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20 years after Iraq war, this former Army medic is still reeling

Sergio Alfaro kickstarted his dreams of working in medicine by being an Army medic, but what he experienced in Iraq changed his path forever.
Posted at 8:53 PM, Mar 20, 2023

It's been two decades since American soldiers stepped foot on Iraqi soil to fight in the war on terror, where they'd go on an ill-fated quest for weapons of mass destruction and topple Saddam Hussein.

But for some of those who served there, 20 years feels like yesterday.

"It's hard to get those kinds of blinders off, you know?" said Sergio Alfaro, a former Army medic. "I call them my blood-tinted lenses, where I can't see anything but the horrendousness of human beings and not so much the beauty that really does surround our lives."

Alfaro signed up for the Army in June 2000. At 17 years old, he wasn't even old enough to register; his parents had to sign a consent form. He was looking for a path to medicine and wasn't thinking about actually being sent off to war.

"During that time it's like, well, how would a war even begin?" Alfaro said. "Everything was kind of seemingly at a stalemate, like everybody had their pieces of prosperity and happiness."

But in the blink of an eye, the war did begin. Two-and-a-half years after America was attacked, almost at the end of his required service, Alfaro was on a plane to Iraq as an Army medic.

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To this day his memories are vivid — of his battle buddies losing their lives, of other American soldiers acting in unthinkable ways.

"It has to do with the dead Iraqi policeman," Alfaro said. "At one point, some of the medical team I was working with at the trauma center decided to go to the back and actually practice a thoracotomy on the cadaver. It's the face I'm gonna see for the rest of my life, you know, and nobody could see it, especially as they're sticking a spatula down his throat and trying to get the tubes and all that sort of stuff. I wanted to tell them to stop, but I couldn't. I froze."

Alfaro reported the incident to his captain who made sure it wouldn't happen again.

As he was experiencing trauma in real time, he was aware that back home there were very mixed feelings about his service, his sacrifice and why we were at war in Iraq.

When he got home, he ignored that continued controversy, barreling through the guilt of the encounter with the dead policeman with a laser focus on his goals.

Alfaro later achieved a lifelong dream by earning a spot at Harvard Medical School. But some of the medical rotations took him right back to the desert — whether it was listening to patients at the VA or if a group of doctors were rushing to help a patient in the hospital.

"It was like I was hearing people running again," he said. "I was like back there in Iraq, and I was just back in the Humvee. And I was just trying to hold on to the chair that I was on and just try not to get swept away with all the different memories. I was like, 'I can do this. I can do this. I can get through this. This is, you know, there's going to be hard parts. It's going to be easy parts.'"

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Alfaro dropped out after multiple medical leaves of absence for his PTSD; his wounds from war had followed him home. 

With that decision, the future he imagined for himself — the very reason he went to war in the first place — died. Some days he wishes he never went.

"It's something I still grieve about to this day," Alfaro said. "I always thought that being a doctor was the thing I was made for. I love science. I love medicine. That love has never gone away."

Alfaro says he went to a dark place for a long time — isolating himself, not working, not leaving the house, just trying to keep himself alive.

In Iraq, it was about surviving, not dying. At home, it turns out, it was the same.

He says his loved ones got him to a place where he can actually live.

"They could see me to the core of who I am," Alfaro said.

He tells his story so others will do the same and so that the number of soldiers lost because of the war in Iraq doesn't keep growing.

"Maybe other people have said, 'Oh yeah, he went to war. He's not the same.' And I just hope you don't forget that the core of who they are is still there, and it's just buried," Alfaro said.