TAJI, Iraq – First, do no harm. Then, in your 40s, leave the comforts of small-town life and join the Army.
Lt. Col. David Romine, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, followed the example set by his parents, who through lives given to public service, taught their children the importance of giving back to the community.
Now in retirement, his parents continue to donate time to public service as their son, at age 46, continues to serve his country as a brigade surgeon deployed to Iraq.
After a stint as a naval flight officer immediately after college in the 1980s, Romine completed medical school in 1992 and entered private practice in the poor and medically under-served Mississippi Delta in 1993. The county had only two doctors, and no ambulance service while he practiced there, he said.
From a small town barber shop on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he watched in horror the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on television.
Early the next year, Romine, then 41, was in the Army doing his part to help with the global fight against terrorism. He joined the Army medical corps as a major, because of a formula based on prior service, his time in private practice and his education level.
“My family has always been supportive, but they were reticent about my joining the Army,” he said. “I think they figured I had already checked that box by serving in the Navy. Since they’ve met the friends that I’ve made in the Army, they have seen how we operate and have seen how much I like it. I, now, have their full support.”
Although returning to the military meant leaving behind the small communities he had served for nearly a decade, Romine felt he was needed more elsewhere.
“The need to take care of Soldiers trumped everything,” Romine said. “They were putting their lives on the line for my family and our country. Having been in aviation previously, I wanted to do aviation medicine.”
As the brigade surgeon for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, Romine, who now calls Houston home, and his team of battalion surgeons, aeromedical physician assistants and medics, play a key role in maintaining the health and physical well being of the pilots and crew members who provide vital air combat support to ground troops in Multinational Division-Baghdad, as well as the maintenance and support Soldiers in the brigade.
“First and foremost is prevention,” Romine said. “Flight surgeons strive to help keep aviators flying in peak condition. Crew rest, or fighter management, is a key part of this. So, we work closely with commanders and safety officers to affect our mission.”
Although he is treating the aviators and Soldiers in a combat zone, Romine said that, in some ways, providing first-rate care is easier in Iraq – even at a small forward operating base like Camp Taji.
“Having better access to more medical assets on Taji than I did in the Mississippi Delta, it makes the 10-minute flight to the nearest level three hospital in Baghdad actually a comfort, by comparison, rather than a concern,” he said. “It was a 45-minute ride down a two-lane highway in a pickup truck to my hospital in Mississippi.”
Romine said there are also some similarities between private practice and his work as the brigade surgeon.
“Though there are obvious differences in the two practice environments, there are also surprising similarities that shouldn’t really be so surprising if you think about them,” he said. “No matter where we are, who we’re with or what mission is in front of us – whether Soldiers or farmers – our patients are humans who have needs to which we in medicine are to be particularly sensitive. It is the essential element that binds all work in medicine, that of easing suffering, promoting health and meeting each person, where they are, one at a time, as they present to us.”
Although he initially planned to serve for a couple of years and then return to private practice, he has since decided to make the Army a career.
“On top of everything, along with the deep satisfaction in knowing that I’m helping to take care of the folks who are putting their lives on the line for my family and country, it’s the relationships with people of similar commitment to public service – of which my family practices and raised me to do – that has kept me interested in continuing to serve,” Romine said. “The multi-disciplinary environment of the military is something you just don’t get in private practice. That’s what is keeping me in. I plan to make this a career, and I’m thankful to be able to do so.”