December 5, 2003

Tour of Duty: Doctor-turned-soldier Nadeau spends four months in Iraq

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While stationed in Iraq, Dr. John Nadeau worked with Iraqi physician Dr. Wedad, to help renovate medical clinics gutted by looters in the town of Wasit. Courtesy Dr. John Nadeau

Tour of Duty: Doctor-turned-soldier Nadeau spends four months in Iraq

The sun rises on the abandoned Iraqi air base where Nadeau and his unit were based. Dr. John Nadeau

The sun rises on the abandoned Iraqi air base where Nadeau and his unit were based. Dr. John Nadeau

 Nadeau (first on the right in the third row) and the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines regiment.

Nadeau (first on the right in the third row) and the 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines regiment.

Dr. John Nadeau doesn’t look like a man who has seen war first hand, even though he spent four months on active duty in Iraq, sleeping on the ground and facing temperatures averaging 130 degrees. Tanned and 25 pounds lighter than when he left, the 57-year old doctor-turned-soldier is all smiles as he talks about his experience serving as a surgeon in the naval reserves.

A Canadian by birth who became an American citizen in 1984, Nadeau originally joined the reserves nearly 20 years ago because his friends convinced him “it would be fun.” If fun means living out of the contents of one backpack, facing the sweltering summer heat day after day with sand in every crack and crevice of anything he touched, Nadeau must have had a blast.

“Life was pretty Spartan,” Nadeau said. “The heat was unbelievable. Camping out for four months is tough business.”

Why would a middle-aged man with a family and a successful career — and who wasn’t even born in the country he was defending — choose to disrupt his comfortable lifestyle to serve in the reserves?

“It is completely different from what I do,” said the preventive cardiologist who works in the Department of Nephrology. “It is a very fulfilling thing and it has to be done. Better to send somebody like me than a young doctor with small children.” Nadeau’s three children — two daughters and a son — have all left the nest, the youngest is a senior at Harvard.

He received the call in late February, discussed it with his wife and in a short period of time, was on his way to several weeks of training before arriving in Iraq in May.

Nadeau and his wife both agreed his mission was an important one, although they recognized how frightening it could be for a spouse to sit at home and watch the news while their loved one is in the middle of a war.

Nadeau was deployed with 3rd Battalion, 23rd Marines regiment to an Iraqi province called Wasit, 130 miles southeast of Baghdad on the Iranian border. They set up camp at an abandoned air base. His unit arrived in Iraq May 2, shortly before President George W. Bush declared the end of major hostilities in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their orders were to secure and stabilize the area, he said. Although they wouldn’t be engaging in combat, there was still plenty to do.

“We were there to get the social fabric working again and bring democracy to Al Kut,” Nadeau said.

Nadeau said the area is home to Shia Muslims, who have long been oppressed by Saddam Hussein.

“The people welcomed us, they were unbelievably appreciative,” he said. “They were very nervous about our leaving.”

The provincial capitol, Al Kut, was in dire need of what most Americans would deem the very basic of necessities: electricity, a trained police force, a working town council and a court system.

“They were very excited about self-government, but they had no idea how it works,” said Nadeau.

In the war-torn area, looters had completely stripped everything out of buildings, including the medical clinics, leaving an empty shell. The wiring for the electricity, and even the toilets, were gone.

“Everything was looted — except you couldn’t steal a poured cement building,” he said.

Why would Iraqis do this to their own city? Mostly because of anger, he said.

“They were unbelievably oppressed by Saddam and the Baath Party,” said Nadeau.

He said ordinary citizens weren’t given medical care, only friends and members of the Baath Party.

Copper, which is an extremely valuable commodity in Iraq, was to blame for many problems. Copper sells for a substantial profit and is smuggled out of the county for use in underground cables and electrical wires.

“They would steal electrical wires at night, and in the day, would complain that there was no electricity — it is an amazing pantomime.”

Copper can also be extracted from weapons, which has caused the country to be one that is full of children and adults disfigured by accidentally tripping up one of the many mines or explosives that litter the rugged landscape while in search of the money-making metal.

“The whole treasury was spent on weapons — there were weapons and guns everywhere,” said Nadeau.

While Nadeau was in Iraq, he focused upon treating sick and wounded coalition forces; he just didn’t have the manpower to treat civilians. In addition to providing medical care for 1,600 soldiers, Nadeau’s duties were stretched into another role as construction manager for the renovation of several rural medical clinics.

The doctor in charge of the Iraqi medical clinics was a woman named Dr. Wedad. In fact, the majority of the physicians Nadeau met were females, something that surprised him.

“In Iraq, women are clearly second-class citizens,” he said. “They do all the work. But in fact, many of the doctors and professionals I met were women who were educated at universities in Iraq.”

Renovating the clinics empowered the Iraqis to have the tools to improve their medical care on their own, with the city being returned to the people after so many years of Hussein’s tyranny.

“It was fun,” he said. “I got to hire Iraqi tradesmen, who did excellent work. We were able to put new everything in two clinics for $15,000. Your dollars go a long way in Iraq.”

In addition to the tradesmen, the reserve soldiers whose day jobs are related to the work being done at the clinics — many were construction managers, architects, etc. at home in the states — contributed their expertise. Others with relevant experience provided their input on establishing a new police force, among various other mission duties.

“These kids, who are on average about 20, are not your usual foot soldiers. They are generally well-educated and, with their additional skills, were very useful for our mission,” he said.

Looking through dozens of pictures that documented his time away, he pointed to his fellow soldiers and offered snippets about many of them. And though most were three decades his junior, one could plainly see that camaraderie doesn’t have an age cap.

The soldiers even played barber, and shaved Nadeau’s head and mustache. And on July 4, they all feasted on steak and lobster and watched the fireworks from exploding several of Hussein’s weapons caches.

It was that same group of soldiers that helped Nadeau return safely home. Being the only doctor in the battalion guaranteed Nadeau added security, who said he never once felt his life was in danger.

“No one wants the doctor to get killed,” he said of the extra measures taken for his protection, such as always being accompanied by a security detail and he always carried a pistol. “I couldn’t even go to buy watermelon in the market alone.”

No one in his unit was killed, a feat that Nadeau attributes to luck — and to the “exceedingly well-trained soldiers.” The prevalent medical conditions he attended to included renal colic, nausea, orthopaedic problems, vomiting and diarrhea and skin conditions. The most serious injury was a soldier who was shot in the leg. He was treated and sent home for a full recovery.

After leaving Iraq, Nadeau spent a month in Camp Pendleton making sure all the discharged soldiers were healthy, and returned to Nashville Oct. 3. He then took several weeks to rest and spend time with his family before trading in his fatigues for a white coat. He said the most surprising thing about his return was looking into his closet and realizing he had “too much stuff.”

“Why do I have all this crap?” he pondered. “We take electricity, washers and dryers and plumbing for granted.”

And before he started seeing patients again, he put his uniform on one last time. He visited the fifth grade class of his son, a teacher at J.T. Moore Middle School, and spoke to the students about his time in Iraq.

Now that he’s back at work, being in Iraq doesn’t seem so tough.

“I was on vacation in Iraq,” Nadeau said. “I’m finding it very tough to get back to the grind. I’m just swamped at work.”