War surgeon

Dr. Jim Balserak (Chemistry ’86) used his medical skills to treat troops, contractors and Iraqi citizens — soldiers and detainees alike.

By Heather Ferngren Morton (MA, English '00)
Balserak.

Balserak.
Photo courtesy of Jim Balserak.

Though many American servicemen and women set out for Iraq with great fear and trembling, Col. Jim Balserak (Chemistry ’86) couldn’t get there fast enough.

“Train, train, train, that’s all it ever was,” Balserak said of his service in the Arizona Air National Guard, where he is both commander of the 162nd Medical Group and the Arizona State Air Surgeon.  When a colleague from the Tucson Medical Center, where Balserak is chief of surgery, suggested that the two surgeons split a four-month tour of duty working in a trauma center in Iraq, Balserak saw a unique opportunity to put all of his training — medical and military — to good use.

So for two months last fall, he exchanged a lucrative medical career, his wife and two young children, and all the comforts of home for a trauma facility in a “tent city” south of Baghdad International Airport.  In this new home, he worked long hours, slept poorly and heard car bombs exploding nearby on a regular basis.  And three months after returning home, he described his time in Iraq as “the best experience of my military career.” 

Balserak worked with a team of about 25 other medical personnel — six other surgeons, an anesthesiologist, several nurses and support staff — to treat roughly 1,000 individuals.  His patients included U.S. troops, civilian contractors, Iraqi troops in training and a few high-risk Iraqi detainees. He also worked a rotation with other doctors to “process the dead” that came through the airport.

“I’ve seen dead bodies before,” he said, “and trauma isn’t something that’s new to me.  But when you’re operating on an American soldier with a flag on his shoulder, it affects you differently.”

Accustomed to state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained personnel at Tucson Medical Center, Balserak admitted he was “skeptical that military medicine could deliver the care that a civilian trauma center can deliver.”  His views changed in early November, however, when eight Marines, victims of an improvised explosive device, were rushed into the trauma facility for emergency surgery.

“It was just like all those training scenarios we’d rehearsed over and over again,” he said, admitting that he thought the scenarios would never actually happen.  “And we were so prepared, so efficient. We knew we had done a good job.”

All but one soldier — the soldier Balserak was treating — survived.

The soldier had only been in-country for three days, Balserak said, and his wife was pregnant with twins.  Balserak wrote her a letter afterwards, as he often did to the families of deceased soldiers. 

That day, though difficult, turned out to be a deeply rewarding experience.  “This one day really made the whole thing worth it.”

Back in Tucson, Balserak is busy traveling around the state, speaking about his experiences to Rotary clubs and fellow medical professionals.  But he feels he might have left a part of himself back in Baghdad.

“It certainly reset my priorities in life, and I’m still having a difficult time getting myself psychologically back in the swing of private practice.  I have a much lower threshold of tolerance for dealing with the mundane, day-to-day realities of private practice like the burden of medical liability, the Board of Medical Examiners and insurance companies,” he said.

He would like to return to Baghdad in 2006, this time with his whole National Guard unit.

For Balserak, who has always had a strong sense of patriotism (his father was a Vietnam veteran), the danger and hardship of war are worth the sacrifice.  His wife has not always been strongly supportive of his military career, but in recent years her mind has changed. “After September 11th, she came to see how important my military commitment is,” he said.  “And during my recent deployment, I couldn’t have had more support from home.”

For more photos from Balserak’s tour of duty, see the “Related Links” below.