Monday, February 7, 2011


After five days of processing at Fort Benning and another day of delay due to the snow I returned home on February 03, 2011.

I had been on active duty a total of 112 day.  This was a very long time to be away from family and my practice but I couldn't help think of the soldiers who have had deployments that lasted over a year and many of them had several deployments. 

The war in Afghanistan & Iraq has been going on for so many years it was all starting to feel like it was  yesterdays news.  I found the very thought of tuning out of a war was particularly frightening and especially unfair to the many thousands of soldiers who are still there. 

Although I was in a combat zone that could be hit by rockets or mortars I generally didn't have to go on missions outside of the wire looking for the enemy.  During my mobilization and training I met countless soldiers that were on combat teams headed for dangerous missions and I think about them every day.

This was a difficult but a memorable ordeal.   Interestingly, I think deploying as a physician would have been more difficult to do after finishing residency when my children were very young, which is when most military physicians are sent on their first (of many) deployments.  I think it's actually easier when your children are older and I've pointed this out to the army and the recruiters.  I also remember being tempted to use my age as an excuse not to join but I know that would have been a rationalization that I couldn't of lived with.  

While being apart from my family and away from my patients was difficult the most enjoyable part of the deployment was, without any doubt, simply being close to the other soldiers on this mission and being there to provide medical care to our troops.  I did love & cherished being able to make some contribution to a very difficult war that has gone on too long.

My enlistment with the Massachusetts National Guard is not yet over and next month I'll be back at my monthly drill.

This will be my final blog edition.

Major Martin Lesser         

Thursday, February 3, 2011


Last Wednesday, 01/26/2010 I flew from Tallil Air Force Base, Iraq to Ali Al Salem Air Force Base, in Kuwait.  I'm assigned a bunk in a tent where I will sleep while waiting for my flight home that departs Saturday night. I can't believe that after working for almost 100 days in Iraq without a day off I now have two days with nothing to do except get ready for this flight.  Working endlessly with very little rest and then having nothing to do for days has always been standard operating procedure (SOP) in the military.

The flight home is on a real commercial jet chartered by the military which leaves from the Kuwaiti International (Civilian) Airport.  To get there we board a bus for a 45 minute ride through the desert.

Once there we embark on the weekly chartered commercial flight back to the United States, aka The Freedom Flight.  We board the flight in uniform with all our weapons, banners and other equipment and everybody is breathing easier as we take off.  

We make a fuel stop in Germany and fly on to Atlanta and then board buses for the two hour bus ride to Fort Benning. It's about 6:30am Eastern Time when we arrive in Atlanta.  We then assemble in a large auditorium and we're greeted by a delegation that includes a Colonel and a Chaplain who thank us for our service & we're given a picnic style meal.  

The group I flew with are "individual augmentees" which means we're not deploying as part of a large unit, rather we are individually assigned to different units when we reach our assigned unit.  Since none of us are based at Fort Benning there are only a few civilians there to greet us.  They did have some flashing signs and the sounds of Hail to the Chief is played as we enter the auditorium and we're thanked again and again.  This is a huge auditiorium and I've heard that the place is filled when a unit of several hundred soldiers, with families living in the area, return after a deployment of a year.  The scenes are simply emotionally over the top.

If you'd like to see some brief videos of redeployment ceremonies:

We are then taken to a huge warehouse facility to return our equipment and weapons before being taken taken to CRC which stands for CONUS Replacement Center (CONUS stands for Contiguous United States or the 48 states; OCONUS stands for Outside of the Contiguous United States)  where we are billeted for the next several days.  

We are then processed which includes sessions with medical, dental, mental health, audiometry, optometry, mental health, finance, veterans agency etc. Returning soldiers do have slightly higher rates of medical, mental health and family as well as additional problems of unemployment, homelessness, divorce, domestic violence etc.  After we clear all of the above they will buy us an airline ticket home.  Of course everybody wants to get out and get home ASAP so soldiers tend to deny having any needs for services.  Fortunately they know they can get services later through the Veterans Administration. 

