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The Davis Enterprise September 9, 2005

Davis doctor weary of wounds of war

By Claire St. John

On just another average workday, Dr. Kris Kordana paused to stand outside of the moment, and found it absurd that he was armed, dressed in body armor and aboard a helicopter in one of the most dangerous regions in the world.

"I've got a helmet, I've got a weapon, and I'm thinking, 'I'm a doctor,' " he said Wednesday in a Davis coffee shop.

Kordana has been home a week, back from a four-month stint transporting critical care patients from Iraq to Germany and then on to Washington, D.C.

During his deployment, he missed his 10th wedding anniversary, his son's 5th birthday and his daughter's 1st birthday, and he spent his own birthday in Germany. At the end of September, he will have paid the Air Force back for his medical degree, but won't re-enlist.

If he stayed in the military, he could be deployed on similar missions for six months out of every 15 for the next six years, missing even more family milestones.

"There's no amount of money," he said, shaking his head.

Instead, he's trading a $100,000 bonus, a pay raise and a comfortable, early retirement for the private sector. He'll finish his obligation at Travis Air Force Base in mid-September and start as an internist at Kaiser in South Sacramento in October.

Kordana, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., is tall and well-muscled from swimming, cycling and running. He seems relaxed and happy, and he talks about the soldiers he treated in a straight-forward and upbeat manner. When asked for details, he tears up, but he doesn't break eye contact.

Kordana spent most of his time in the air, treating soldiers with missing limbs, closed-head injuries or severe burns or shrapnel wounds sustained hours earlier.

"Almost all of it was these IEDs (improvised explosion devices)," Kordana said. "Ninety percent of what I saw was IEDs. They're much more powerful now."

Some soldiers lived, others didn't, he said.

In frequent phone calls, Kordana didn't tell his wife, Charla, all the gruesome details and he glossed over how much danger he was in every day.

He learned not to tell his son, Kyle, too much after letting slip that he had treated a man who was shot through the neck. Kyle asked about the soldier almost every day afterward, and Kordana told him he was improving. After that, Kordana told his 5-year-old he was treating "sick" people.

"I told my family I was a lot safer than I was," Kordana said. "It was safer than being on the ground, but still a dangerous situation."

The soldiers he treated, Kordana said, were in danger every day, far from family and familiarity.

"They (insurgents) launch mortars into the base, shoot at planes; there really isn't a safe place to hang out," Kordana said. "Can you imagine if several times a day, someone just launched a mortar into Davis? I can't imagine living like that."

One 19-year-old soldier, whose arms were blown off, talked about his year-old child while Kordana treated him. Because he was dealing with several such tragedies a day, it was easier when soldiers were sedated or otherwise unconscious.

"The more you hear, the less you want to hear," Kordana said. "It sounds cold, but it's hard to do."

After transferring wounded soldiers to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Kordana often had a day to wander Washington, D.C., and read the Washington Post, where news of the war was pushed to the back pages. The stories reported casualties, but not injuries.

"What's portrayed is a lot less chaotic than what was there," he said. "The real untold story is this 90 percent. For every one who dies, nine are injured."

According to GlobalSecurity.org, 1,891 soldiers have been killed since the war started in 2003, and 12,762 have been wounded.

During Kordana's visits to the capital, he saw that Americans were seemingly unaware of the thousands of soldiers missing limbs or horribly burned who will have to rejoin society soon.

"The average American doesn't walk around with a sense that we're a nation at war," he said. "You see how apathetic people are."

A lack of faith in the war also led to Kordana's decision to leave the military, he said. Other doctors are making a similar decision.

"Obviously, doctors are leaving left and right," he said.

For him, 14 years in the military and four months away from his family are enough.

"It was surreal," he said. "I'm still processing it."

Copyright 2005, The Davis Enterprise