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Rossland surgeon honoured for military service in Afghanistan
by Andrew Bennett on 14 Dec 2011
Rossland orthopaedic surgeon Steve McVicar was recently awarded the General Service Medal (GSM) for his two tours working at front-line hospitals in Afghanistan.
"In 2007 I was one of the first civilian surgeons to go, and I was one of the last to go in 2010," McVicar said. Each two-month tour he was on call every day in a deadly environment where doctors "burned out pretty quickly."
The GSM was awarded particularly for McVicar's service at the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Air Field in July and August 2010. The R3-MMU was under Canadian command until 2009 and considered “one of the best trauma hospitals in the world," with the subsequent US command “continuing the tradition of providing excellent care,” according to the 2010 Surgeon General’s Report.
"The battle was just outside the gate and the base was attacked every day," McVicar said. "They'd lob missiles at the base three or four times a day, and a couple times they tore down the fence and charged into the base. But U.S. gunships would go up and they'd be decimated."
McVicar described the carnage for the Americans last year as "the worst trauma since Vietnam, worse than Iraq."
"Most of the injuries were due to IEDs that occurred right outside the base," he said. "The chopper would pick them up and you'd have them within 5 to 10 minutes of the attack."
"I felt sorry for all these young men from the States. Nineteen, 20, 21 years old. There were lots getting killed last year. These soldiers, they'd touch your heart. They come in full of holes and you try and stop them bleeding, but they end up dying."
"The ones that weren't killed, the standard injury was both legs and an arm off," he said. "It's sad. They have to go home."
He dealt with many American soldiers and some Canadians, but also with Afghan civilians and captured Taliban.
"Those guys were pretty scared," McVicar said about the injured Taliban, "I don't know what they'd been told about us. They were small guys, 140 pounds with beards. I treated them the same as everyone else." Recovered Taliban were sent to Bagram jail as prisoners of war.
"And the Afghan people, living in tents, poor, not a lot of food ... they get shot," he said. "You don't realize how lucky we are here, there's not much to complain about."
"The first time I was there in 2007, there were lots of Afghan civilians killed and hurt, a lot of kids. It was madness, the whole thing."
"To amputate a limb, it was tough," he said. "There was one gal, 27 years old, a mom. She lost her two kids in a fire and I had to amputate her left arm. She was also blinded with shrapnel in her eyes."
"There was a young girl blown up by a land mine. Her two brothers were killed and her dad brought her in. A shepherd. She started to die and she needed her leg amputated, but her dad didn't want me to. She went downhill the next day and she was going to die: we had to take it off. We did, and she recovered, but she was blinded as well," he said. "Shrapnel in both eyes."
"We sent her to Kabul, to a French ophthalmologist. Hopefully she gets her eyes back. Seven years old, with one leg and no eyesight. It's madness. You don't realize what war is until you see it," he said. "We see the war in newscasts, but it doesn't affect you until you see someone die in front of you. They're not hunting deer; each army is hunting each other."
"It was tough," he said. "You get tired of the death. I was glad to come home. Then you come home and it takes a while to unwind from all that."
Before he became a doctor, McVicar earned a degree in chemical engineering through the ROTP (Reserve Officer Training Plan) and then worked as a Lieutenant in the Canadian Army.
"I got out in 1981 and went on to medical school," he recalled. "In 2006 I saw an article in the Canadian Medical Journal that there were only 4 or 5 Canadian Army surgeons and they were getting burned out. So I called the Department of National Defence and told them I was a former officer and I'd be happy to help. I didn't expect to hear back from them, but within 4 months I was over in Afghanistan. They were very, very thankful. It gave the army doctors a break."
Lieutenant Colonel Colin MacKay, McVicar's commanding officer, said McVicar's "expertise and professionalism were called into play on numerous occasions, and many patients that passed through the hospital significantly benefited from his presence. [He] was a tremendous asset for the Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit under difficult operational circumstances."
McVicar was shy about his medal and asked that it just be mailed out to him, but Captain Timothy Kavanagh "flew all the way here with his full dress uniform to present it to me,” McVicar said. “It was great."
The ceremony took place at the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail, where McVicar works in addition to Kootenay Lake Hospital in Nelson.
McVicar might also be known to local sports fans as a serious amateur athlete who competes regularly in Olympic distance triathlons. "I usually do seven to ten every summer," he said. McVicar’s best time is two hours 19 minutes to complete a 1.5 km swim, a 40 km bike, and a 10 km run, and this summer he completed eight races.
News aficionados may also recall the November 2005 incident in which McVicar and another BC doctor and his wife were sailing off the coast of Venezuela when five pirates boarded and looted their 13-metre sailboat, tying the trio up and holding them at gunpoint for "20 minutes of hell."