At this point I've cleared everything and I'm holding an airline ticket to fly from Atlanta to Bradley/Windsor Locks for tomorrow.

Welcoming us home after our flight at Fort Benning, GA

This deployment was the culmination of my decision three years ago to enlist in the Massachusetts National Guard.  I did this knowing that this was a period of frequent call-ups and deployments because of the conflicts in Afghanistan & Iraq.  It was specifically because we were at war that I felt I should do something when I was asked.  

This has certainly been one of the most momentous decisions of my life which will never be forgoten and will always be a part of my identity and my families identity.  My deployment was possible because of enormous sacrifices made by my wife Joan, my children, my office manager Kelly plus countless others including all my office staff, the many covering medical providers, my neighbors and friends plus a small army of others that helped in countless ways. 

Originally, I decided to write this blog because I was afraid Joan would get swamped by endless calls from people wanting to know how we were doing etc  It appears that the blog did what it was supposed to do and it was generally well received.

I continued the blog because I got the impression that many people were quite interested not only in me but in all our soldiers on deployments.  I was very happy to see this because many people have become disconnected and uninvolved which weakens our democracy.  Apathy is not consistent with good government.   

Infrequently, I've been asked if the deployment was fun and I try to sidestep such questions because I don't feel they are even worthy of an answer.  Hopefully, all the soldiers experienced moments of fun during their deployment but we all experienced far longer periods of sacrifice, danger, boredom and loneliness. More importantly war is not fun and if you're having fun you are tuning out the enormous amount of suffering that is all around you or happened in the recent past.  

Thus far I'm well which is a good thing because I know there will be mountains of work for me to do which I need to start as soon as I'm home.

This deployment & mission is now over for me.  Unfortunately the war continues.

Memorial & Plaque to the fallen soldiers  at Memorial Hall.

Memorial Hall is where all the major entertainment events have been held including Aaron Pipin (Country & Western),  Avenged Sevenfold (Heavy Metal), Fight Night, EnVogue & The Bluenote Gospel Singers.  In front of the structure there is a memorial (boots, bayonet, semiautomatic rifle & helmet) plus a wall that lists the names of several hundred American Soldiers that were killed.  Sadly, the total number of Americans killed in Iraq as of today is 4,436.  Therefore, this listing possibly was made up several years ago and it hasn't been updated.  Another possibility is that this is a listing of only those killed from this region. Nobody seems to know for sure.  

This base is going to be turned over to Iraq by December/2011.  I wonder if the plaque & memorial will be left behind and what it's fate will be.    

Major Martin Lesser

Tuesday, February 1, 2011



The only sanctioned after hours establishment at COB Adder is our gym which stays open 24/7 and does a good job of meeting the needs of a garrison in a combat zone.  Before I arrived, the gym held a contest for the best name for the gym and some creative soldier came up with the brilliant and winning suggestion:  "The House of Pain" which described it perfectly.  Soldiers have to continuously meet physical training standards so one of the first semi-permanent structures that gets built at a base, even in a combat zone, is a gym.  Although aerobic training is also emphasized at a military gym, weight training is more popular and is taken very seriously.

The army actually tries to encourage aerobic training and their Physical Training Test rates soldiers only  for push-ups, sit-ups and a two mile run.  In addition to encouraging aerobic exercise rather than weight lifting, the medical providers try to discourage the use of the ubiquitous body building supplements. However, the demand is enormous and the PX clearly devotes more shelf space for body building supplements than any other product.  Although the products they sell are legal I've seen them cause many medical problems and I discourage their use but I know my comments rarely have any effect.  The bottom line is that many soldiers take their body building (not to mention their tattoos) very seriously.  Military bases used to be able to show movies which were very well attended but now that everybody can watch DVDs on their computers nobody is going to go out to a tent to watch a movie so the gym is by far the most widely used recreational facility. 

