Morgantown, West Virginia, USA
|US Military Hospital Kuwait (2005) surrounded by large concrete barriers with “seating” at base. These relatively private seats were the frequent site for all sorts of meetings; counseling sessions, grief reactions, friendly meetings, unfriendly meetings, gripe sessions, etc. (Author is middle individual in photo).|
“Good evening, skipper.”
Several of my senior officers were smoking an evening cigar, seated on the base of one of the large concrete barriers that surrounded our tent hospital. An evening gripe session of the ACC (Arijan Cigar Club) was in full swing. No one stood or saluted, nor did I expect them to.
“What are you guys bitching about tonight?” I said. While I was not an official member of this all-male fraternity, my relationship with them was casual and openly blunt. No one in this group hesitated voicing any complaint to me. That was exactly the way I wanted, and needed, it to be.
“You have been conned, skipper.”
“Oh yeah? It won’t be the first time. How was I conned this time?”
“Your favorite doc conned you into granting him emergency leave. He has turned in his weapon and body armor and shipped his personal belongings home. He is not coming back. Everyone in the unit knows that was his plan from the beginning, and everyone thinks you have been played. He was only supposed to be here four months, and now you are letting him go home after ten weeks. We are here for eleven months. This is not fair or right.”
I could not contain myself and started laughing. “Let me tell you guys something. He sat in my office and promised me that he would return after his emergency leave. I took him at his word. He will be back.”
“Skipper, you are gullible.”
“Does anyone want to bet on it?” I retorted.
“Sure. If he does not come back you have to smoke a cigar with us.”
“It’s a bet, but don’t unwrap a Cuban for me just yet.”
I turned and continued walking to my rack. It was 2330 and tomorrow was going to be another long day. There may not be many advantages to being commanding officer, but one advantage was that I had more information than they did.
The physician they were referring to was an excellent clinician, but was in a terrible personal situation, just like many of my sailors. He was going through a contentious divorce and custody battle. He originally told me that he had to go home for a court hearing or his wife would get full custody of his two children. I called his attorney. The lawyer told me that his presence was not required for any hearing until after he returned from deployment.
When I confronted him with his lawyer’s response, he stated that he had planned a vacation with his two kids and that they were having difficulty with the breakup of their parents’ marriage. He asked to go home on R&R or emergency leave. I informed him that his situation did not qualify for either.
He went over my head.
“The colonel said I could go home on emergency leave.”
The colonel was the medical brigade commander, my boss.
“That’s wonderful. If the colonel signs your orders, I can’t prevent you from going home.” The colonel and I often disagreed, but I knew the colonel would never originate this physician’s emergency leave orders.
Two days later, this doctor was back in my office.
“The colonel says he will approve my orders if you originate them.”
I told him I needed to speak with the colonel myself. I told the colonel this physician did not qualify for emergency leave, but that I was sympathetic to his reasons for making a brief trip back home. The colonel was protecting himself. If anything went wrong, I would be the one who had certified this service member going home on emergency leave. I called the physician into my office and informed him that I would grant him emergency leave if he gave me his word that he would return. He promised to return. I had already heard through the grapevine that he did not intend to return, but I also understood the seriousness of not returning.
Five days after this physician left Kuwait, I received a call from a Navy captain in Washington, DC. The captain told me that this physician was asking to have his orders terminated since his services were not needed and he only had five weeks remaining on his orders. I explained the entire situation to this Navy captain, whom I knew very well. I told the captain that this physician’s services were not essential to my mission. If they had been, I would not have allowed him to go home on emergency leave. I explained that I also had 375 other sailors who would like to have their orders shortened by five weeks. I told the captain that this physician sat right in front of me and gave me his word that if I allowed him to go home and see his children that he would return. Washington could cancel his orders, but I would not. In my mind, this was about duty and honor. This physician had put himself into this box. The consequences of not returning to Kuwait, a designated imminent danger zone, were not trivial.
DC promised me that they would not intervene or interfere. They informed the physician of his duty to return and warned him of the consequences of not returning.
A couple of evenings after the physician returned, I again passed the ACC seated on the concrete barriers.
“How did you do it? How did you make him come back?”
“I did not do anything. I told you that he gave me his word that he would return. He honored his obligation and did his duty, just like the rest of us.”
“We don’t believe you, skipper, but thanks.”
“Enjoy those cigars, especially the one that you don’t need to waste on me.”
JACK RIGGS, MD is Professor of Neurology at West Virginia University. He spent twenty-nine years in the Navy Reserve before retiring as a Navy captain. He served almost one year as commanding officer of a combat support hospital in the Middle East.