Lt. Col. Dore Gilbert = Safety Hero!
Doctor never too old to serve his country
By FRANK MICKADEIT
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Editor’s note: Deep down we never thought it would happen here. Not so long after the horrors of Pearl Harbor. Terrorist attacks happened elsewhere. They were what we saw in far-off places on the nightly news. Then the planes came. Suddenly, innocence lost, we were all vulnerable. Fear, sorrow, anger and a hot desire for vengeance followed. Flags flew. Politicians ranted. We wanted a payback. And so the long War against Terror ensued. Sometimes it seems as if nothing has changed since 9/11; other times it’s like everything has. Orange County Register columnists set out to examine in a personal way how the events 10 years ago have affected and shaped our lives. At best they provide a lens through which you can see how 9/11 may have changed you. We can’t undo the damage caused by that 10-year-old nightmare, but maybe we can uncover what we have learned.
I met Dore Gilbert in the early 1990s, when he was a member of the Saddleback Unified School District board of trustees and I was a reporter covering south Orange County. I remember interviewing him about the problems facing the rapidly growing school district and, on the personal side, about his hot fire-engine-red Dodge pickup and his surfing.
I can’t ever remember talking to him about medicine or combat – and certainly not combat medicine. I knew this cool surfing, pickup-driving M.D. did have a penchant for public service, but military public service? Not in a million years would I have thought so.
Fast-forward two decades. Gilbert continued on the school board (which he served on a remarkable 29 years), but I’d lost personal contact with him. Then one night a couple of years ago, I ran into him at a birthday party. A mutual friend reintroduced us, and the now gray-haired Gilbert whispered a secret he could barely harbor: He was trying to join the U.S. Army. He was pushing 60. The process of getting in at his age was so fragile, he didn’t want me to write about it until he knew he was in.
It’s hard to imagine a doctor curtailing a thriving Newport Beach-based dermatology practice for the Army. But then it’s hard to imagine terrorists could take down two New York skyscrapers and directly attack the Pentagon. Something that might have been just a fantasy before 9/11 – fulfilling the long pent-up urge of a sexagenarian to serve in the military – has taken on real military importance as the war against terror has dragged on. Putting a willing 61-year-old doctor in cammies and sending him into theater is something the Army can’t afford to pass on.
In July 2010, I was finally able to write that Gilbert had received his commission as lieutenant colonel and would request deployment to Afghanistan. Now, he is there as the chief medical officer of the 26th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade of the Massachusetts National Guard. At 61, he is the oldest soldier in the brigade.
He has sent me three emails since he left Orange County for Camp Phoenix, near Kabul. His first sounded oh so Army. Three hours of paperwork just to start the journey. “We were told to bring 14 copies of our orders and we are using all of them,” he wrote.
Among the preparation he got was a sobering course in improvised explosive devices (IEDs), or roadside bombs, which account for two-thirds of the casualties in Afghanistan. This wasn’t a course in how to treat IED casualties – but rather how to keep from becoming one.
“Essentially, everything in Afghanistan is used or recycled. If you see anything on the road, ‘Do not touch’ is the rule. Even if you see a deceased individual, you have to call (experts) to examine for explosives. IEDs can be plastic bottles, old MRE (meals ready to eat) bags, trash bags, dead animals, etc. I have a healthy respect for the cunning adaptiveness of the enemy.”
Then he was given three duffle bags and one rucksack of equipment – about 200 pounds of gear total – all of which he personally had to haul around bases and airports. Generals might have valets but not incoming light colonels, even those responsible for the health of 3,200 troops.
“Even though my deployment is three months, we receive all the gear as if we were going for one year. Warm gear, cold gear, chemical- (and) biological-warfare gear, trenching tools, plus all your personal gear. It’s as though my wife threw me out of the house, and I had to take everything I needed to survive.”
Home at Camp Phoenix is a steel cargo container, about 8 feet by 20 feet, which he has all to himself. The latrine – which he doesn’t have all to himself – is down the hall. Still, as a field-grade officer, he has about double the personal space of the lower ranks. Camp Phoenix has a modest but modern clinic with three emergency beds, three exam rooms and an overnight room that will hold three patients. Very serious casualties likely would be airlifted directly to the 50-bed military hospital at Bagram Airfield. “I am not at liberty at this time to discuss injuries,” he wrote. “We do see lots of twisted knees, hurt backs, lacerations and general sick call.”
I asked him to describe his non-work hours.
“I am up at 0500 everyday so that I can go to the gym before my real day starts. I am usually in the rack by 2030 (8:30 p.m.). We work seven days a week, but there is definitely some free time, so I go to the range, read or take care of personal business. I am always looking for ways to help out around the base any way I can. I started a skin cancer screening clinic on Saturdays that has been very successful.”
One of his plum assignments was accompanying three Apollo astronauts – Neil Armstrong, 81, Gene Cernan, 77, and James Lovell, 83 – on a tour of the camp. “I think the reason I was able to spend the day with them was because I had the defibrillator packed in my medical bag,” he (probably) joked.
Gilbert’s missive about that experience was chatty, as if he were tooling around some stateside base with the three American legends. But then, in the next paragraph, he talked about sitting down at a meeting the very next morning as “intel reports in real time started coming in about the insurgents’ attack on the British consol’s compound. Here I am, getting ready to give my two-minute update on the overall health of the brigade, and we have a major event occurring 15 minutes away.” Then he added: “I almost forgot. We apprehended two guys dressed in burkas casing our base this week.”
So, naturally, I wanted to know about his overall sense of security. He wrote back: “The camp is very secure. The only real danger would be from indirect fire (mortars or rockets), which we rarely get. The insurgents will occasionally try to break through the gates but they are always unsuccessful.”
Finally, I asked, now that he’s been in-country a month, what is his overall impression? Is he glad he’s in the Army at age 61?
“I didn’t have any preconceived notions about the difficulty or time required for my job. I feel very comfortable with what I am doing. I feel it is an honor and a privilege to be here serving my fellow soldiers and country.”
Godspeed, Dore Gilbert.
Contact the writer: email@example.com
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