weighs a lot!
And so, we finally came to Silopi, Turkey as our “home base” for the moment. We were welcomed warmly by the 7th MedCom folks there, albeit about a week late! Our mission had now changed, since the Kurds were being trucked thru Turkey into Iraq, with still many left on the road in Iraq coming out of the hills needing care and support. Now we were to go into Iraq and provide “way station medicine” to those Kurds on the road home from the mountains.
We were flown to a mountaintop in Iraq by a US Army Chinook, and left there, to wait for contact with our new battle buddies- the British Royal Marine Commandos! Well, imagine being dropped in a war zone off a chopper, with no commo, no food, no maps and told only “wait where we dropped you off- the Brits will find you”!! …Oh well…… This was all 10th SF Group territory and so we felt reasonably “safe”— not!! A firefight broke out between 2 Peshmerga groups only about 200 yards from us, and the chopper took off- just popped on out of there, and flipped me in the air about 35 feet, with all of my TA50 on. I landed on my head and neck and was “cold-cocked”……… I was out, and woke up a few minutes later. I heard lots of small arms fire, and my NCO says “welcome back -we need to know what to do!” Well, I said, through a rummy state, “let’s just stay close to ground, and not get engaged— let them fight it out, and we will not do anything!” Less than an hour before we were dropped off, the US had dropped food pallets for the Kurds, and the groups arriving there were fighting over the food! A serious food fight! It was over in about a half hour, and they left after figuring out how to get their food. We were in total quiet! It was actually quite a beautiful place!
In exploring the area, we found an outpost/observation post that the Iraqis had used to call in fire and poison gas onto the Kurds as they fled into the hills!! Worse than that, we found used NBC Kits, used Benadryl and antidote syringes, used gas masks in the outpost— we now knew that Sadam had attacked and gassed his own soldiers even as they called helicopter fire in on the fleeing Kurds! Recall that the no-fly zone included only jets and bombers- but choppers could fly! And that Sadam had plenty of choppers and weapons plus wmds!
The Brits finally found us, and took us to their encampment down the hill- this was camping at its finest, and what the Army called “austere” environment. Not to mention that we were frontally attacked by another Peshmerga/Kurdish rebel group……what fun! And so, we were in this hot free-fire zone for about a week, giving first aid to the Kurdish civilians as they left the mountains for their villages. We could not give them too much, because then they wanted to stay and live with us! So, it was a “bandaid and water” and off you go!
The next week we were all flown further into Iraq by RAF choppers to Begova, a ruined and destroyed village. But, not as totally demolished as the mountain village of Nazdur from where we just came.
We were visited by a US CSM in Zakho, where my team met briefly with the Charley company we were loosely attached to from Vilseck & 3rd ID. He told us that their team had left the area, and that we were the only Americans in that war theater left! He also said that we were to qualify for the Combat Medical Badge if providing care under fire on mission with an infantry unit, a combat patch and tax-free combat pay! A hell of a deal! Back in Begova, we settled into a routine of seeing hundreds of patients daily since the word got out that the Americans had set up a “hospital” and that American doctors can fix anything! …Hmmmm…… We were surrounded by small arms fire and machine gun bursts often daily, and were machine gunned mixed with tracers at night…. the tracers helped to see where that fire was coming from. The Brits went after them, but no luck in finding this enemy! We settled into an uncomfortable but ‘routine’ life….
On the last day of May, 1991, my clinic was surrounded and overrun by a marauding Shiite group from a Shiite army that had infiltrated the area to kill all the Kurds and take over the Begova Valley. And the local Kurdish tribe was not sharing their food with them! They robbed us, took all of our supplies and held me prisoner for over a half day in a separate tent, away from my medic and British medic/ Commando in the 50-foot-away triage tent. After not allowing them to shoot and kill my patients and the visiting family by putting my arms around them and protecting them, I was rifle-butted from behind onto concertina barbed wire, sustained deep lacerations on my hands while protecting my face. The patients and family members used that distraction to run away. I was taken to the tent from which the patients escaped and I was interrogated, tortured, with a gun held to my head and a machine gun aimed at me from the small pickup that came with them…..repetitive hits to my head with a rifle barrel…… choked into unconsciousness…… hands and head bleeding, in pain, I thought I was going to die….. long story short, I bargained with them to allow me and my assistant doctors (medics) to pack up more supplies and they could come for us in the morning….. they agreed to this, and left! I/we ran to our compound about 400 meters away and told the Brits. They immediately loaded up the rest of our team, and my NCO and I stayed to finish loading up the ambulance so we could leave under heavy guard the next a.m. We did this and almost got caught….. but….. that’s another story!
And so, we arrived at the Zakho US Charley Company base camp. I was exhausted, shaking, because I was finally out of harm’s way! I was alive! I fell asleep for 20 hours! Upon awakening, Sam (NCO) and I talked……. C Company was leaving for Incirlik the next day- the Operation Provide Comfort Headquarters had ended our mission and ordered all Americans out of the theater including those of us with the Brits on Operation Gallant Haven! And so, my ‘kids’ (medics, nurses, docs, etc) left; I stayed because the Brits came for me again for a special mission- a LRP…….that is another story….. I left the safety of Zakho and went back to Begova. I suppressed all fear, all fright and personal concerns, and went on…. my body’s wounds were healing well, not certain about my mind?
And so, we forward to my second trip to Iraq—
I was the ER Doc & Triage Officer for a combat support hospital in Mosul, Iraq. Bad place, but, as the good folks from USUHS say, “We provide good medicine in bad places”! And Mosul in 2004 was plenty bad… mass casualties most days…… bad serious trauma and many of “my kids” (soldiers) killed or maimed, our hospital attacked and mortared on a daily basis. I was sent to Balad to the hospital to help in the ER with the injured from the Fallujah battles. After 6 weeks, I had severe problems: I had not slept for weeks, I was shaking badly, could not hold a cup of coffee, brittle psyche, broke into tears spontaneously because I was ashamed that I was becoming useless, could not do my job. My friend, a psychiatrist, saw me deteriorating and told me, “You need me! Come with me!” and he took me away to a safe room, and shrunk the holy crap out of me— he took me down to baseline, and rebuilt me over about a 4 hour period. He gave me some meds, and I slept for the first time in weeks — NO nightmares! He was there when I awoke; we talked, and I felt better than I had in months! I started taking the meds daily, and slept well, and after a week or so, I could go back to work and was in control! I felt good…. my acute episode with PTSD was over- mostly – but I still had reminders…….
I learned much about PTSD, having had it, still have it, but it is controlled; it helped me to learn about myself, to learn about others with this normal response to an abnormal event. But I made a serious error: I did not seek help or care for the first episode after my capture in 1991 long ago, and it came back stronger when more abnormal things happened to me again! My psychiatrist friend gave me the formal “PTSD, acute exacerbation from wartime/combat events” and helped me to know and become a friend to PTSD, and to myself. I now know myself better…….. my “old” friend PTSD is still by my side, but I am in charge……….. HOOAH!