When Duty Calls, His Promise Endures

At Walter Reed, Max Koppel, right, talks with former nurse Chamsi Brown and retired Col. Harry McClellan.
At Walter Reed, Max Koppel, right, talks with former nurse Chamsi Brown and retired Col. Harry McClellan. (Photos By Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 19, 2005

Dwight D. Eisenhower was commander in chief the first time Max Koppel came to Washington to serve his country. It was during that ambiguous interlude between the Korean and Vietnam wars, and truth be told, Koppel's sign-up as a public health doctor was as much preemptive as voluntary. The young medical resident figured he would fulfill a two-year obligation, avoid the riskier alternatives, go home and pursue his real career.

But careers have a way of taking unexpected twists. Nearly a half-century later, those have somehow brought the now white-haired physician back to Washington, again in service to his country. At an age and stage when most people are settled into retirement, the 71-year-old urologist is deployed to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. His assignment: Support the Iraq war-thinned ranks of the huge military hospital.

Every week, Capt. Max Koppel reports enthusiastically for duty. Many of the battle-wounded there are young enough to be his grandchildren.

"You see these kids, these soldiers," he said. "You've got to love these people."

His tour at Walter Reed, on track to top more than 350 days before it ends, follows nearly three dozen shorter tours across the United States since the late 1980s. Koppel filled in at a small county hospital in eastern North Dakota, traveled to Alaska to help after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, assisted at a migrant worker camp along Idaho's Snake River. He rotated several times into rural Alabama and several more into remote corners of Montana, where he cared for Native American families.

He did all this as an inactive reservist of the U.S. Public Health Service, which commonly sends its doctors, dentists, nurses, therapists and even veterinarians to far-flung places. About 1,500 are like Koppel, very involved with the inactive reserves, and under a 2002 memorandum of understanding with the Department of Defense, a few others also have been asked to accept assignments at Walter Reed or locations related to the fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Koppel stands above the rest as "our all-time hero," in the words of Capt. James Sayers, director of the health service's Office of Reserve Affairs. Last fall, U.S. Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona honored Koppel with an "exemplary service medal." Its recipient is modest about the distinction, saying with a smile, "You know, there are bad examples . . . " And he is similarly self-deprecating about the accidental path that led him to these many deployments.

None would have happened had he not overlooked procedure with his original public health commission nearly five decades ago.

"It's the most remarkable thing," Koppel said last week. "I never resigned. I don't know why. It must have been a paper that just went by me."

Every Monday, he leaves his suburban Philadelphia home in the 4 a.m. darkness to head south on Interstate 95. By 7:30 a.m., he is through Walter Reed's front gate in Northwest Washington and ready to begin seeing patients there and at the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home several miles away. He hangs up his heavy black topcoat, the one that looks military with its quartet of gold stripes on each sleeve and three rows of commendation bars over the breast pocket. He dons his white medical coat, logs into the hospital computer and starts his day.

"He's definitely part of the department," urology resident Joe Sterbis said. "I think being here really invigorates him."

Every Tuesday evening, Koppel is back on the highway. Although he no longer has a private practice, every Wednesday morning finds him back at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, seeing patients.

As long as the military needs him, he plans to maintain his schedule. He has a ruddy, affable face that bears resemblance to John Updike's, a quick step and energy enough to make that schedule seem feasible for quite a while. Koppel apparently is not one to stay home and do projects -- he realized that even semi-retirement was not for him when he found himself in front of the television one afternoon, watching the movie "Paint Your Wagon" -- and a couple of health scares of his own in recent years made even more worthwhile the public good he felt he could do. "It's revitalizing," Koppel said. "It's rededicating."

Just the other day, for example, he alternated between a 50-year-old Army sergeant, who was doing convoy security in Iraq until his legs began swelling mysteriously this summer, and a retired colonel, a few months shy of 90, whose war stories include the Battle of the Bulge on the German-Belgian border during World War II.

"It's the reason I love coming in," Koppel said between appointments. "These people deserve care."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company