Fourteen-hour work days in ungodly heat in a city full of Al-Qaeda operatives and insurgents intent on killing you. Daily visits from soldiers whose minds have been shredded, if not by shrapnel than by the stress of fighting for years far from home.
And you thought your job was tough.
Local psychiatrist and Army reservist Dr. Delvena Thomas will ship-out to Afghanistan later this week, after receiving weapons training in Georgia. She tells Riptide what it's like to be an Army psychiatrist "behind the wire" in a war zone.
"It is a very dangerous job, no doubt about it," she says. From December 2007 to April 2008, Thomas served as an Army psych in Baghdad, Iraq, where she worked with soldiers suffering from suicidal thoughts, insomnia, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and even medical conditions they hid from the Army in order to serve.
"These soldiers have been through multiple tours, sometimes years at a time," says the 34-year-old doctor. "They suffer from horrible stress but they can't come home. That's why we (psychiatrists) are there." When not deployed, Thomas works for the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) & Bayview Mental Health in Miami.
Despite her experience in Iraq, she admits some nerves over heading to Afghanistan. "I am worried about security there, because I don't know what to expect," she says. "In Iraq, I was pleasantly surprised at our living conditions. They even had a bus service set up for us. But Afghanistan is a whole another ball game. With its mountains and valleys, it is new terrain for us. That's why people compare it to Vietnam."
"Supposedly it's much worse than Iraq," she adds. "I've been told by my unit that it's dangerous, very dangerous."
But there are other dangers besides the insurgency, she adds. Thomas will be working with one of the units attacked during the Fort Hood shooting last year. The shooter in that case was Nidal Malik Hasan, an Army psychiatrist.
"I would have been working with him," Thomas says. "But obviously he's occupied." Hasan is in jail in Texas awaiting trial. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
Thomas says the Fort Hood shooting revealed the pressure all soldiers are under, and the dangers that can lurk within one's own platoon.
"You think that the soldiers are your friends, but sometimes they can become your foe," she says. In Iraq, Thomas says she saw many soldiers, male and female, who began to crack under the daily repetition of life-or-death confrontations. As trained killers, their stress also made them a danger to those around them.
"You can't have someone with a weapon who is in the infantry feel that way," she says. "Obviously a soldier who is suicidal could turn their weapon on someone else as well."
Particularly worrying is the fact that at 21 per 100,000 soldiers, annual suicides in the Armed Forces now outstrip those among the general population, Thomas says.
What does Thomas think of the United States' broader efforts in Afghanistan?
"I'm just the little man on the totem poll," she admits. "But I believe in what we're doing. I think our country needs to support it because our troops are still there."
Michael E. Miller was the senior writer at the Miami New Times. For five years, he covered everything Florida could throw at him. He got an innocent man off of murder charges and got a bad cop suspended from duty. He flew in homemade airplanes, dove into the Atlantic in a tiny submarine, and skateboarded a marathon. He smoked stogies, interviewed strippers, and narrowly survived a cavity search in a Panamanian jungle prison — all in the name of journalism. His only regret is that one time he outed Colombian drug lords for sneaking strippers into Miami jail. For that, he says lo siento. He was only doing his job. Miller’s work for New Times won many national awards including back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He has also written for the New York Times, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Chicago Magazine, Village Voice, the New York Daily News, and VQR. He now covers foreign affairs for the Washington Post.