This Memorial Day Weekend, 75% of PBS stations across the U.S. will broadcast Fighting For Life, a feature documentary I made about military medicine, the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, and the wounded. The film focuses on the incredible skill, compassion and dedication of military doctors, nurses, medics and medevac teams, and the heroic "fight that begins when the battle ends." As one nurse in a combat support hospital says in the film, "It's a great mission to be on the life-saving end of things."
Though Memorial Day is traditionally a time to remember and honor those killed in war -- and the ongoing hostilities in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in over 5,000 American dead -- it is equally important on this day to remember and reflect on the fact that for every soldier or marine killed, there are 10 who were wounded and survived, many with profound and devastating disabilities. And there are tens of thousands of others who have suffered the hidden wounds of post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.
The current revolution in body armor and battlefield care has greatly reduced battlefield fatalities, with soldiers now surviving what previously would have been fatal wounds. Stabilized downrange, seriously wounded soldiers are evacuated on C-17 flying intensive care units to the U.S. military hospital in Germany where they are further stabilized and flown to hospitals in the U.S. The care is superb, but the wounds are often heart-breaking -- many young men and women with missing body parts -- some with triple amputations.
In filming Fighting For Life, we were tremendously impressed with the courage, dignity and determination to heal of the wounded. As Lt. Col. Paul Pasquina, medical director of the Walter Reed Amputee program says in the film, "The thing that keeps us going is the attitude of our patients. The way these soldiers feed off one another, motivate one another, and push the limits of medicine and rehabilitation is incredible to see."
For Spc. Crystal Davis, the tough, spirited 21 year-old who lost a leg below the knee in an IED blast, and whom we were privileged to follow from Iraq through to Walter Reed, "It's all a mind game. If you let it get the best of you, you won't survive. But if you keep your head up high, and you set goals for yourself to achieve, and you achieve those goals, then you'll make it." I'm happy to report that Crystal is definitely making it. Out of the Army now, and living in Augusta Georgia, Crystal has a 3 month old baby son and is studying to be a Physical Therapist Assistant, planning to work directly with amputees.
I came away from filming "Fighting For Life" with a hope that the lasting legacy of the documentary would be to help remind us of our obligation to the wounded. I fear that 15 years from now, they may be forgotten. And that would be truly tragic. Col. Pasquina says in the film, "I remind my folks, all the time, that many of our soldiers coming back injured are 19, 20, 21, young individuals who will have these disabilities or impairments for the rest of their lives. We need to be committed to care for them, not just today or tomorrow, but for the next 20, 30, even 50 or 60 years."
It's a sobering and important thought for Memorial Day.
Here's the trailer for Fighting for Life: