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Pieces of Eight


Soldier, Surgeon Recounts Front-line Experiences

By Doug Boyd

Though they carry weapons when traveling and get shot at like any other soldiers, medical personnel in the military also carry out humanitarian goals in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world, according to an East Carolina University faculty member who served as a surgeon during two recent tours of duty.

Dr. P.J. Schenarts, an assistant professor of surgery with the Brody School of Medicine at ECU, is also a major in the U.S. Army Reserves. From July 2004 until last July, Schenarts was on active duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He commanded Alpha Team of the 933rd Forward Surgical Team, a unit that provides immediate surgical care for those who are too wounded to be evacuated to combat support hospitals.


Dr. P.J. Schenarts, ECU assistant professor of surgery, spoke in February about his two recent tours of duty as a major in the U.S. Army Reserves. (Contributed photo)

Just as physicians here treat suspected killers injured in shootouts with police, Army medical teams treat the sick and injured from both sides – coalition forces and insurgents.

“A patient is a patient at the end of the day,” Schenarts said. “It didn’t matter what circumstances brought them there. Many patients showed up very hateful toward Americans, very angry. They got very good care. I think that’s how we’re going to win the war over there.”

He described one patient who turned out to be a high-ranking member of a terrorist group. After Army doctors saved his life, he provided intelligence that probably saved coalition lives, Schenarts said.

A forward surgical team works in a tent with limited supplies, one emergency medicine bed, a field operating table and two intensive care beds.

In Afghanistan, Schenarts’ team consisted of himself plus an orthopedic surgeon, a nurse, a nurse anesthetist, an operating room technologist and several medics. Schenarts said the experience and knowledge he gained treating eastern North Carolina gunshot victims helped him save wounded soldiers and Marines, though he had to rely more on skills and instincts.

“You have to learn different ways of approaching things,” Schenarts said. “You’re much more dependent on diagnostic skills as opposed to diagnostic tests.

Most of the operative principles stay the same: stop bleeding, contain contamination from the intestine, identify injuries, put back together.”

Last year, Schenarts received the Bronze Star, awarded to Army personnel for heroic or meritorious action during military operations. Schenarts, a trauma surgeon, was cited for providing care to soldiers wounded in combat and providing command leadership in an austere, forward environment during combat. He said such action occurred several times in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq, his team worked in Tikrit, Samarra, Fallujah, Baghdad and Mosul. In 2003, he was deployed to Afghanistan for six months.

One of the places he worked was a hospital the Army set up near the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The hospital was one way the United States worked to improve its image there, Schenarts said.

“Saddam was a bad guy, but we were bad guys there, too,” he said. “No one would say (soldiers’ mistreatment of prisoners) was ethical behavior. Part of the response of the abuses seen there was to put a hospital there.”

Schenarts said he joined the Army so he could give back to his country. Although he’s a member of the military, he said he and all other physicians should work to end warfare. On his wrist is a reminder of the casualties of war: a bracelet inscribed with the name of a young soldier whose wounds were too severe for him to save. He received the bracelet as a gift from the soldiers’ fellow unit members.

“I wear it because it reminds me there are some great people out there doing a tough job,” Schenarts said. “Dissent, debate and dialogue are all important elements of a democracy, but the reason people can dissent, debate and dialogue is because of people like this kid.”

Schenarts was awarded the 2006 Association for Surgical Education Outstanding Teaching Award, a 2006 Board of Governors Distinguished Professor for Teaching Award, and the 2006 Robert L. Jones Award for Outstanding Teaching.

This page originally appeared in the May 19, 2006 issue of Pieces of Eight. Complete issue is archived at