Decades of Army Experience Shapes MCW Surgeon's Care for Veterans and Others
When you’ve been deployed overseas for the military, you don’t come back the same way you left, explains Lewis Somberg, MD a veteran of several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I think all of us who’ve been over there – physicians, infantrymen, door kickers, special forces, if you were a clerk – something's changed about you when you come home,” says Dr. Somberg, who spent the first 12 of his 28-year military career in the Navy Reserve before transferring to the Army Reserve. He served a total of 28 years. “People tell you don’t worry about it and just move on, but there are things that happened to me that I think about every day.”
The mass casualty incidents, injuries and other horrors he witnessed working out of tents as commander of a 20-man Forward Surgical Team, commander of a Combat Support Hospital (CSH), and as a Medical Brigade commander overseeing two CSH’s and a Multi- Medical Battalion, have all left an indelible mark on Dr. Somberg, a professor of surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) who specializes in trauma and acute care surgery at Froedtert Hospital.
While some memories haunt him and others he recalls fondly, all of his years in service benefit him as he treats a population he says can be often misunderstood – veterans like him.
“You just have to be cognizant of that with the veteran population and be empathetic,” Dr. Somberg says. “I think the main thing is you just have to be empathetic for the sacrifices that they went through.”
The separation from their family, rigorous training, uncertainty about whether they’ll be going on vacation or be shipped overseas, and especially the combat experience itself is difficult to deal with, he notes.
“Freedom wasn’t free,” Dr. Somberg adds.
Still, he says, many of these experiences are something military personnel take pride in sharing.
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a veteran who doesn’t want to open up and share what they did,” Dr. Somberg says. “I love hearing their stories.”
Among the many chronicles shared with Dr. Somberg was one from a 96-year-old veteran who was on the USS Princeton before it was sunk by a kamikaze in World War II and another from a soldier in the 106th Infantry who was captured in the Battle of the Bulge.
They’re all tales from a generation that’s sadly fading away, he explains.
“When I first got to the VA, we were seeing World War II veterans all the time; now they’re gone,” Dr. Somberg says. “Now the Korean War veterans are getting rarer, and Vietnam veterans are in their 70s now.”
Sometimes things get so busy at the clinic that people forget to ask veterans about their experiences, Dr. Somberg admits. He says talking to them about what they did is much more meaningful than just thanking them for their service.
Some of the stories that affect Dr. Somberg the most are those from Vietnam veterans.
“Those are the ones that get you crying often,” he says. “I apologize that they didn’t get the homecoming they deserved.”
Dr. Somberg also shares with them his experiences, including the times he was able to join Honor Flights, which celebrate veterans for their service and sacrifices.
“When we get back to Milwaukee. there’s got to be thousands of people at the airport greeting us,” he says. “I’ve never seen one guy walking through there not crying.”
Family tradition of service
While others in his generation joined the military straight from high school, Dr. Somberg graduated from college and medical school at Emory University in Atlanta and had started his residency before he received a direct commission in the Navy Reserves in 1989. He says it was his duty, as a sense of service was something that was instilled in him by his father, who fought for the Navy in World War II.
“I thought it was the right thing to do, so that’s when I joined,” Dr. Somberg shares. “I can’t say enough about that kind of stuff I got to do. It was amazing.”
Conversely, his experiences at MCW benefited him when he was shipped back overseas.
“The level of violence that we see on our streets left me really well prepared for the war,” Dr. Somberg adds.
Although he’s been retired from the military for five years now, Dr. Somberg’s experience still shapes his everyday life. In fact, he’s still trying to process it. The one thing he is sure of is that he loved what he did and loves seeing the next generation of soldiers prepare to serve their country as well.