Just a few days before I arrived a rocket hit one of the blast walls surrounding the House of Pain.  Fortunately the blast wall absorbed most of the blast but a fair amount of debris came crashing through the roof and there were a few minor injuries.  The damage was quickly repaired and The House of Pain was soon back in business and more popular than ever.  In the case of "The House of Pain" the rocket attack gave it even more of a macho image and if you wanted to be cool that was the place to be.  Besides, we have no other choices anyway.

Weight lifting area at The House of Pain. Weight Lifting Goes on 24/7.

Shabbat at COB Adder & Miscellaneous Pictures

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


After 98 days in Iraq I left Wednesday, 26 and flew by military transport to Ali Al Salem Airfield in Kuwait where I'm waiting for the weekly flight to the United States, also know as the Freedom Plane.  I flew by military transport which is always an adventure.

Although officially Kuwait is still considered  a war zone it's much more relaxed than Iraq and I believe there haven't been any hostile fire incidents recently.  We're actually not even required to carry our weapons with us.  Ali Al Salem Airfield is not only a military base it's the gateway to  Iraq and Afghanistan.  On my way to Iraq we flew from the United States we stopped at Ali Al Saelm Airfield in Kuwait.  About two thirds of the soldiers, who were headed to Afghanistan, immediately got on another plane and left the same day.  The other third of us, who were headed for Iraq, went to another base in Kuwait for a few days of additional training.  A few days later we flew to Iraq.

This time I arrived at Ali Al Salem on a Wednesday and my flight to the United States doesn't leave until Saturday night.  I've been given just a few chores and I just have to wait at this Air Base in the Kuwaiti desert for two days.  The place is a huge tent city that reportedly handles over a thousand soldiers passing through every day either going to or returning from Afghanistan or Iraq. Most everybody is like me they have to wait a few days for a plane to go somewhere else. 

So everybody is either "inbound" which means they're headed back to the United States or "outbound" which means they're headed to either Afghanistan or Iraq.  Again, among the outbound soldiers I see bigger goups standing in front of signs saying "Kabul" and Mazar-i-Sharif which are destinations in Afghanistan and these soldiers don't even get assigned a tent.

There seems to be hundreds of men & womens tents and they have a concrete floor and there's about a eight double bunk beds in each tent.  You walk a short distance to a dining facility, shower houses and bathrooms, which the military calls latrines.  I'm traveling by myself but there's always soldiers to talk to if you feel like it.  My tent has filled up with a group of male nurses who worked "dustoffs" which are medical evacuation helicopters in Afghanistan and it sounds like they've been through a lot. However, everybody seems relieved that they've finished their deployment and they're headed home.  We are all feeling a huge sense of relief as we realize we're finished and we're away from the combat zones.   


Tallil Air Base (AKA Ali Air Base) adjoins COB Adder. A talented soldier painted this blast wall & included the Ziggurat (see post 01/17/11)
This is my view as I enter the plane (military planes load from the rear)

Good place to nap.

Monday, January 24, 2011


All good things have to come to an end and it looks like the end is
coming. I'm supposed to to be on active duty not longer than 120 days
with 90 days "in theater" (don't you love this term).  Actually, I
arrived in theater 10/23 so I'm already over 90 days and it will be
about 100 days by the time I leave although I've been assured that I
won't go over 120 days by the time I get home.  It's useless to argue
with them anyway. I'm not allowed to say when I'm leaving because
troop flights are considered classified.

Unit begins to assemble for the ceremony
Colonel pins medal

My replacement, Major Andrew Altman,  arrived this past Wednesday.  He's from
the Tennessee National Guard although he now lives in Michigan but all
of us have complicated lives.  Major Altman was in the Marine Corp for
four years before he even went to college or medical school which I
find extremely impressive.  He says that after he became a physician
he joined the National Guard as an enlisted soldier just to give
himself something different to do one weekend/month. Then after a
while he told them he was a physician and they reclassified him. He
did a 90 day deployment at some remote outpost in Afghanistan and then
he did a double deployment in Iraq. That means he did his 90+ days and
volunteered to do another 90+ days so he gets out of having to go back
to the USA and go through all that travel and orientation.  He did
this to try to save himself the 20-30 days going back and forth can
take.  He was hoping to get double credit so he wouldn't have to
deploy again for a while because he was planning to move to another
community.  Guess what, he finishes the double deployment about 20
months ago and he's already back in Iraq!!  He said they told him
physicians are resigning (surprise)  and are in short supply so he was
told that he had to go back.  He has four kids and he's upset that
he's away from the youngest who is six years old. He says he's going
to get out of the army even though he doesn't have enough time to
qualify for a pension.  It would be an awful shame if the army has to
lose someone as special as him.  I tell him maybe he can come back
again when he's older like me.


