Article Date: 11/1/2007

Lessons from Abu Ghraib
reflections
THE HUMAN SIDE OF OPTOMETRY

Lessons from Abu Ghraib

Not all westerners are evil, and not all detainees are terrorists.

CURTIS GALES, O.D., COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.

As an optometry-school student, I thought my career path was clear — graduate, work in a few offices and then become a partner or build a practice. My decision in 1996 to accept an ocular-disease residency through the U.S. Army, however, took me down a path that would eventually lead me west of Baghdad.

Re-deployed

After fulfilling my activeduty commitment (four years) as a military optometrist in countries such as South Korea and Bosnia, I'd returned to the United States and accepted a position in a private practice in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Dr. Gales treats a U.S. Marine after the marine's vehicle was hit by an IED.

Four years later and just three months after my daughter's birth, the Army called me back into service. My orders: detainee operations, Abu Ghraib prison for a one-year tour (June 2005 to June 2006).

Almost one year prior to my deployment, the U.S. media reported on a small group of U.S. soldiers who humiliated and tortured many of the jail's prisoners. Although these individuals were convicted of these monstrous crimes, many in the Middle East still believed that Westerners were evil. Or did they?

Life in prison

As the prison's only O.D., I tried to keep my patient load at 15 to 20 a day. This was difficult, however, as incoming roadside bombs or mortar fire were almost a daily occurrence, inflicting eye injuries. In fact, throughout the year, I saw more than 20 eyes that were either completely blown out or penetrated by improvised explosive devices (IED's). As a result, I took solace in providing routine eye care; such as dispensing spectacles to those unable to read the Koran (the Islamic Bible).

Beneath the shrouds

In speaking with several of the detainees, my pre-conceived notions that all were extremists were soon dispelled. A number of the detainees who'd been arrested for setting off roadside bombs or firing rockets at our soldiers said they didn't do it because they hated the United States. They did it because they were offered a lot of money — money they needed to support and feed their families. (They were jobless and desperate.)

Along those same lines, many of the detainees were shocked that I was helping them, and they'd actually ask why. The prison scandal and the fact that Saddam's regime had committed horrible atrocities at Abu Ghraib had convinced them to expect humiliation and torture. When the detainees discovered this was not the case, and they were treated with respect, however, many said, "you're not what I expected."

Abu Ghraib was the truest definition of irony. We (my fellow soldiers and detainees) lived in a prison, yet our experiences there enabled many of us to free ourselves of the prison of stereotypes we had erected in our minds. OM

Dr. Gales has since returned to Executive Park Eye Care in Colorado Springs. This year, he received Vision Service Plan's (VSP) National People First Award for his humanitarian efforts in Iraq and in his local community. In Colorado, he provides free vision care to the homeless and nursing-home residents through the charity "Serving in God's Hands Today."


DO YOU HAVE A MEMORABLE EXPERIENCE YOU'D LIKE TO SHARE? DISCUSS YOUR STORY WITH JENNIFER KIRBY, SENIOR ASSOCIATE EDITOR OF OPTOMETRIC MANAGEMENT, AT (215) 643-8139, OR -KIRBYJ@LWWVISIONCARE.COM. OM OFFERS AN HONORARIUM FOR PUBLISHED SUBMISSIONS.



Optometric Management, Issue: November 2007