To Afghan villagers, said General (Ret.) Stanley McChrystal, soldiers in combat gear, helmets, and body armor who don’t speak the language, don’t understand the culture, and race by in their armored vehicles “might as well be Martians.” 

McChrystal, former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan and now a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, was a featured speaker at “Common Ground: Army Medicine in Support of Humanity,” an event held in April to describe the Army Medical Department’s humanitarian operations around the world. 

“The ability to use medical relationships becomes extremely important,” McChrystal told the audience in Harkness Auditorium. “I’ve watched coalition forces do everything from inoculations to basic checkups for kids, and it is something that breaks down the walls that can exist between us.” 

Col. Frederick C. Lough, M.D., who served at a military hospital in Afghanistan described some of the challenges facing military physicians. Although the hospital was near the historic city of Herat, the city was deemed too dangerous to visit, said Lough, now director of cardiac surgery at George Washington University Hospital. The military hospital was run by a Spanish contingent from NATO but also staffed by Bulgarian and American physicians. Language was often an issue, said Lough, noting that the morning report was conducted in Spanish. The European doctors also differed in their approach to medicine and were less trusting of technology, he said. Although the team treated many Afghan civilians, the team members were often concerned about follow-up for serious conditions. “Then what? There is no rehab after care,” he said. 

A visit to a medical Deployable Rapid Assembly Shelter (DRASH) unit on display in Harkness Ballroom followed the talks in the auditorium. The unit—which can be up and running in an hour and includes a surgical bed as well as an assortment of essential medical equipment—represents the next level of care after battlefield treatment. Injured soldiers would be moved from the DRASHto a field hospital and then to the Army’s regional medical center in Landstuhl, Germany. 

Maj. Michael Filipowicz, the officer in charge of a medical recruiting station in Wallingford, Conn., said his goal in organizing the event was to build a relationship with Yale. “I am trying to break down the walls of misunderstanding and to promote the humanitarian missions that we do, and enlighten everyone that we’re not just about taking care of soldiers, but taking care of civilians around the world,” he said.