Aaron Dewees joined the U.S. Army in August 2001. He is from a long line of veterans. His paternal grandfather served in World War II, and his maternal grandfather fought in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Their influence was a major reason to enlist — as was the tuition reimbursement for medical school. The recruiter told Dewees that pediatricians never get deployed.
One month later, Dewees was in Glasgow, Ky., living above a garage with college friends for a program that placed medical students in rural clinics. The buildings in Glasgow do not scrape the sky.
Hundreds of miles away in New York City, the buildings soar in the clouds, and when Dewees meandered out of bed that September morning, he checked the Internet for news and saw a picture of a 110-story World Trade Center building in Manhattan on fire. He learned an airplane had struck the building, and he turned on the TV just before another airplane struck the other WTC tower.
Dewees, a Kansas native, called the clinic, and the receptionist told him they had canceled appointments for the day. Patients — too captivated by coverage of the attack — weren’t showing up anyway.
Over the next few years, patriotic physicians arrived to U.S. military branches en masse. Dewees waited for his call to action.
He had plenty to do. The same recruiter who had told him he wouldn’t serve overseas also told him the physical conditioning of doctors was lax, yet Dewees experienced strict combat training. “Everyone was on edge,” he says. “Everyone knew this was going to be different.”
U.S. Army officials sent Dewees to Fort Riley in Kansas six months after his residency ended in 2006. There, the now-married pediatrician treated the children of military members. Another six months, he kissed his two young children and his pregnant wife good-bye and flew to Iraq.
By 2007, the overabundance of patriotism of post-Sept. 11 was waning. The United States — embedded in two wars in the Middle East — wasn’t making angry country music stars icons any more. “The military presence in the Middle East wasn’t going to be as simple as what happened in the first Gulf War,” Dewees says. “It wasn’t going to be as simple as supporting a group for a few months.”
While home-front support declined, the U.S. military ramped up with a 20,000-troop surge. Dewees was sweaty in a desert at Camp Taji, a military installation 20 miles northwest of Baghdad. The area was a dividing line between the Sunni and Shiite factions, two Islam denominations with a conflict as old as the religion. Not only were these groups bombing the Americans but also each other.
Within two months of Dewees’ arrival, a mortar attack on the base in the early morning hours of a May day woke up the doctor. The dining area, sleeping quarters, and the recreational area were hit. An Iraqi, it later was discovered, had set up the satellite Internet for the base and used it for coordinates on the base. Dewees was in the thick of treating wounded patients. Six soldiers died.
This was war, and Dewees had children now. For Dewees, the single man who had signed up in an army recruiter’s office five years ago was gone. This father-husband-doctor had taken his place, and the attack made him realize how much he had to lose.[pagebreak]
Dewees spent most of his time at a sick-call clinic for minor injuries (sprained ankles) and a trauma center. He left the base a dozen times for combined medical efforts held at local schools, orphanages, and abandoned hospitals throughout Iraq. Nearly 200 U.S. soldiers and 100 Iraqi soldiers protected the U.S. medical military members who opened the doors to hundreds of Iraqi women and children, provided care and advice, and offered toothbrushes and toys.
“The difficulty was,” Dewees says, “no one knew who the enemy was. If we could show the (Iraqi people) we were here to make their lives better, then they would help us know who the enemy was. Only the Iraqi people knew.” At any given time during the war, the Sunnis, Shiites, and al-Qaeda members were the enemies.
However, it was a different mystery that most scared Dewees: the IED attack. IED’s, improvised explosive devices, have been the largest killers of American soldiers in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The concept dates back to World War II: Create homemade bombs for non-traditional warfare. The product now is better. Insurgents use mortar shells or old mines found in a war-weary countryside filled with exhausted weapons. The high volume of unpaved roads also makes hiding the devices easier. “We didn’t have a great answer for those,” Dewees says. “I could be in a vehicle providing medical care to somebody, and it all could end right there.”
Yet, it was the times he left the base that made him a more inspired doctor. “With young children,” Dewees says, “the things that they suffer from aren’t anything that they brought on themselves.” They weren’t smoking, overeating, or refusing to exercise. He saw children who had been medically diagnosed and treated for their illnesses, but the war closed the boundaries to the medical facilities in other countries and prevented treatment. He helped them get the right medicines or treated complications caused by unintended fire in combat. “It developed my conviction to help neonates,” he says. “I wanted to help the vulnerable of the vulnerable. They haven’t even had a chance to leave a mark on this earth. There’s nothing that they did to put them in the predicament that they’re in.”
Dewees counseled soldiers struggling with the horrors of war. He needed the same. He turned to a priest on the base as a confidant. “The hardest part for me — and every other soldier I ever talked to — was being away from family,” Dewees says. “That was one thing we couldn’t fix.”
When his service ended in 2008, fixing that problem was a priority. His wife Courtney is a Southwest Indiana native, so the couple landed in Louisville. During his fellowship in neonatal medicine at the University of Louisville School of Medicine, he learned St. Mary’s Medical Center in Evansville had an opening. He jumped at the chance and came to the hospital in July. His family was home.