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A colonel's view on leadership and caring
(Sept. 28, 2010)
Col. Richard W. Ellison, U.S. Army surgeon, has led medical teams and soldiers in war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan and earthquake relief in Haiti.
He shared his philosophy of leadership as a physician and commander with East Carolina University medical and public health students, faculty and staff Tuesday during a Brody School of Medicine student leadership-sponsored lecture, "Caring For People Unlike Us."
Ellison, 18th Airborne Corps surgeon and assistant chief of staff for health services at Fort Bragg, served as the Multinational Security Transition Iraq Command Surgeon, where he was the senior military medical advisor to the surgeon general of the Iraqi military forces helping set up a health care system for their personnel.
He completed three combat deployments for a total of 35 months in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will be returning in 2011 to serve as the U.S. Forces Iraq Command Surgeon in charge of the drawdown of medical forces as the military departs Iraq.
On his first tour in Baghdad in 2003, 19 soldiers died in the first 21 days he was there. He shared photographs from his tours, including a spectacular sunset and many children, which he described as two of the best things in the country.
His first patient was an Iraqi who had killed two Americans and injured two others. He treated many other Iraqis, including children, who were used sometimes as human shields or, in the case of two teenage boys, hole diggers for improvised explosive devices. The boys were injured in an explosion, one more severely than the other, and the scarce available resources meant only one boy would survive.
In Afghanistan, forgotten land mines severely injured some patients under Allison’s care. "That is the cost of decisions made a long time ago," he said.
In working with people from another culture, he said it is important to remember that everything is different from the American viewpoint. "We can't place our values on them," he said.
Ellison suggested reading a "Message to Garcia" written in 1899 by Elbert Hubbard. It is the story of an American soldier charged with delivering a critical message to a Cuban rebel forces leader during the Spanish American War. The soldier did what he was told without question, complaint or delay.
One of Ellison's favorite lines in the 10-page booklet is, "So long as you‘re part of an organization, don’t condemn it."
"That's part of being a leader," he said, along with being a good listener, working with and for others.
Ellison joined the Army as a private in 1984. He attended medical school at the Medical College of Georgia through the armed forces Health Professions Scholarship Program.
He did his surgery internship at Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Ga., and spent a year in the burn unit in San Antonio before completing his surgical residency at Brooke Army Medical Center.
A jumpmaster, he is a decorated officer having received the Combat Medic Badge, Combat Action Badge, Parachutist Badge, Flight Surgeon Badge and Combat Diver Badge. He received three Bronze Stars, one Defense Meritorious Service Medal and two Meritorious Service Medals.
Ellison also served as a group and battalion surgeon in the Fifth Special Forces and was a medical company commander in Korea.