I'm part of the first generation in a century that wasn't bound to war. World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam were the calls to service for every young man (and many women) between the early 1900s and mid-1975. Born as a late boomer, I just missed the final conflict, finishing high school in 1974.
I remember spending a summer in Israel during college and admiring the fact that every eighteen-year-old went into Army service for up to three years. The sense of pride in the young adults serving their country was almost palpable -- and much in contrast to the calumny heaped upon the soldiers returning from Vietnam back home. These thoughts were quickly pushed to the back of mind on my return to the U.S., when concerns of family and school took over. A twenty-year career in pulmonary medicine and in raising three children kept my plate full until the last few years.
Being the child of an immigrant from Hitler's Europe, I had no illusions about just how wonderful a place America is. My wife and I drummed the theme of gratitude into our children over numerous dinners and talks. After 9/11, I followed the war on terror with great interest and a profound sense of thankfulness for those individuals and their families who were making the sacrifice of military service for me and mine.
Mid-life brings reflection on the past and the future. Have we accomplished what we wanted to? Were our goals the right ones? Did the kids turn out okay? What is next? How much time and health are left?
As my children began the process of leaving our home for college, the call to "pay back" for all that I've been given began to drum out the background noise of daily living.
The idea that I was "too old" rankled. I began the process of researching service as a volunteer, and then as an active reservist in each of the military branches. After a conversation with a colleague who was serving in the Army Reserve as a physician, I felt some envy over his experience and opportunity to deploy in Europe to help operate on returning injured soldiers. Another physician who had just completed twenty years of active Air Force service related a great sense of satisfaction with his time there. He told me about an intriguing role of Air Force Reserve physicians who provided critical medical support for airborne intensive care units transporting injured soldiers.
I scheduled a meeting with an Air Force recruiter and the medical commander of a local Florida Air Force Reserve medical unit. In talking with them and with other physician members of the reserve unit, I found a group of like-minded individuals. They were motivated by service and patriotism and finding much fulfillment in their part-time reserve duty. Being fifty, I was accepted into the Air Force Reserve by waiving the right to retirement benefits, but with a clear sense of welcome.
Training for the Critical Care Air Transport Team involved eighteen months of training at home and away with my Reserve team . Following this, I was able to deploy for a month to Europe in October 2009. There, I served as a Critical Care Physician in the Landstuhl Army Hospital ICU (receiving the worst injuries from Afghanistan), and I was on "backup" for transport flights in the European theatre. The medical care there was exceptional in every way. The entire staff worked together with a great deal of spirit and excellence to ensure that our soldiers received the very best care possible.
During my monthly drills at our local Air Force base, and in the three months I have spent on active duty since joining, my choice to join has been rewarding. The quality of military medicine is exceptional, and I find an enthusiasm for service and caring that far exceeds what I experience in the civilian world.
On reflection, I believe my generation missed something in not being called to serve. How many others of my time are out there, "missing something" as I once was? We all seek purpose in life. For most, a marriage and children are the bedrock of purpose, and a career might provide more. I have all this, and am most grateful. But I found I needed more...and I have found that "more" in the military.
Steven Podnos, M.D., is a physician in private practice in Merritt Island, Florida. He is a Lieutenant Colonel in the 920 ASTS, U.S. Air Force Reserve Medical Corps, Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.