The Insider

The Doctor Is In: To Iraq and Back

A retired two-star general, Ronald J. Silverman took a break from his dental practice in Alexandria to be the Army's top medical officer in Iraq.
A retired two-star general, Ronald J. Silverman took a break from his dental practice in Alexandria to be the Army's top medical officer in Iraq. (Dan Zak)
By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 6, 2008

Ronald D. Silverman is a dentist. And a retired two-star general. He operates his 32-year-old practice on the ground floor of an apartment complex in Alexandria. And he left that practice for more than a year to be the Army's top medical officer in Iraq.

From July 2006 to last August, Silverman helicoptered around the country and kept track of the health of 160,000 troops. His son, Matt, was there at the same time with the 82nd Airborne Division, walking the beat in Sadr City, bunking in old, plumbingless police stations. It's a family thing. Silverman's father, also a dentist, followed Gen. George S. Patton in Germany during World War II as a surgeon.

During his tour in Iraq, Silverman, 60, rallied the medical corps to respond to the surge of casualties caused by makeshift bombs, implemented procedural changes to adapt to new combat crises and survived two close calls. He is now back at his practice, in an office ornamented with sailing knickknacks, his camouflaged medical smock stowed in a closet, his war photos tacked next to a newspaper clipping about tooth abscesses. We recently caught up with him, and he shared his thoughts on being in Iraq and being back.

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You go over with a lot of apprehension and nervousness and also a lot of excitement. I kind of live two lives: I have a nice little dental practice, and next thing I know I'm running the world's largest trauma center.

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When a kid would be hurt, you could close your eyes and see your own child there. We would do anything that was needed. There was a burn victim that needed to get to San Antonio [for treatment]. I made sure we had a plane come pick him up and fly nonstop to San Antonio. Two mid-air refuelings just to get the kid there, right away. He lived. . . . I just said, "Do it. This is somebody's child. Do it."

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There was a rocket attack in the Korean Village, a bad neighborhood in Anbar province. We just landed in our helicopter, and they killed my pilot, and one of the other soldiers was hurt. It was me and another physician, and we couldn't save the pilot's life. That was pretty traumatic.

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I got a house to live in -- one of Saddam's. The windows were sandbagged all the way up. It was like living in a cave. So I said, "This is [expletive], I'm going out there." I was on a ladder moving sandbags, and a rocket attack blew me off the ladder. Soldiers came running up, saying, "Are you okay? What do you want to do, what do you want to do?" I said, "I want to put the sandbags back."

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