A woman soldier in Iraq: Dr. Brown tells her story

July 14, 2011, 7:43 PM UTC

Debbie Brown isn’t like every woman, but when you read her Guest Post below, I think you’ll agree that she is, in fact, Everywoman. Brown typically spends her days working as an anesthesiologist at Mount Vernon Hospital in northern Virginia. But this summer, she is in full Colonel Deborah Brown mode, a deployed Army Reservist working in the OR of a hospital outside Mosul, Iraq–one of the most dangerous places to be in the war. Brown’s personal transformation amazed her and her family–particularly her sister, Brigadier General Heidi Brown, who is the only woman to have commanded an arms brigade in combat. That was in Iraq in 2003. Debbie Brown’s Guest Post is part of a Fortune Postcards series on professionals deployed from the Reserves and National Guard. The first in the series is Intuit executive Tim Graczewski’s Silicon Valley to Kandahar and back: An executive’s year in Afghanistan. If you know someone who is balancing a dual professional-military life and has a great story to tell, let us know by commenting below or emailing me at pasellers@fortune.com. Now, meet Debbie Brown:

I joined the military in 1973 when I took advantage of the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program to go to medical school. I promised my husband I’d retire as soon as I turned 60.

That was in March. I procrastinated about putting in my retirement papers—feeling that I had not done all I wanted. Going out to shoot with my unit one more time in April…or staying in until I had 30 years in August…would be a nice end, I thought. My real hang-up, which I didn’t admit, was that I’d been in the Reserves since 2000, been mobilized three times in CONUS (Continental U.S.), but I’d never been deployed abroad. Even my sisters had been to Iraq: Heidi for a year, Anne for six months. That I’d never been to the sandbox and didn’t have a combat patch gnawed at me.

Be careful what you wish for.

On March 10, 2011, four days before my 60th birthday, I came home to find my husband standing at the door. “Brownie,” he said, “our lives are about to change.” He played a message on our answering machine, notifying me that I was being deployed to Iraq for Operation New Dawn.

I was in shock. Wasn’t I too old to go? Wasn’t I past my prime, in terms of what I could contribute to the war? I decided, pretty quickly, that despite my fears, this would be my last Hurrah! To serve my country and have that little slice of glory. My report date to CRC (CONUS Replacement Center) at Fort Benning, Georgia, was June 3. So, I had almost three months to prepare mentally, physically, and professionally.

And, so I did.

I work in a community hospital that specializes in joint (knee and hip) replacement surgery. So I was hardly ready for a war zone. I began reviewing anesthesia for trauma, massive blood transfusion therapy, pediatrics and other areas where I had gotten rusty. I checked out Arabic language CDs from my local library. I threw myself into myriad online training courses that all soldiers must complete before going down range. The courses include Anti-terrorism, Force Protection, How to Prevent/Treat Cold/Heat Injury, SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape), Code of Conduct, Theater-specific Training on Iraq (history, geography, culture), Drug and Human Trafficking, and more.

I booked medical check-ups and tune-ups. My internist pronounced me fit but a little overweight (OK, so I could lose a few pounds…like 20). My orthopedist suggested physical therapy for my knees, which were killing me. The surgeon who operated on my foot/ankle in January was stunned when I told him I was going to Iraq. He offered to write my military medical profile so I wouldn’t have to go. “Don’t you dare!” I told him. He wrote one that assured I would not be turned back at CRC.

I went back to the gym. I walked two miles a day, at first alone, then with my 85-year-old neighbor who left me breathless, and then with John, my husband, who worked me up to a 15-minute mile pace. (I sweated. He didn’t.) John, my greatest supporter, told me he could not directly help me in Iraq but would do for me what he could. He bought me a 9mm Beretta and took me shooting. He taught me not to be afraid of the gun, how to clean it, and how to shoot it fairly well. This was a great thing because that weapon is now my constant companion and fashion accessory.

I had the most incredible questions asked of me: Is your husband going with you? Will you be sightseeing around the country? What hotel will you stay in? What will you wear when you go out to dinner? The Iraqis love horses–why don’t you take one of your horses with you and ride around Iraq? These questions made me realize that many people, even well-educated ones, have no concept of Reservists. In my hospital, except for one female surgeon who had been in the Army, I was the only doctor who is in the military. No one had seen me in uniform, and they certainly couldn’t imagine me wearing body armor and carrying a weapon!


Just before deploying, I passed the Army PT test–reminding myself that I had gone from my 85-year-old neighbor whipping me to keeping up with Army standards. But on June 3, when I arrived at Fort Benning in the stifling Georgia heat, I was still not sure I could keep up with soldiers half my age. We spent the next week, from dawn to dark, in training. We were issued our weapons, helmets and IOTV (body armor), and we wore our full Battle Rattle while we practiced shooting on the range. I qualified as a sharpshooter with the 9mm. We were also issued four duffel bags worth of military equipment and uniforms. As I am a full Colonel, I was able to refuse unnecessary items–like cold/wet weather gear–and took only what I thought I would use, which I stuffed into two duffels and my backpack. Everything I had, I had to carry, kick and drag into theater. My biggest worry was just getting into Iraq–adjusting to the heat, wearing the extraordinarily heavy helmet and IOTV (around 40 pounds), all the while carrying those heavy duffels. And John was not going to be there to help me. YIKES!

The night before we flew to Mosul, where I’m now stationed, we stayed in Ali al Saleem, Kuwait, the most barren place I have ever seen. “Like the face of the moon ” is how my sister Anne described it. As a Colonel, I rated a DV (distinguished visitor) tent, which meant there were only eight (instead of 16 ) of us in there. The latrine and showers were far, far away. And the lights were kept on in the tents 24 hours a day, as big signs warned against turning them off because of the rats. DOUBLE YIKES!

It was a C-130 cargo jet that carried us to Mosul. I wore my helmet, body armor, weapon and ear plugs. And when we landed in Mosul, there stood the orthopedic surgeon and the nurse anesthetist with a stretcher waiting for me. I briefly toyed with letting them wheel me into the hospital. Then I realized that the stretcher was for my duffels, backpack, helmet and IOTV. Not for me.

After a quick tour of the hospital, I went to bed for two hours. I slept on a bare mattress, too tired to make the bed or even kick off my boots. That night, there was a party in honor of the nurse anesthetist whom I was replacing and another fellow who was leaving. I was relieved that there was a party because I had seen men in grass skirts (shades of Klinger) walking around the hospital. Or was I hallucinating?

The next morning, I was in surgery. And so my time at this CSH started. In addition to being the anesthesiologist here, I am the Chief of Professional Services and the commander’s medical advisor. And since I’m the ranking physician, I’m also in charge of the physicians and PLX (pharmacy, lab, x-ray). I’ve found everyone professional, well-trained and collegial. And always ready to party.

We get mortared every few days. Our CHUs (containerized housing units) are not mortar-proof, so at the sound of the alarm—or BOOM!—we scramble into the bunkers. The bunkers are not tall enough to stand in. And it gets tedious squatting or being half stooped over. So I put chairs in mine. Quite civilized, actually.

Despite the mortars, staff morale is high. And I feel like I’ve graduated because on my 30th day here, I got “patched.” Yes, a combat patch now adorns my right sleeve. There’s hardly time for ceremony or celebration, though. The next day, we were back in the OR with another trauma—talking about the mortaring we took the night before. And so the days in theater go on…and I feel not a minute of regret.