I really did not expect something like this but this is a combat zone
and apparently the army takes your work out here very seriously.  Your
commanding officer has to write up a commendation reviewing your work
and citing your actions and accomplishments.  I do have to say that
even after being here this long I wasn't prepared to to be called up
in front of the unit and given a medal.  I was never even in the cub
scouts, boy scouts or even the Little League.  Plus other than the
Colonel the majority of these soldiers are younger than my son Eric
and many are younger than my older daughter Rebecca (many of them also
remind me of both of them as well).  Life is largely whatever you
choose to make of life.

Tomorrow I begin the ordeal of packing and preparing for military air
travel to Kuwait.  Travel is usually with a C-130 Hercules
and this is always an adventure.  You sit on these improvised straps
in the cargo bay carrying your weapons and wearing your flak jacket
and battle helmet.  It's actually a lot of fun.  I'm supposed to then
wait several days at this air base that is literally in the middle of
the desert in Kuwait for my flight to the United States but I don't
want to get ahead of myself.

The ceremony consisted of Physician Assistant Susan
Harcke being promoted to Captain and Major Martin Lesser
being awarded the Army Commendation Medal.
Colonel removes the Lieutenant insignia (velcro) and replaces it
with the Captain insignia.
Somebody told a joke (I think it was me)
Back at attention
Colonel pins medal
I thank the Colonel
Colonel (on my right), and Command Sergeant Major
(on my left).
Back to my formation. 
Colonel decides to tell a story
Captain Susan Harcke (Captain's insignia is the two bars) and Major Martin
Lesser (Medal is attached to the green and white ribbon)

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mission to Ur, The Biblical Home of Abraham & The Ziggurat

Unless you are on an assigned mission soldiers are never allowed at any times to go "outside the wire" of the base. Today we were taken to one of the most well known archeological sites in all of Iraq "The Ziggurat of Ur". (Ur is the ancient name for this area.)

This trip was actually the only bit of sightseeing I ever even had a chance of doing and since I'll be leaving soon I was quite relieved that I was able to go.

The area of Iraq know as Mesopitamia, which means "the land between two rivers" and it is called the "cradle of civilization" because ancient people were able to use the availability of water from The Tigris & Euphrates River to develop irrigation and ultimately enough agriculture that they could form communities. The Ziggurat, with it's unique architecture and massive size was a religious temple.  There were many Ziggurats built in the area that is now Iraq and Iran and several of their ruins have been discovered but the one outside of Adder is the largest and most preserved of them. This Ziggurat which was built around 6,000 years ago was actually buried in the desert sands for many centuries.  Excavations by British archeologists were first started around 1850 and continued on and off for decades.  About 75 years ago most of the work was completed making the structure visible again after thousands of years being buried.

You are actually able to see it from inside the army base and originally it was inside the camp's perimeter. Several years ago the military decided that it was bad public relations to have these archeological ruins inside a military base so they shortened the perimeter to keep it outside of the base's perimeter.  I looked at the Ziggurat everyday from the base and I wondered if I would ever get to see it so I was very happy that I was able to go.

Parts of modern day Iraq are actually mentioned several times in the bible and Abraham ( the oldest of the three Patriarchs of Abraham, Isaac & Jacob) was from Ur and a prominent area of ruins alongside the Ziggurat are identified as being Abraham's home.  Abraham is a vey respected Prophet in Islamic religion and apparently not only Moslems but Jews and Christians also recognize these ruins as being Abrahams home.  Abraham's family worshipped idols and quite possibly participated in religious practices at the Ziggurat.  Later Abraham left Ur and moved with his family to the Land of Canaan.  In addition to being the first Jew he is credited with being the first spiritual leader to express belief in monotheism and is respected by Jews, Moslems & Christians & Moslems.

