Ray Duckler: Treating the wounded, with the bombs bursting in air
Carrie Ayers, holds her hand up while being sworn into the Army Reserves by her father Peter Decato at the University of New Hampshire School of Law on Thursday, October 3, 2013. Ayers, a mother of two and eight months pregnant, served as an Army doctor in Iraq. She is enlisting in the Reserves because of a sense of duty.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Carrie Ayers kisses her daughter Reagan, 2, while zipping her up on Friday evening, October 4, 2013, before leaving their home in Manchester.
(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
Listen to Carrie Ayers’s story and a central question surfaces: What in the world are you thinking?
Why take the oath and join the Army Reserve last week after the death and blood you’ve already seen as a doctor serving in Iraq?
Why travel 45 miles for the swearing-in ceremony, from Exeter Hospital to Concord, in your fatigues, with your unborn baby due in seven weeks, with your two children still too young for grade school?
Why stay involved when your husband, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder?
“It just wasn’t something I wanted to give up,” says Ayers, 37, who lives in Manchester. “I feel an obligation to do well in honor of those guys who can’t go on.”
She was sworn in at the Rudman Building on the University of New Hampshire School of Law campus, with her husband, Josh, and their children, Reagan, 2, and 4-year-old Oliver, looking on.
That made it convenient for Ayers to switch gears quickly and meet with law school officials about the scholarship program she’s involved with, to help returning veterans pursue a law degree.
Busy, you ask? Ayers, a full-time anesthesiologist at Concord Hospital who also works part time in Exeter, never stops.
The Army offered her medical school tuition in exchange for her service, so she got her degree in Kansas City and was named a captain the day she graduated, in 2004, the start of nine years of active duty.
By the summer of 2005, she was in Iraq, first in Mosul, then in Baghdad, stabilizing the wounded before their trip to the hospital.
She thought her time was finished, after a year of Green Zone hardships. But her unit was plucked off the tarmac, just hours before takeoff, and brought back to Baghdad after the Iraqi insurgency heated up.
“We didn’t have a choice,” Ayers said. “I’m glad I was around good people. We made the best of it. It was an opportunity to help people.”
She felt the thunder of two mortar attacks, both nearby, both deadly. Dozens ran for the safety of bunkers, while Ayers instinctively bolted for the aid station.
“There was no thought to it,” she said. “Just do it.”
The aid stations were positioned “out of the wire,” meaning outside the base, open to mortars and bullets. Ayers saw injuries from bullet wounds, explosions in tanks, heavy vehicle rollovers. She treated chest wounds, head trauma, blocked airways.
“At the time, I was just scared,” Ayers said. “But I was in charge and in a position of leadership, and I was supposed to know what to do for these guys. I was scared and I learned a lot about myself and about being a professional.”
She treated everyone, including insurgents, the people trying to kill her and everyone around her.
“At the end of the day, they’re human beings, and I treated them with compassion,” Ayers said. “It doesn’t mean you believe in their beliefs, but I always treated everyone the same. My parents raised me that way. I wasn’t there to judge people.”
She relayed a story about a soldier with an injured finger who did not want to return to the war. Ayers says she told him his injury wasn’t too severe, reminded him that his buddies needed him.
Scared, the soldier was released and killed in action minutes after their conversation. “It moved me,” Ayers said. “It made me think I could do better. There was nothing different I could have done, but you never know when it’s their last day. Something as simple as a finger sprain is a big deal to the patient.”
She continued. “A lot of things I saw bother me every night. There’s never a night I sleep where I don’t think about what I saw. I do the best I can.”
Ayers returned late in 2006 and began working at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where the injured from both wars are cared for. Sometimes Ayers was the first person a soldier would see after surgery. Maybe she’d break the news about an amputation.
“You deal with those raw emotions,” Ayers said. “Then a year later you see them on the veranda with a prosthetic and throwing a football and smiling and living a decent life.”
They are the episodes that she says made her work worthwhile, despite the dangers. Her husband, Josh, did his part, too, serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan before taking a job as a cop in Baltimore.
He’s now a security guard at the Sununu Youth Services Center in Manchester. The war came home with him, too.
Not all bad memories, mind you. Josh, an MP, made life better for the innocent victims of war, the children who were fascinated by the new police force in town.
“Some of the kids would hang out and would want to learn English,” Josh said. “I had one little boy who lived next door to the police station, and he always came over and we’d do the alphabet and I’d tell him stories.”
There’s a dark side here, of course. Josh is in therapy, suffering from PTSD. He says he feels better since returning five years ago, but the nightmares and anger management issues and need for seclusion continue.
Sometimes he kicks and flails his arms while sleeping, hitting Carrie. Asked about the experiences that still haunt him, Josh said, “I don’t want to really go there.”
And while he’s proud of his wife, his mixed feelings come through when asked about her desire to be all she can be.
“I think both of us have taken on enough, but I’m extremely proud of her for still wanting to serve our country,” Josh said. “But we’ve been away from each other enough, and if it ever comes to it again, I want to enjoy the times we have together.”
Ayers began her two-year stint in the Reserves on Thursday, the day her nine-year active duty career ended. This time she’s guaranteed that she won’t deploy to a war zone.
Her son-to-be, Dexter, is due Dec. 1. Then she’ll train like always, staying sharp and ready, and when her new contract ends, she has the option to re-sign.
And be deployed for a second time.
“I’ll decide then if I want to stay in,” Ayers said, “and see if I want to keep doing it.”