Last week the Army announced it’ll be removing more than 2,631 positions from the 4th Brigade Combat Team’s 25th Infantry Division stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson. It’s part of the military’s nation-wide force reduction. Amid the cuts, the rarely mentioned role of military medicine is also changing.
By Army standards, Major Kim Edhegard (“It means ‘old garden’ in Swedish.”) is a bit of a weird egg.
We spoke in the shower-room of a wooden outbuilding near a military training ground in Northeast Australia. Edhegard is a ranking officers on a multinational training operation here, two hours by dirt-roads from Shoalwater Bay. He’d been up for a few hours after sleeping in the open air that night. “For breakfast this morning I had some sort of jalapeno meat thing out of an MRE,” he laughed, “in the dark.”
Though sturdily built enough to fill out his fatigues, his careful demeanor and bright green eyes mark him slightly apart. Edhegard came to the Army by way of medicine.
“I trained as a dermatologist at UNC Chapel Hill,” Edhegard recounted, “and then I trained in immunodermatlogy at Duke.”
He spent his formative years in southern Alabama, then signed up for the military after 9/11–in part to help pay medical school. In 2011, Edhegard deployed to Afghanistan, followed by a stint at Walter Reed before getting attached to the 4-25th Brigade Combat Team at JBER.
“Now I jump out of airplanes and do combat medicine in Australia, I guess,” he added.
Doctors are scarce in the Army, and often inhabit a different world than the troops they repair. But like every other airborne soldier on the mission, Edhegard jumped out of a low-flying cargo plane after 19 hours in transit from Anchorage.
Though mostly safe, parachuting from just a thousand feet in the air strapped to a hundred pounds of equipment is far from easy. On the ground, Edhegard felt hot and vaguely disoriented. “By the time I figured out where I was,” he said, “it was 10:30 in the morning in Australia.”
That’s when he got to work: checking soldiers for broken bones and sustained during the jump.
“Nobody was really moving like I wanted them to,” Edhegard said. He saw some Australian soldiers on a dirt-bike, asked to borrow it, then began zooming around the landing zone to check on patients. Rigging up a sled, he transported a small number of injured troops to a field hospital the Australians had set up nearby.
This is a far cry from Edhegart’s trained specialty: immunodermatology. Basically, skin diseases.
“My brigade kind of understands that I’m a little bit of a special flower,” Edhegard explained, “so they let me go back to Walter Reed and read biopsies every few months.” In the clinic at JBER, he sees enough rashes, moles, and hair-loss problems to stay occupied. But these are fairly conventional dermatology cases–not the advanced and abnormal anomalies he studied to to treat.
Since World War 2, airborne units have been marked by their machismo: one part bravery, another part reckless abandon, with reputations for ego and hard-drinking. Not exactly the characteristics that come to mind when one thinks of a dermatologist.
“They were a little worried when I showed up,” Edhegard said of his brigade. “They said ‘we thought you were gonna have inch-thick glasses and be 110 pounds.'”
Partly from self-consciousness, and partly from intrigue, Edhegart leapt in with both feet. Literally. It gave him credibility, along with first-hand knowledge about the injuries he regularly treats.
“When I first got here I was like ‘why are these guys always getting themselves injured?'” Edhegard recalled. “And now, I mean, I’ve had my first airborne concussion–and a few other injuries.
Though new to parachuting, at 35 Edhegard feels the damage it does the knees, hips, and back–especially for soldiers that have been doing it for years. As we spoke, evidence of the physical toll makes itself known.
“Excuse me I knocked a tooth out a couple weeks back, so that’s a fake tooth there,” Edhegard said, turning away to adjust a piece of his mouth. It had been giving him difficulty talking, recently.
“It’s getting replaced,” he laughed. “I’ll be a bionic dermatologist.”
The military does not have enough doctors, and that is how a skin specialists ended up doing combat medicine. As the Army contracts in the current draw-down, it is trying to figure out how to do more with less.
“Doctors–they cost a lot,” Edhegard said, “so there’s some push to reduce the medical force.”
But there are personality differences, too. After years of grueling post-grad study, not many doctors clamor to go through basic training. The Army has incentive programs, but Edhegart thinks the organization might have more luck if they refined the profile of who they’re after.
“More soldiers than scientists,” Edhegard explained, citing ex-athletes with sports-medicine experience as one potential pool. “Those people do exist, but they see the Army as super regimented.”
And that, Edhegard said, is merely a problem of perception. “Like I said, I’m getting paid the same as my dermatologist friends at Walter Reed, and I’m skydiving into Australia and camping out.”
As a C-130 transport plane hummed to the ground nearby, Edhegard tossed in one last thing, almost as an afterthought.
“I’ve got one life to live, and (my motto is) make the most of it,” he said. “I say ‘special flower,’ but at the end of the day I’m just another soldier”
And with that, the dirt-bike dermatologist hustled out to pack his bag and catch a plane.