Why I left my medical practice to treat the Taliban

August 11, 2011, 6:49 PM UTC

Lt. Colonel Gary Brickner

Postcards is about people in transition and folks who do things beyond their job description. Gary Brickner is one of those. In this Guest Post, the third in a series about executives and professionals who serve in the war, Brickner, a New Jersey surgeon and Lt. Colonel in the National Guard, shares his boots-on-the-ground experience treating Taliban detainees in Afghanistan. Brickner didn’t have to do this. He has a great career in the U.S.–serving on the medical staff at the Capital Health System in Trenton for 30 years, delivering more than 2,000 babies, and founding three successful medical practices. He has a wife, Jane, three kids, three dogs and a cat. But when 9/11 happened, Brickner felt the call. At 52, he applied for and was granted a commission as a major in the N.J. Army National Guard Medical Corps. Since then, he has been deployed three times: Afghanistan in 2004-05, Iraq in 2007, and now Afghanistan, where he has a tale to tell.–Patricia Sellers

It is not a pleasant experience being in the presence of men who would as soon slit my throat as look at me. And it is difficult not to feel great anger when captured Taliban fighters boast of American soldiers they have killed–and how they would eagerly do it again if given the chance. If anyone ever doubts there is true evil in the world, they have only to spend time here.

I am posted to a small base just outside of Bagram, Afghanistan. What we do here is process and hold many of the worst Taliban insurgents. I am the Battalion Surgeon for a National Guard MP (Military Police) battalion. As such, I split my time between tending to their medical needs (and of other U.S. and coalition forces on base) and the needs of the detainees.

When I’m on duty, I am unarmed, in an unlocked medical station and, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, closely surrounded by several thousand men sworn to kill me. The MPs, men and women mostly in their early to mid-twenties, are integral to the security here. Fortunately for me, they are quite good at what they do. And then there are the young medics who man the station with me. They do most of the heavy lifting.

I share a tent with four other officers—two medical and two JAG. This tent is the culmination of almost 800 years of tent technology, but I bet if you were able to enter the one used by King Richard the Lionheart on his Crusade, it would look almost identical. My rank gives me no special privileges at all. The bathroom facilities are only a short walk away. We have to share them with only about 300 other men. A bomb shelter sits conveniently near our front steps.

The officers who oversee the detention facility here on the base take extraordinary measures to insure that all prisoners and detainees are treated humanely. While interrogations are frequent, they do not involve physical methods. I have observed many such sessions, and they are actually deadly dull, resembling more a job interview or deposition than what most people conjure up. Every detainee is medically examined before and after each session, and I have yet to see or hear of a single case of abuse. Indeed, the only people abused are the MPs and medics who are frequently spat upon by the detainees and hit by all manner of their human waste.

Do not misunderstand me, the detainees are not being coddled. They are confined most of the day in either communal cells that hold 25-30 men or single cells for those who break the rules. They are allowed limited recreation time and almost no contact with the outside world. But the cells are kept clean. The detainees are given Q’urans and prayer mats and a schedule of prayer times; they are free to practice their religion. They get three hot meals a day, excellent medical care, and no one is trying to kill them. Moreover, there is a well-financed vocational center on site that seeks to train and rehabilitate the less dangerous detainees in order to reinsert them into Afghan society as productive citizens.

All of us here are quite certain that the Taliban would not do as well for us were we to become their prisoners. But that difference is what makes us the good guys.

Falling down the rabbit hole is the best way I can describe entering this facility. The ordinary rules of war get turned upside down. Men who just days before were doing their best to kill and maim us–and whom we were trying equally hard to kill–become our responsibility to keep not only alive but in good health.

This leads to some surreal encounters. One detainee, after he was captured, complained bitterly to me about the poor medical care he felt he was getting for the gunshot wound to his leg—a wound sustained, by the way, while he was about to set off an IED against one of our patrols. (For the record, the care was first-rate, and he got to keep his leg, which is more than can be said for many of our troops hit by those IEDs.)

Another detainee, a Taliban insurgent, bragged to me about how many American soldiers he had killed. Then he pleaded to be cured of myriad ailments that seemed to start the moment he was captured. Once in our custody, many Taliban fighters become as helpless and petulant as children. And the U.S., in their eyes, instantly morphs from the “Great Satan” into the “United Pharmacy of America”.

As bizarre as the detainees can be, the even weirder stuff has to do with the Afghan National Army (ANA) MPs and medics we are training to take over this facility one day. Unlike my last deployment in 2004 — training the ANA, where I never considered myself at risk — there have been many instances of ANA soldiers turning their weapons on American mentors, with fatal results. We have been warned to be vigilant at all times–a neat trick when your mission is to work beside and train these soldiers. What does it say about a place where you are more leery of your allies than your enemy?

But just when you think the world has irrevocably spun off its axis, something occurs to restore hope. Recently we were treating some hardcore Taliban. One, in particular, could have had his picture in the dictionary under “fierce insurgent.” He had straggly black hair, a full beard and piercing dark eyes. Think a combination of Charles Manson and Rasputin. True to form, when we took his medical history through the tajuman (interpreter), he practically growled his answers.

Then, when I started the abdominal exam, he began to giggle. Yes, you read that correctly–giggle. The more I examined him, the more he giggled. Soon, despite the grim circumstances, we were all smiling. Then we were laughing. I asked the tajuman to tell the detainee that, to paraphrase Tom Hanks, “there is no giggling in war.” He just kept on doing it. And at that moment, I think everyone in that room remembered that friend or enemy, we are all still part of the same human family.

Read other Guest Posts in this War series by Intuit exec/Naval Reserve Lt. Tim Graczewski and Doctor/Army Reserve Col. Debbie Brown.