Helping the War Torn
If we were to envision a psychiatrist, we'd probably picture
them in a comfortable office, seated in a plush chair with
a clipboard resting on one knee. It seems unlikely that one
would ever imagine a psychiatrist wearing fatigues and a flak
vest, sweating and dusty in a harsh, war-torn environment. Nothing
about Ann Radford's training and education had prepared her for
that very scenario.
"It was interesting, but very challenging because of the physical
elements," said Ann, who was the first psychiatrist deployed by the
U.S. to go with an infantry unit to Southern Afghanistan. "You're
dirty all the time, it's very noisy at the airfield, and temperatures
get up to 137∞. I was also a minority as a female-I didn't have a
And that's to say nothing of the tragedy she inevitably dealt
with in this combat zone. Ann treated patients for everything from
insomnia to suicidal tendencies, armed only with the "assault
pack" she traveled with: a mini desert camo backpack stocked
with a notebook and half a dozen medications. She counseled
servicemen who'd seen their buddies get blown up right before
their eyes, and others who became distraught after learning their
wives or girlfriends back home had left them. She tried to help
them cope with the continued strain of living in close quarters
under a lot of stress, and she even treated an Afghan national
policeman who suffered from schizophrenia.
"You try to support them and keep a smile on your face the
whole time, but you are completely out of your comfort zone,"
said Ann, who was a pharmacy technician in her hometown before
studying medicine. "I carried a 9mm pistol with ammunition-as
a psychiatrist, you're not oriented for that."
In order to deal with her own stress, Ann practiced what she
calls "sublimation," a psychiatric term which basically means she
decompressed by doing something she loves. "I volunteered with
the explosives detecting dogs," said Ann, who has five dogs of her
own. "I would take them for walks, give them massages and baths,
pet them and love on them. They get traumatized too, you can see
it, and working with them was what kept me sane."
Throughout the eight months she was in Afghanistan, Ann
definitely feels she made a difference promoting mental health and
preventing suicide. She has observed that the long-running military
stigma against seeking guidance from psychiatrists-which is often
seen as admitting weakness-is finally lifting a bit. It also helps
that she is a woman, she says, because a lot of the guys tended to
view her as an empathetic mother figure. For her part, Ann did not
remain unaffected by her experiences, and there was one moment
in particular that sticks out in her mind.
"I talked to a Marine who had a collapsed lung and a fractured
pelvis, and he was on oxygen laying on a gurney," she recalls,
adding that several of his comrades had been killed. "He was
actually coherent enough to talk to me and his first concern was
what happened to his buddies. I was very touched by that. What
can you do but squeeze his hand and tell him the truth? I never
cried while I was over there, but that was the closest I came. There's
definitely a brotherhood among those guys."
Hometown: Latrobe, PA
Lives In: Beaufort, SC
Hobbies: tennis, outdoor activities, reading (especially biographies) and her dogs
Joined Army Reserves: 1985
Previous deployment: went to Northern Kuwait in 2006
What her time overseas has taught her: "It's made me appreciate and even laugh about how spoiled we are in the U.S. I'm definitely a lot less fussy now."
Words to live by: "Life is difficult, but it doesn't have to be dramatic."