When Leigh Rexius, D.O.’15, deployed to Iraq in 2005, he spent a lot of time transporting personnel to and from the troop medical clinic and assisting with urgent care needs.
“I saw how medical professionals worked in the military. It was like a light switch clicked on for me,” he says. “Our doctors and nurses saw American service members and coalition allies, but they also took care of locals and prisoners of war. The health care professionals did the exact same job for them as anyone else.
“That was powerful for me,” he adds. “Our guys had the culture and class to do the right thing. That speaks to a profession that holds itself in a higher esteem.”
Like Rexius, classmate Brandon Gates, D.O.’15, enlisted right after high school. During his deployment at Balad Air Base in Iraq in 2008, he logged nearly 300 hours in the operating room and intensive care unit, including scrubbing in on some surgeries.
“I got to see a lot of crazy stuff, a lot of interesting things you don’t see here in the U.S.,” says Gates, who commissioned as a first lieutenant with the Iowa Air National Guard two years ago. “My love of medicine started there.”
As during Rexius’ deployment, Gates’ unit treated anyone who needed medical care. While helping enemy combatants can be “a tough one to deal with,” the physicians and medics he worked with taught him two important lessons for his future career: Don’t judge your patients, and don’t expect to fix everything.
“In medicine, you will treat people who have made bad decisions, people you don’t like,” he says. “You also have to learn you can’t save the world. But you can make your corner of the world better.”
An example during his deployment was the 18-month-old Iraqi who bit through an exposed 220-volt wire. The child suffered massive injuries, including to his face and extremities.
“Our docs did several reconstructive surgeries and skin grafts that will allow that kid to lead a fairly normal life,” Gates says. “He was ambulatory when he left the hospital. You’ve never seen two more happy people than his grandpa and uncle, who came to get him when he was discharged.”
Beginning his military career as an enlisted soldier gave Gates a deep appreciation for his comrades. His father and fellow National Guard unit member, Rick Gates, deployed with him in Iraq in 2008 and again in 2009, then toured in Afghanistan in 2012. The younger Gates has known members of the unit since he was a child. Those perspectives will shape him as a military officer and physician.
“I have a full appreciation of the uniform and what the enlisted do for us,” he says. “I know what it’s like to be on a battlefield. My dad and all my old sergeants always tell me to remember where I came from.” ✪