American College Of Surgeons - Inspiring Quality: Highest Standards, Better Outcomes

Veterans Bring Their Skills, Tools, and Vitality to the College

When you meet a veteran, stop talking and start listening. On Veterans Day and throughout the year, the American College of Surgeons (ACS) thanks the veterans on staff for their service—and will never tire of hearing their stories.

Freddie Scruggs

“I grew up really fast in the Air Force,” said Freddie Scruggs, Regional Program Coordinator, Trauma Programs. “I was tired of school, and I was looking for some change in my life.” After enlisting in the Air Force and completing basic training in 1970 in San Antonio, TX, Freddie was sent to Utah, where he learned to fly a helicopter and fight fires. Then in 1971, he boarded a plane to Da Nang Air Base in central Vietnam. “It was scary,” he said. Thousands of miles from home, he was forced to rely on his own wits and the lessons he had acquired in basic training. The experience constantly tested his resolve and humanity. “I think the whole experience made me a better judge of character and always aware of my surroundings. Every day was a learning experience.”

One day the copter that Freddie shared with five other soldiers was shot down. “We all survived the crash, but we were in the jungle for about a week about 30 to 40 miles from an outpost waiting to be rescued,” he said. To stay hydrated, Freddie sucked on tree bark. “The meat of the tree bark is filled with liquid,” he said. “You can survive three weeks without food, but the body cannot survive for many days without water.” Through his experiences in Vietnam, Freddie gained a direct understanding of what it means to treat traumatic injury. “It has helped me in my job in ACS Trauma and has given me an understanding of the types of injuries the doctors see and how they treat them,” he said.

Lewis M. Flint, MD, FACS

Also serving in Vietnam was Lewis M. Flint, MD, FACS, Editor-in-Chief, Selected Readings in General Surgery (SRGS®). Dr. Flint served in the reserves while attending Duke University Medical School. Then in 1968, he was sent to the 71st Evacuation Hospital, Pleiku, in Vietnam, where he stayed until January 1969. The surgical experience Dr. Flint gained during the war was invaluable, “the best thing that happened to my professional career,” he said. “It was a great learning experience. The injuries you see in combat are 10 times worse than anything you encounter in practice in the States,” he said, noting that he treated cases of cerebral malaria and typhoid fever, conditions he wouldn’t have encountered in a residency program. “Most of the time, we took care of broken bones, and in the process, we learned so much about medical systems for treating injuries.”

Dr. Flint was in Vietnam during the Tet Offensive, January−February 1968. The North Vietnamese waged a campaign of surprise attacks against military and civilian commands and control centers throughout South Vietnam. Dr. Flint recalls that during the Tet Offensive, his surgical team performed as many as 220 operations in a 24-hour period. He vividly recalls this challenging and tense time—but it was this experience, he said, that convinced him that he wanted to become a trauma surgeon.

David P. Winchester, MD, FACS

David P. Winchester, MD, FACS, Medical Director, ACS Cancer Programs, was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1964. His first assignment, which came shortly after he completed his internship but before he began his residency, was in a small hospital in Aberdeen, MD. With a wife and three children and another child on the way, Dr. Winchester received word that he would be joining the 25th Infantry Division Hospital at Cu Chi, Vietnam, about 35 miles from Saigon. “I wasn’t thrilled about it,” he said, “but I was doing my duty.” He spent a good amount of time at the hospital delivering basic medical care to South Vietnamese families and caring for wounded soldiers, who were then sent to nearby field hospitals. “Nothing really surprised me about the injured soldiers we were seeing,” he said. “The really bad injuries were usually fatal.

Dr. Winchester serving in the U.S. Army

“Because this was before my residency, I was a general medical officer and didn’t have a lot of interesting cases,” he said. “I remember many discussions I had with other soldiers about the senselessness of this engagement. Many of us didn’t have positive feelings about the war, but we didn’t have a choice.”

Dr. Winchester recalls the time he participated as the physician on a search and destroy mission—search for the enemy and then destroy him. An enemy’s shot narrowly missed him. “The enemy lived underground in a network of tunnels, and there was always a danger that someone would pop up and take a shot at you,” he said. He recalls being in a foxhole for a mission—not so easy for a man who stands 6' 5". “The only really scary time was when we were under attack,” he said, but for the most part, the hospital was safe ground. Several years later, Dr. Winchester and his wife toured Vietnam and visited Cu Chi—and saw the very elaborate network of tunnels still intact.

Jim Hayes

Missing the Vietnam conflict by a couple years, Jim Hayes, Facilities Assistant, enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1976. Jim was looking for adventure and a chance to see the world. “I enlisted because I wanted to serve my country,” Jim said. He was sent to Los Angeles, where he received training in radio communications operations. Jim had a desire to fight in a war, but his service ended in 1979, a time of relative peace for the U.S. The back-breaking work, the pushups, kitchen patrol duty, and the commanding officers’ constant yelling didn’t bother Jim. He grew accustomed to being roused from bed at 5:00 am and then standing at attention for two hours. “I’m used to hard work, and I was pretty good with all of the physical demands,” he said. On his first day in basic training, the drill sergeant ordered the recruits to run around the premise carrying their 50-60 pound backpacks. “You didn’t get in trouble as long as you followed the rules, and did what your parents had already taught you,” Jim said. He learned to decode radio messages.

