What is it like being a doctor in a war zone? A lot of pressure, but the amazing human spirit he sees exhibited in the worst of times makes it worth it, says Dr Ashok Kumar Venugopal to Vaibhav Shastry

We read about instances of wars, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings. We see television clippings of wars waged by the U.S.A against Iraq, Afghanistan and listen to debates on their current threats of war against Syria. We have also seen war movies on the silver screen, with the heroes being made out to be legends after emerging victorious from the battlefield.

But, says Ashok Kumar Venugopal, “A war solider is not like a Clint Eastwood or a John Wayne. He is a teenager, who has left his family and friends behind and is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his country wins the war. He puts his life and dreams at stake for this.” Dr. Ashok is an adult pulmonologist who served in the U.S. Army as a medical officer and as a Veterans Hospital physician, taking care of Vietnam war veterans for over two decades. He was deployed in Iraq as a field surgeon (2003 and 2006), a brigade surgeon in Afghanistan in 2010, and as a battalion surgeon in Kuwait in 2012. He has witnessed the enormous damage caused by war first hand. At an event organised by the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) at Vivanta by Taj-Surya in the city, he shared some of his experiences.

“Living in South India, we are mostly protected from war. The only connect most people have with war is through the news and movies, which don’t always portray the real picture,” he says. While he contends that war really serves no purpose, the spirit shown by the young soldiers is what makes him continue tending to them.

Faith in times of strife

There have been occasions where Ashok has seen young soldiers bleed to death through gunshot wounds or through bomb hits, despite his best efforts. But there have been other instances that have kept his faith in humanity alive. Afghan teenager Safoora is one example.

“Safoora came to my base in 2010 with symptoms of dizziness and headaches and was finding it hard to concentrate in school. A brain surgery had already been done. When we performed a brain scan at the NATO military hospital, we found that there was a tumour in the same area where the first surgery was done,” Ashok says. Since the girl was from a poor family, Ashok used donations from a humanitarian organisation and his own financial resources. He used his medical contacts to get her surgery done at Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute in Chennai.

“It was a very touching sight. In a country where women have had little or no freedom, here was a father who wanted his daughter to survive and go back to school. Sending her to Chennai for surgery was my way of getting them to look beyond the Hindu-Muslim divide created by fringe elements,” he says.

He has treated people from the enemy camp and recalls his conversations with Tariq Aziz, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq which brought out a different aspect of his personality.

“Tariq Aziz has been sentenced to death, but I had interesting conversations with him on peace and Gandhi when treating him at my base. He was quite a decent man contrary to public perception,” he says. He sees treating soldiers from the enemy camp as part of his job.

Ashok also points out that it becomes very hard for both the soldiers and doctors to adjust to civilian life, as they are used to being on constant alert in the battlefield.

The value of peace

“We are constantly suspicious of new people, as we get used to being on constant guard at all times in the war zones.

It takes a fair bit of time to readjust to normal life, and we begin to value the calm so much more,” he says.

The FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) was started in 1983 as a division of the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The Coimbatore chapter of FLO has 85 members and has bi-monthly events where they invite eminent speakers from different walks of life. FLO helps empower women to develop their own business with regular workshops and training capsules.