February 29, 2016

On a cold, rainy day in March in Durham, England, I had the honor to speak to a group of veterans about my book, Stellar Medicine: A Journey¬†Through the Universe of Women’s Health (Brick Tower Press). This event was sponsored by the Durham County Council and hosted by the Council Chair, Mrs. Linda Marshall. It was held in her office adorned with memorabilia from exotic lands. The Queen’s portrait on the wall added an element of grace and dignity to a room filled with heroes from many wars. I immediately felt “at ease” listening to their banter about battles fought long ago and current ones that still engage our nations. Although decades separated the oldest from the youngest warriors, they were brothers-in-arms. They welcomed me into their company with their smiles and eyes that reflected a knowledge that I could empathize with what they experienced when they returned home–an understanding that transcended diverse cultures, gender, and age.

Meeting this group had been quite a journey dating back to September 2012. I traveled to England for a scheduled book event at that time. Unfortunately, after using trains, subways, taxis, planes, more trains and finally a bus, I missed my book reading that September by 30 minutes.

A monsoon flooded the railways and roads in the northeast of England while I was trying to get to Durham. As I watched a car float by my hotel in Durham on the road to the event, my heart sunk. I knew that the veterans had made it, but I was too late despite doing everything I could do to get there. I promised the organizers that I would come back. So, I was very excited to finally meet this group of former British armed service members.

I have an allegiance to the military dating back to my family members, friends and colleagues who have served. My father, a Holocaust survivor, was so moved by the military which saved his life, he enlisted in the US Army when he immigrated to the United States from Romania. When I wrote my book, I wanted to highlight the needs and concerns of the military in order to share their stories with the public who may not know or perhaps want to know about the challenges faced by troops returning home from the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The agony of watching a loved one try to adapt to society and even a family that was now foreign to him has seared through my own soul and inspired me to be a voice for those who can’t speak about it. So on this day, I had a chance to share my stories and to hear theirs. It was a moment that I will never forget.

After I read from my book chapter, “A Nation of Ghosts” which describes the signature injuries from our recent conflicts such as traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress disorder, the dialog began. It started with comments from veterans from WW2 which encouraged the younger members to describe their own challenges they faced coming home. During WW2, it was an entire nation at war and everyone was engaged which seemed to help veterans readjust on the home front. This has not been the experience for those coming home today. In the US, the war is carried on the backs of less than 1% of the population; however, the White House and communities have highlighted the need to support our troops and their families. This has helped, but more needs to be done.

A comment was made by a member of the audience that it meant so much to hear and see audiences applaud veterans during a recent visit to Disneyland. Some of the veterans mentioned with a twinge of sadness in their voices that they have not received the same acknowledgment in the UK. For example, there were recent stories in the newspaper about a British female veteran who faced homelessness and had no place to go when she came back and another report about veterans having to change out of their uniforms into civilian clothes in airports for fear of upsetting fellow travelers. We all owe a debt of gratitude to troops who have fought for our freedom.

After the books were signed, the handshakes and hugs given, the photographs taken, I left with an enlightened heart. I was in the company of heroes, veterans who deserve to be at ease.

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Saralyn Mark, MD

Saralyn Mark, MD, an endocrinologist, geriatrician and women's health specialist, was the first Senior Medical Advisor to the Office on Women's Health within the Department of Health and Human Services for 11 years and to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As Senior Medical Advisor, Dr. Mark was responsible for the development and analysis of initiatives and programs on emerging technologies, public health preparedness, physician workforce issues, sex and gender-based medicine and women's health on Earth and in Space.