Several other biblical events took place in modern day Iraq including Jonah who was swallowed by the whale, Daniel in the Lion's Den & The Handwriting on the Wall.  Additonally, the Jewish Nation was exiled in Babylonia, which was a mighty empire in modern day Iraq.  Queen Esther and the story of the Jewish holiday of Purim took place in ancient Persia which is nearby in modern day Iran.

Although we were actually going to be sightseeing this was an army mission.  We had to assemble for our briefing in full battle dress at 5:30am which meant IOTV (body armor), battle helmets, weapons & ammunition, first aid supplies, water supplies, armored cars plus additional security escorts.  We moved out in complete darkness on one of the coldest days yet.  It occasionally rains in the winter and it was also raining this day.

Typical army mission: we leave in the dark and arrive at our destination in the dark. The 2nd picture includes our Iraqi guide who spoke to us in English.

None of this mattered to me because, as I already said, I was thrilled that I was going and the closer we got to the structure the more impressed I became with it.  The military tours/missions to the Ziggurat of Ur are done on a very limited basis and only offered to soldiers who are based here.  Although there are many disadvantages to being at this base (as well as some advantages) I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to see the Ziggurat at Ur.

Arriving at the Ziggurat as dawn is breaking. We decide to go to the surrounding ruins first and we'll then return to the Ziggurat.

For more information:

Entering the ruins which surround the Ziggurat.
This is one of the oldest surviving arches in the world.

After exploring the ruins we now return to the Ziggurat:

Ascending the Ziggurat:

Top of the Ziggurat:

We now leave the Ziggurat and we head to "Abraham's House".  This site is accepted by Jews, Christians & Moslems as the remnants of the home where the first Patriarch was born & lived.  He later clashed with his family & the community because of his unwillingness to accept their beliefs in many gods and his belief in one god.

Colonel Rabbi Joel Goldstein, who is a brother in-law of Rabbi Noah Kosofsky of Yeshiva Academy in Longmeadow, is from the New York National Guard and is the highest ranking Jewish Chaplain in the army. Colonel Rabbi Goldstein wrote to me after Rabbi Kosofsky told him that I was going to be in Iraq. Colonel Goldstein stated that Ur indeed is where Abraham was born, lived and developed his belief that there is but one god and became the first Jew.  He urged me, if it was at all possible to visit the site.

We now approach Abraham's house. This is SGT Candedo who is a "Chaplain's Asssistant".  Since he is not an actual Chaplain he carries a weapon.

As we view Abraham's house Sgt Candedo read's to us the biblical account of Abraham.

Exploring the ruins of Abrahams House.  Our Iraqi Guide is seen below:

Exploring Abraham's house while standing on the roof.  NOTE THE VIEW OF THE ZIGGURAT IN THE DISTANCE.

Arabic sign describing Abraham's house.  This was the only printed marker seen at the entire site.  Our guide and his family infrequently lead tours with armed guards but the area is otherwise neglected.

When we finished the trip and returned to base it wasn't even 10:00am. We had been through some of the most well preserved archeological remnants of Mesopitamia & the accepted birthplace and home of Abraham, sacred to Jews, Christians & Moslems.  This is a closed military area and I was able to see this because I was part of the US Army which conquered this area in 2003 and has occupied it since. When these trips are allowed it is only with the highest degree of security.  There are some signs that the region is becoming more secure and stable and our guide claims that more than one group from China has managed to tour the ruins.   He says he is somewhat confident that tourist may start to come in the future.

When I returned I went straight to my Level 1 clinic and began seeing soldiers immediately. We started one hour later that day. There are no days off during deployments.

Major Martin Lesser
Sunday, January 16, 2010


Exploring the Ruins:

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