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The Honor and the Privilege: Part I

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Editor’s note: This is the first in a four-part series of stories recognizing students, faculty and alumni of the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine who have served or are currently serving in the United States Armed Forces. Beyond their contributions to military medicine, these are the individuals who strengthen our organization in innumerable ways through their humility and daily dedication to put others before themselves. For that, we thank them.

 

Author's note: Throughout the process of interviewing Dr. David Tharp and the subsequent writing of this story, I became acutely aware of just how difficult it would be to accurately capture the magnitude of his service to this country, its military families and his own family. 

War itself is impossible to capture in words, and consequently, the sacrifices and experiences of those on the battlefield are many times difficult to describe exactly.  But this does not diminish how poignant—and relevant—those stories are.  If anything, it makes sharing these stories all the more necessary.

To gain the best insight into Dr. Tharp’s story, my suggestion to readers is, if at all possible, to meet Dr. Tharp (who will, upon meeting you, probably introduce himself simply as “David” because that’s the kind of man he is).  He is a consummate story-teller, and as 45 minutes turned into three hours, the privilege of hearing his stories was wholeheartedly mine.

So as I endeavor to tell you a part of Dr. Tharp’s story, I do so with his own advice.  “Do the best that you can.”  Okay, Doc.  Here goes.

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Dr. David Tharp in Kandahar“You sleep until the rockets go off.”

That’s what life was like in Kandahar, Afghanistan for David Tharp, Psy.D., from October 2010 until his return stateside in June 2011.

For six months, Tharp, a Major in the Air Force Reserve and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at the Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine, worked 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week at Kandahar Airfield (KAF), the world’s largest and busiest NATO base, the main military base in southern Afghanistan and home to roughly 30,000 military,  civilians and contractors.

Described as “triple-hatted,” Tharp served in the Joint Defense Operations Center (JDOC) as the Medical Advisor, Preventive Medicine Expert and Environmental Engineer at KAF and was one of two direct reports to KAF Commander Brigadier General Jeffrey B. Kendall.

In addition to being the hub of strategic airlifts, tactical air support and the staging and deployment of personnel and supplies, KAF is home to one of the best combat hospitals in the current theatre of operations in the Middle East.  The medical treatment facility is a $60 million dollar, state of the art, “Role 3” hospital, meaning that it handles the most critical casualties.

The physicians and staff here deal almost entirely with trauma, in most cases caused by explosions from improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Such injuries are gruesome—mangled limbs, filthy with dirt and debris blasted into the wound from the sheer force of the explosion.

“If you could make it to the Role 3 with a heartbeat, you had a 98 percent viability rate of survival…which for being in the middle of a warzone was an amazing thing,” said Tharp. “As the medical liaison between the  JDOC and Role 3, I was close to the flight line, an extremely busy runway where all medevac traffic comes in, so I saw many of the worst kinds of injuries…TBI, limbs destroyed from IED’s…and unfortunately, Afghan children seriously hurt or killed.”

“During rocket attacks, it was my job to identify those who were killed,” he said.

Tharp continued, “One particular night was very difficult, as 21 people were injured at a Dining Facility.  One soldier died in the attack, and it made it difficult to feel secure, even when trying to relax and enjoy some food.”

“I remember Skype-ing with [my wife] Katherine over the computer one day, and the rocket alarms went off,” said Tharp. “I didn’t want her to worry, so I just said, ‘I have to go now,’ and signed off quickly.”  Then it was back to work assessing any damage and identifying any casualties.

David Tharp and sonTwo months into his deployment in November 2010, Tharp received good news from home. Katherine, then living at home in central Texas with their two young boys, had been accepted to the TAMHSC College of Medicine Class of 2015 and would begin as a first-year medical student in July 2011.

“We were so thrilled,” said Tharp.  “We even celebrated in Kandahar!  I am so incredibly proud of her and all that she’s done to get to this point. After all the work she’d done—taking pre-med courses, moving five times in three years, dealing with my deployment, taking care of Joshua, age four, and Peyton, age three—getting accepted was an answer to prayer.”

For Tharp, the non-stop days continued. Among his many tasks, he worked with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (its oddly benign-sounding moniker ‘SHAPE’), the central command of NATO military forces, to procure an MRI machine for KAF—the first MRI in the theatre.

Then in April 2011, Tharp acquired transverse myelitis, a neurological ailment caused by inflammation across both sides of one segment of the spinal cord. The inflammation damages and can even destroy myelin, the fatty insulation that covers nerve cell fibers, causing nervous system scars that interrupt communications between the nerves in the spinal cord and the rest of the body.

In short, Tharp lost most of the mobility in his legs but stayed in theater for another month until his tour of duty was complete.  He was then medevaced to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany for an MRI and subsequent testing.

Now back home in central Texas, Tharp serves as a clinical and research psychologist at the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network Center of Excellence for Research on Returning War Veterans located at the VA hospital in Waco.  There he works directly with veterans and coordinates the distribution of research on veterans’ health care issues to help bridge the gap between research and clinical care.

Every other weekend, Katherine travels 50 miles from the TAMHSC College of Medicine campus in Temple to spend time with the family, and when she’s busy studying, he takes their sons to Temple to see her.

For Tharp’s tireless efforts to NATO, the Air Force and our country, he received the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the third highest Department of Defense award given. 

When asked why he chose to serve in such a dangerous environment like Afghanistan, Tharp offered this explanation. “When you go to war,” he said, “it changes you.” 

Then his face brightens. “You know, I’m a psychologist, I have a degree in computer engineering, and I’ve been a hospice chaplain,” he said.  “In the end, it all comes down to people and to use whatever gifts I’ve been given to make a direct impact on their lives.”