Military Matters by Steve Vogel

Film Comes to the Defense of Embattled School

Terry Sanders, left, director of the new documentary
Terry Sanders, left, director of the new documentary "Fighting for Life," with executive producer Tammy Alvarez, president of Friends of USU. (Photos By Michel Du Cille -- The Washington Post)

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By Steve Vogel
Thursday, July 5, 2007

As it is for many soldiers, being injured in Iraq was a life-changing experience for Army 2nd Lt. Christian Labra.

Labra, a West Point graduate, was an artillery officer with the 1st Armored Division when both legs and his pelvis were broken in a combat-related accident in 2003.

Recuperating at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, Labra began tagging along as his doctor treated the steady stream of wounded soldiers flowing back from Iraq and Afghanistan. Watching the care given to fellow soldiers was a powerful experience.

"One day the doctor said, 'Hey, have you ever thought of medical school?' " Labra recalled.

Labra had planned to study law and join the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps. Instead, he recently finished his first year at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, the nation's only military medical school. "My doctor was a USU grad, and the care I had was so good I decided I wanted to be a doctor," he said.

The university is featured prominently in a new documentary film about military medicine, "Fighting for Life," by award-winning director Terry Sanders. The film premiered in May at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington and is scheduled for general release in October.

The film shows students receiving rigorous training and education at the university. It depicts military doctors and nurses treating wounded soldiers in the battlefield environment of Iraq, then follows them through treatment -- including at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"The film was to explore why, in spite of the school's great value, excellence and reputation, Congress and the Department of Defense kept trying to close it," Sanders said. Critics of the university have questioned whether the money spent operating it could better be used to send the students to civilian medical schools.

Sanders said the war in Iraq expanded the scope of the film. "It became an odyssey into the world of military medicine," he told the audience at the premiere in May.

Students and faculty members at the university attended a special screening there. Some students grumbled about having to go see a movie in the midst of exam preparations, Labra said, but when the film ended, no one wanted to leave.

"Everyone was riveted through the whole thing," Labra said. "We're right in the midst of what they're trying to describe."

For Labra, the film was an affirmation of his decision to become an Army doctor.


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