LONGMEADOW – Three years ago Dr. Martin Lesser was busy tending to the patients in his solo family medical practice in Holyoke when he learned of the need for doctors in Iraq from a health care recruiter at an event celebrating the 20th anniversary of his medical school graduation.
“He basically looked me in the eye and said, ‘We have a physician shortage and our soldiers desperately need you, can you help?” Dr. Lesser recalls.
And help he did.
Now a major in the Massachusetts National Guard, Dr. Lesser arrived in Iraq last October and will remain there until the end of this month providing medical care to American soldiers at the Troop Medical Clinic at Forward Operating Base Adder in Tallil, Iraq.
Dr. Lesser’s journey to Iraq did not happen overnight. In December of 2008, after an application process that took him an entire year, Dr. Lesser enlisted in the National Guard as a medical officer with the rank of Major. Last September, he reported for 120 days of active duty, starting out at Fort Benning in Georgia. He later headed to San Antonio, Texas for pre-deployment training at the Army Medical Headquarters at Fort Sam Houston. He, along with around 30 other doctors and physicians assistants headed for Iraq or Afghanistan, spent five days under training in a course called Tactical Combat Medical Care.
Before heading to the Middle East, Dr. Lesser, 59, who lives with his wife Joan in Longmeadow where they raised their three children — Eric, 25, Rebecca, 22, and Julia, 16 – had to make sure his patients would be taken care of in his absence.
He sought the help of other local physicians and physician’s assistants to cover his patients while he was away.
“When other physicians heard why I needed their coverage they felt they had to do something,” Dr. Lesser said.
“I simply said that I’d been ‘called up.’ Can you come to my office and see my patients for one or two or three sessions…for the 12 weeks I’ll be away’? Patients were told the same thing and that a coverage system was being worked out,” he explained.
Dr. Lesser said that the support of both the doctors covering his practice and of his patients has helped him to be able to serve in Iraq.
“The doctors felt proud to have to rearrange their schedules to do this and the patients were more than willing to put up with this type of inconvenience for the sake of deployed soldiers,” he said.
Dr. Lesser had never served in the military before.
“I turned 18 in 1969 but I was given a draft deferment because I was a college student and when I finished school America had withdrawn from Viet Nam and the draft had been abolished,” he recalled. “I always felt that my deferment, that was given simply because I was in college, was extremely unfair and that ethically it might have been wrong to have even requested it. So almost 40 years later, after becoming a physician and raising a family, when I was again ‘asked’ (not drafted) to make a limited commitment to provide medical care for troops I couldn’t imagine saying no.”
The work of Dr. Lesser and his medical colleagues – confined to members of the American military – deals mostly with ill soldiers.
“Even during armed conflicts most of the medical needs are illness, and injuries and trauma caused by war are limited and episodic,” he explained. “Military medicine tries to limit their contact with the Iraqi Nationals with the goal of encouraging the Iraqis to develop their own health care system.”
Dr. Lesser said that he has not seen much of Iraq since he arrived in that country.
“Unless you’re on a military mission you don’t leave the base,” he said. “That’s the reality of insurgency warfare.
When not working, Dr. Lesser and the other physicians he works with, go to the gym, watch DVDs, e-mail and skype.
Dr. Lesser and his family have belonged to Sinai Temple since they moved to Longmeadow in 1992. The three Lesser children had their bar and bat mitzvahs at Sinai Temple in Springfield.
Dr. Lesser isn’t the only one in the family serving his country – his son Eric works in the White House, most recently as assistant to Senior Advisor David Axelrod.
In his most recent blog entry, dated Jan. 9, Dr. Lesser was counting down his final 30 days in Iraq:
“As I enter the last 30 days of my deployment, I want to thank the army of people it took to get me deployed and keep me deployed,” he said, citing his wife, Joan, his children, extended family members, and the medical staff at his practice.