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Elderly psychiatrist says he no longer feels bulletproof

Posted: Tuesday, December 28, 2004

TEMPLE, Texas - After spending three months in Iraq, it's not memories of the 120-degree heat or sounds of distant explosions that haunt psychiatrist Paul Hill.

It's the soldiers: a young man who showed up at Hill's makeshift office with his uniform and boots still splattered with his friend's blood, another shaken after seeing his friend decapitated during a convoy bombing.

Hill said one commander told him he felt an incredible sense of guilt because his troops had been injured three times in attacks in one week, but he kept going on missions - although he vomited before each one.

Hill said he was a bit surprised by his sometimes tearful reactions to their stories. After all, he thought he had seen it all in his 71 years - from his 20 years in the Army, including a year in Vietnam, to working about 30 years as a psychiatrist, sometimes treating older veterans.

''People over here have no idea how much stress these guys are under,'' said Hill, who returned to central Texas in early November. ''An awful lot of these soldiers are on the road every day, and it would be unusual not to get shot at. ... They said, 'We feel like sitting ducks.'''

Going to Iraq was not something Hill initially planned. A postcard delivered from the military last year asked retired doctors to volunteer their service. He thought someone had made a mistake - that he was too old, even for a non-combat role.

When he was told that age didn't matter, he still didn't sign up right away. He carried the folded card in his pocket for months, struggling with the decision to become part of something he had grown to deeply oppose.

''I think it was a big mistake (going to war), but it isn't the soldiers' fault,'' Hill said. ''They didn't ask for it, but they're over there, and the soldiers need some help. I thought I could help them.''

So Hill signed up for a year of active duty, serving the first three months in Iraq. He will work the next nine months at Fort Hood in Killeen, near San Antonio, counseling soldiers at the Darnell Army Community Hospital.

The general age limit in the Army is 55, but that limit does not apply to senior officers or volunteers, said Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty, an Army spokesman. The oldest people serving in Iraq are volunteer doctors, but the Army cannot track who is the oldest, Hilferty said.

Twenty-eight volunteer doctors have served in Iraq since the war began, and nine of those remain on active duty, said Jaime Cavazos, a spokesman with U.S. Army Medical Command.

Hill had to pass physical and mental exams, different from those for combat troops. Aside from slightly elevated blood pressure and prostate problems, he was in good shape. He has competed in 26 marathons, the most recent about a decade ago, and he has a daily exercise regimen of a 10-mile bike ride or a one-hour run.

After getting orders to deploy this summer, Hill spent a week at Fort Bliss in El Paso, where he got vaccinations, learned how to wear a gas mask and shot a 9 mm pistol at a firing range. He shaved his beard, leaving a neatly trimmed, white mustache, and got a crew cut.

In late July after a 26-hour flight, Hill stepped off a plane in Kuwait and was greeted with a blast of 145-degree air, much higher than the usual daily summer temperatures of 119 to 122.

He began his stint at the U.S. Army's Camp Cuervo in southeastern Baghdad, where he was the only full colonel. He lived in an air-conditioned building with about 10 rooms and a bathroom.

Hill always carried a pistol but never used it. When an alert for increased danger was issued - something that happened about a third of Hill's time in Iraq - everyone donned a helmet and 30-pound bulletproof vest when going outside.

Hill counseled soldiers in his office and prescribed medication, mostly antidepressants, he said. Aside from combat, soldiers talked to him about their worries - what was going on back home, whether their spouses were cheating on them, whether their children were OK.

But because Cuervo was a smaller camp, with a few thousand troops, Hill would go days without seeing patients. He and others passed the time reading books, watching DVDs and playing solitaire on the computer. Every few days Hill called or sent e-mails to his wife of 45 years.

Anabeth Hill said she lost some sleep during her husband's time in Iraq but her faith helped her cope with her fears.

''When I'd open the paper every morning and see the latest headlines, it was much more anxiety-producing for me than I expected,'' she said. ''I thought he was going to be safe; then once he got there, I saw the real danger that's everywhere.''

After two months, Hill moved to Baghdad's Camp Victory, the headquarters of the Army's 1st Cavalry Division and home to more than 32,000 military personnel. He lived in an air-conditioned trailer. He was much busier, seeing more soldiers who were serving on the front lines. Still, he said, many soldiers were reluctant to talk to him.

Once, after Hill counseled a couple of soldiers whose convoy had been ambushed, a commander asked him to visit the unit later that day to talk to others. No one showed up.

''Iraq is awash in testosterone. We're tough; even being tired is considered a weakness, so getting (psychiatric) help is hard for them,'' Hill said.

Hill grew accustomed to hearing explosions but always felt a bit tense. His only close call came in October, when mortar blasted a shower trailer about 50 feet from his trailer. One soldier was killed, and Hill ran outside to see another soldier bleeding.

''Makes me feel 'mortal,''' Hill wrote Oct. 25 in an e-mail to his brother, Lucius Hill, of Riviera Beach, Fla. ''In fact, when I went to Vietnam I was 10 feet tall and bullet proof. I'm no longer bullet proof.''



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