Intelligence reports told us to expect random mortar fire around the holidays. The scuttlebutt going through the camp said that last year two mortar shells had landed on one of the Marines living quarters. But there had been no loss of life because the insurgents firing the mortars had neglected to set the fuses properly. The duds came through the roof and fell harmlessly to the floor at the feet of some shocked and shaken Marines. We didn’t anticipate that insurgents would make that mistake again. So we drilled for General Quarters, reporting to hardened structures with all body armor and weapons. As the providers of medical care, we drilled for a response to a mass casualty. But nothing happened. At least, not at our base.
On Christmas Day 2008, insurgents fired 17 mortar shells into the Army camp at Mosul. One of them landed on the living quarters of Major John Pryor, one of the trauma surgeons for the camp. He was killed instantly. John was one of us. Dr. Pryor had a very successful trauma practice at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP), in Philadelphia. But he was also a reservist who volunteered to take care of the troops after 9/11. Moreover, this was his second tour in a combat zone. The news hit all of us over here pretty hard. We grieved with his wife and three small children at the loss of a loving husband and father. We grieved with the crowds that gathered at his funeral mass at the passing of a great man. And we grieved alone at night for the world at large.
For those cynical about the war, the Arab world, or violence in general it was a time to vent frustration, anger, and hatred. But it was also a time to marvel at the power of one man. Yes, he died before his time. But in the life he lived he proved that it is not the length of a life that determines its value but the quality and contribution of that life. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the scriptures read at his funeral mass was from the book of John when Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John knew the risk that he was taking by returning to Iraq. But he laid down concerns for his own safety for those he called ‘friends’.
It was not new to him. He had been laying his life down for these ‘friends’ for years in the ED at HUP. Patients testified to his compassion, humaneness and skill. He had written extensively in support of efforts to end the violence that was taking the lives of innocents in the inner city of Philadelphia. And despite seeing the daily carnage that we all experience, he never gave up. Instead, it made him all the more vigorous in his efforts to save a few.
As I travel the United States visiting various emergency departments I see that same trait in many of you, my colleagues. Sure, some have chosen this specialty because of its lifestyle or academic interest. But the overwhelming majority of you have chosen this profession to make a difference. I urge you to stop a moment and contemplate the sacrifice of a fallen comrade. He did not die in vain. His legacy of sacrifice lives on in all of us.
“I am an American fighting in the armed forces which guard my country and our way of life. I am prepared to give my life in their defense.”
-Article I, US Military Code of Conduct