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Student voices—sharing a “huge bag of life experiences”

Melissa Thomas was a sophomore at West Point when al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001. Three years later she was a newly minted second lieutenant, the country was at war, and her plans to go to medical school were on hold. By December 2005 she was stationed at a forward operating base at Camp Taji, a former Iraqi army base about 20 miles north of Baghdad that once housed chemical weapons.

Now a first-year medical student, Thomas described her life as a soldier to about 50 classmates in the Cohen Auditorium in January. Her talk was the second in a new lunchtime series, YSM Student Voices, launched this academic year by two classmates who saw a need for a forum in which students could tell their stories and learn about, and from, each other. Many of their classmates, said organizers Patrick Huang and Keval Desai, wanted to hear from Thomas about life in the military and in a combat zone. And Thomas was glad to tell of her experiences.

“When you say you were in the military and deployed to Iraq, people say, ‘What was that like?’ ” Thomas said. With the military now all-volunteer, she feels that many of those who have served have become isolated from society. It’s important, she said, to bridge what she called the civilian-military divide. “The way to bridge that divide is through veterans sharing their stories.”

She started her talk by explaining some things about the army—the difference between a brigade and a division, some revealing jargon and acronyms (POG, or “person other than grunt,” and REMF, for Rear Echelon M-----F----) and some of the seemingly bizarre codes of military life. Like sex. There was no official ban on sexual relations, she said, but male and female soldiers were not allowed to live in a room together, even if they were married.

At Camp Taji, which housed up to 10,000 soldiers, she was an administrator on a medical team. “We were like an ER, but surgery cases had to go to Baghdad or Balad.” Her team called in more than 100 air evacuations to more advanced medical facilities in those nearby cities. They also cared for Iraqi detainees at the base, including the roadside bomber who blew up her vehicle. And they left the base on medical missions to nearby villages. “There were towns that had clinics, but there were no providers because they had left the country,” she said. “There was no supply chain to get supplies.”

It was on her first mission outside the base that the improvised explosive device (IED) hit the front of her truck. “It was the loudest boom I ever heard.” After the shock of blast, her training took over. “Can you keep driving?” she asked the driver. “Is everyone OK?” No one was hurt and the truck was able to return to base.

A later mission ended in tragedy. An IED blew up a vehicle in the convoy, killing the truck‘s gunner and wounding a female interpreter. Thomas had no medical training at the time, but pitched in to help care for the interpreter. The last voice the interpreter heard before she died belonged to Thomas. “Keep breathing! Keep breathing!”

As Thomas stood before her classmates, the memory overwhelmed her and her eyes began to water. After an enthusiastic and sustained ovation, a respectful silence followed Thomas’s call for questions. A student in the back of the room said, that although there were questions, they’d best wait for another time. After more applause, students got up to leave, and three women approached Thomas and put their arms around her. About 20 students gathered in a circle around Thomas. They wanted to hear more, and Thomas quietly read from her medical school application essay, in which she had described the incident from 10 years earlier. When she finished, her classmates joined her in the walk to class.

“After Mel’s talk,” said Huang, during an interview a few days later, “we were all there for her.”

Having students like Thomas share their experiences was the impetus for YSM Student Voices, Desai and Huang said. The idea came to them during an orientation session on the Program for Humanities in Medicine. Their classmates had told stories about themselves in essays as part of the admissions process. Why not share these stories with a larger audience? They were also looking for an activity that could unite students across class years.

The two first-years approached Anna Reisman, M.D., associate professor of medicine, and director of the humanities program. Reisman was supportive and gave them advice on how to schedule rooms and publicize the talks. The sessions are low-key—no food or refreshments, just a room and a speaker. “We wanted to keep it as minimal as possible, so it’s about people attending the talks because that’s what they want, not because there’s food,” Desai said.

Nientara Anderson, a first-year student who majored in art at Yale College, gave the inaugural talk, in which she explored differences and commonalities in the worlds of art and medicine. Future talks will cover knowledge as seen through mathematics, friendship as seen through the classics, and Beethoven’s life story.

“Everyone comes into med school with a huge bag of life experiences that inform who they are and how they look at the world,” said Desai. “We wanted to make sure that these things didn’t just stay in the application essay, but came out and were shared.”