Jim recalls the shock of returning home to the West Side of Chicago. The neighborhood had completely changed—but so had he. “They say you grow up in the military, and that’s true,” he said. “I left Chicago as a boy and came back as a man.” The close friendships that Jim forged during his service days will always be a good memory for him, but sadly, he has not been able to stay in contact with all of his service buddies.

Jimm Dodd

Jimm Dodd, Manager, Trauma Systems Programs, says that his military career began when he was a child. “When I was five, I told my dad that I was going to join the Army. I realized even at that early age the impact that the military has on our lives.” Jimm found himself in the “hot seat” in 2003 when he was sent to Iraq to fight in the U.S. invasion. “I know there were moments when I said to myself, ‘This isn’t training anymore. This is reality, and we have to defend ourselves.’"

Jimm Dodd serving in the U.S. Army

“We didn’t know what to expect in Iraq,” he said. After his first tour of duty, Jimm returned to Iraq and Afghanistan multiple times, where he served as a Hospital Commander and a physician’s assistant. “Coming home was very difficult,” he said. “It’s hard to assimilate. When you’re in the service, you are in a routine, and you are in a bubble. There’s a lot to deal with when you get home.” As a result, Jimm knows that he is in the unique position to provide an empathetic ear to other returnees. “I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and there are certain things I probably will never be able to do again”—like, for instance, sit passively in an enclosed movie theater. Today he tells returning soldiers, “Don’t be afraid to be afraid.”

“There are lots of resources available to all of us, and people do care about us,” Jimm said. He learned in the Army to seek out a “battle buddy” in combat. Now he seeks out battle buddies in the civilian world. Having served in the military helps Jimm keep other aspects of life in perspective. “I like the relative quiet here at the College. Here if we don’t get something done on time, nobody’s going to die,” he said.

“The military trained me to be a leader,” he said, which included being in command of up to 300 people in a combat zone. Jimm has no regrets. “If I could do it all again, I would not change a single moment of my military career,” he said. “My dream was to become a soldier, and that’s what I did.”

Whitney Greer

Joining the military wasn’t on Whitney Greer’s radar. Now the Managing Editor of SRGS, Whitney was a hard-working, conscientious high school student who was exceptionally shy, always brought home good grades, and never ventured far from home. Then, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, she met with an Army recruiter on campus and almost on a whim, decided to enlist. “I had started college, but I had no idea what I was doing with my life,” she said. In August 1992, Whitney reported for basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, MO. “I grew up as an only child, and suddenly I was surrounded by other people all the time who were so unlike me,” she said. Whitney could meet the physical demands of basic training, but she initially fought terrible bouts of homesickness. Having commands yelled at her was also a difficult adjustment. (“No one had ever yelled at me before,” she said.) But she was determined to persevere. “The military teaches you very quickly what you’re made of,” Whitney said. One thing she learned about herself: “I do not like failing.” So no matter how rigorous training became for her, she would not give up.

Whitney Greer serving in the U.S. Army

To Whitney’s surprise, the aptitude tests she took showed that she had a knack for electronics. After graduating from basic training, she reported to Camp Gordon, GA, to learn how to fix electronic equipment and gradually to overcome her shyness. “I learned to enjoy collaborating with other people,” she said. “It became part of my job to be more social. I wasn’t terrified of people anymore, and I learned how to carry on conversations.”

She spent a year with peace-keeping forces in Korea. “Before I joined the service, Chicago had been my whole world,” she said. “During that year, I explored Korean culture, and I got to see so much of the country’s beauty. The military gave me an opportunity to really appreciate the beauty of this world.” Whitney happily notes that the military helped make her the person she is today.

Frank G. Opelka, MD, FACS

Frank G. Opelka, MD, FACS, Medical Director, Quality and Health Policy, Washington, DC, undoubtedly agrees that the military changes people. Through his involvement as a surgeon in the U.S. Army from 1981−1992, he not only saw the world but also had the opportunity to work alongside some of the nation’s greatest military minds. He initially saw the military as a way to finance his medical education— the Army funded three years of college. “Once I got in, I got so many gifts back. It really opened my eyes to the entire process of running an army and life in the military.”

Dr. Opelka says he learned in the Army how to tackle complex situations, understand how to frame them, and then seek teamwork solutions. The experience gave him the opportunity to learn new leadership skills. “It’s there that I learned to work with a team, contribute to a team, and appreciate a team. No one man or woman is an army,” he said.

“Sometimes I wonder where I’d be without the military,” Dr. Opelka said. “It’s just extraordinary being part of something so vital to our country.” Then life began to intervene, as his own children became teenagers and needed the presence of their father at home. Dr. Opelka shifted to civilian practice. “I knew I wasn’t getting any younger as soldiering is a young man’s game, but here’s the thing,” he said. “I saw men sacrifice their lives for freedom, and I will always hold that in my heart. The gift we all have is our freedom. My friends gave their lives for that freedom, and that’s the kind of thing people should remember on Veterans Day.

“It was an enormous privilege to serve my country,” he said. “I would do it all again without hesitation.”