N.C. Ophthalmologist Helps Train Iraqi, Afghan Doctors

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Lt. Col. Mike Brennan retired from the Army more than two decades ago. He settled his family into a quiet North Carolina community where he built a successful ophthalmology practice. But one phone call from a friend encouraged him to go to Iraq. Brennan will go to Afghanistan later this month.


Dr. Mike Brennan retired from the Army more than two decades ago as a lieutenant colonel. He settled his family into a quiet North Carolina community where he built a successful ophthalmology practice. Then a phone call from a friend sent him back to a country at war. Jessica Jones reports from North Carolina Public Radio's WUNC.

JESSICA JONES: Vietnam veteran Mike Brennan thought the adventures of his younger years were over. He spent his free time enjoying his grandchildren and golfing. But one day in 2003, Mike Brennan's best friend from West Point, who just happened to be the Army's surgeon general, James Peak, called him at work.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel MIKE BRENNAN (Ophthalmologist): I came home that night and I said, Helen, I think I have surprise. The good news is I'm not going to Afghanistan. The bad news I'm going to Iraq instead.

JONES: Peak wanted Brennan to help Iraqi doctors further their medical training. Under Saddam Hussein, physicians were isolated from the West and weren't able to keep up with the latest surgeries and treatments. Helen, Brennan's wife of 43 years, went through a range of emotions when she heard the news.

Ms. HELEN BRENNAN: I first got sad and cried. That didn't work. Then I got mad and yelled. That didn't work. Then I said accept it, because Mike has a gift to be able to do this kind of work.

JONES: So Brennan took a two and a half month leave of absence from his practice and headed for Baghdad. He began touring hospitals with military escorts, but soon decided it was better to travel as the civilian physician he is. Ophthalmologist Tara Rashid(ph) of Al-Kindi Hospital in Baghdad says she was shocked when Brennan just showed up alone at her office.

Dr. TARA RASHID (Ophthalmologist): So he came with a taxi, no HumVee, nothing with him, no shield, no army. Where's the army behind that guy? Nobody.

JONES: Brennan started recruiting physicians, across specialties in the United States and Britain, to train their Iraqi colleagues. The next year, with the help of funding from the military and the Department of State, Brennan and Rashid helped organize a continuing education conference in the green zone for Iraqi physicians so they would stay and practice in their homeland.

Lt. Col. BRENNAN: The project in general has kept spirits up. There is a hope that things are getting better, that there's international relations, there's international input. So maybe I don't need to take my family and leave the country.

JONES: In 2006, Brennan and Rashid joined forces with a large nonprofit group called International Medical Corps that sponsored continuing medical education. Since then, about 3000 physicians across Iraq have attended dozens of week-long conferences, observing the latest surgeries.

Brennan's colleague Tara Rashid praises him for giving Iraqi physicians hope.

Dr. RASHID: I think we were blessed, because sometimes when you think the world has ended all around you - war, violence - all of the sudden you have people that traveled 10,000 miles to be there, to talk to you.

JONES: Brennan, who is now 65, says the work has given him a new purpose.

Lt. Col. BRENNAN: So the next third of my life is going to be going to other places and sharing experiences and sharing connections. I can try to get people to be friends and share mutual resources.

JONES: That's what Brennan hopes to do in Afghanistan later this month. General David Petraeus has asked him and two other American doctors to travel to Kabul to help physicians there.

For NPR News, I'm Jessica Jones.

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