FORT BELVIOR, Va. – Ten years ago, Army Capt. Christian Labra’s spirit was as broken as his body.
A U.S. Military Academy graduate deployed to Iraq just a few months after the initial invasion, he was pumped up about the importance of the mission and the close camaraderie he felt with his fellow 1st Armored Division soldiers.
All that came crumbling down on him -- literally -- during a night patrol outside Baghdad in late 2003. Labra and another soldier, searching out the source of mortar attacks that had been pummeling U.S. forces, approached a cinder block wall that blocked a known weapons cache.
They pulled a pipe that extended from the wall, suspecting that the insurgents used it to scale the wall and get to the trove. The wall immediately collapsed, breaking both Labra’s legs and his pelvis. He got a personal introduction to battlefield medicine and wounded warrior care as he was whisked from Baghdad to Kuwait and ultimately, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Looking back to the ordeal, Labra said he was struck by the skill and compassion he encountered from the moment of his injury. He remembered the combat medic who rushed to care for him at the scene. The Humvee driver who did everything within his power, albeit it unsuccessfully, to avoid bumps in the Baghdad streets while hurrying Labra to the combat support hospital. The medic who handed him a satellite phone when he woke up in the middle of the night, one leg now encased in a metal contraption, and urged him to call his worried parents to let them know he was OK.
That was just the beginning of Labra’s exposure to military medicine. He praised the professionalism of medevac crews who braved enemy rockets to ferry him to Baghdad International Airport, then on to Kuwait and Germany. The labor and delivery nurse who stayed beyond her shift when he arrived at Landstuhl to wash his body and give him the first shave he’d had in days. The hospital roommate who, despite his own excruciating injuries, hobbled to Labra’s bedside to comfort him during a particularly fitful nightmare.
“There was so much compassion, so much caring,” he said. “It was just a perfect storm of good care.”
And perhaps most influential of all, Labra remembers the orthopedic doctor, Army Maj. John Friedland. Also a West Point graduate, Friedland treated Labra’s broken bones and helped him realize that he could turn the worst experience of his life into something positive.
“He was exactly the guy I needed at that time in my life,” Labra said.
Labra arrived at Landstuhl feeling like the bottom had fallen out of his world. “One day I was walking through Baghdad. I was in charge of 35 to 40 guys, and I took that very seriously. And the next day I was the guy who was leaving early, before all of them, on a plane to Landstuhl,” he said. “I felt bad for myself. I was depressed. I felt like a failure.” While he struggled to shake the self-loathing, Labra watched the hospital staff tend to a steady stream of combat-wounded troops.
Because his unit was based in Germany at the time, Labra was among the rare patients not quickly transported on to the United States. He became a familiar face at Landstuhl, and the staff took pleasure in getting to see his slow but steady progress.
While coming to terms with his unexpected turn of events, Labra said he found inspiration in his caregivers.
He’d always planned to one day go to law school, then join the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps. But seeing the life-changing care military medical practitioners provide every day, Labra found himself considering a career in medicine.
“I know how thankful I felt toward them, and saw how rewarding it had to be, and I know it had to be a good job,” he said.
Friedland encouraged Labra, inviting him along as he treated the flurry of patients that arrived with wounds from the Fallujah offensive in Iraq. The rest of the Landstuhl staff, recognizing Labra and excited about his new interest in medicine, stoked his ambitions by sharing their own experiences.
“They all wanted to show me how great it was to be doing what they were doing,” he said. “That experience really cemented for me that this was what I wanted to do.”
In many ways, Labra called his decision to go to medical school the key to his own emotional healing. “I had this hole I needed to fill,” he said. “And I realized that by going into medicine, I could take my own experience and make this bad thing that had happened good.”
Labra, who moved on to an assignment as operations officer for a recruiting battalion in Albany, N.Y., started taking night courses to get the prerequisites needed for medical school. Difficult as it was to juggle both, it got him what he wanted: acceptance into the same medical school Friedland had attended, the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
The university, on the grounds of Walter Reed National Military Center in Bethesda, Md., is the only school of its kind dedicated to educating military doctors, graduate nurses and other specialized health-care professionals. This past spring, U.S. News & World Report identified the university’s F. Edward Hebert School of Medicine as a top-tier medical school in its “Best Graduate Schools 2014” rankings.
Labra said he chose USU because he knew from the start that he wanted to be a military doctor. His dream, he said, was to become as skillful and compassionate a doctor as Friedland had been to him. “I wanted to emulate this guy I look up to so much,” he said. “I was very indebted to my doctor, and I felt that I didn’t want to squander all this experience that I had gained.”
After four years of medical school, from 2006 to 2010, Labra chose to specialize in family medicine. It’s a field he said will give him an opportunity to build relationships with his patients and to become their ally in addressing their medical needs.
Next week, Labra will complete his three-year residency at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital here. As he reports to his first assignment as a board-certified family physician at Kleber Kaserne in Germany, he recognizes that he has come full circle, from patient to caregiver.
“When I think back on everything, how could I not have gone into medicine?” he said. “From the moment I got hurt, everyone who took such wonderful care of me and motivated me to defy the odds, making this all seem like a foregone conclusion.”
Labra said his only hope is that he can live up their example as he helps patients confront through their own medical challenges.
“I am where I am because people took really, really good care of me, and I am so incredibly grateful,” he said. “Now, as a doctor, I want to be the kind of ally who can lead someone through the dark. To be able to do that is really powerful. It is awesome when it works.”