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DL doctor in Afghanistan

Dr. Stacey Smith joined the North Dakota Army National Guard 18 years ago, not just to receive financial assistance with medical school but also because of a sense of patriotism and adventure. SUBMITTED PHOTO


It’s the name of the game for military members and their loved ones, and while not all families in the Detroit Lakes area have a first-hand reason to remember that over the Memorial weekend, the Smiths do.

Stacey Smith is known to many around the area as Dr. Stacey Smith, the family practice physician who has diagnosed countless ear infections, strep throats, cuts and injuries, elderly issues, and just about every ailment his community has brought to him.

He’s famously quiet, but friendly.

But today as he sits half way across the world in the middle of a war zone in Kabul,

Afghanistan, he is better known as Colonel Smith, field surgeon with the North Dakota Army National Guard.

Although his unit — the 814th medical unit out of Bismarck – is not deployable, the desperate need for doctors over there makes him deployable as an individual.

And while the complexities of war may surround Smith at every turn, he knows exactly what he has to do.

What a soldier says

“My mission is simple,” said Smith. “Provide medical care to anyone that requires it within my area of operation.”

Smith is the only doctor in his particular location, assisted by a team of medics charged with taking care of sick or wounded soldiers serving there.

Smith, who has been a member of the guard for 18 years, doesn’t say much about any hard-ships encountered during this war-zone deployment, or the two other ones in Iraq.

Armed with a little dry humor, Smith finds the upside to being in a mountainous desert in an area known for violence.

“I don’t have to shovel snow,” he said.

Smith, who lives in the barracks and works behind two barricaded perimeters, says he feels safe where he is at.

“The biggest challenge for me is the relative lack of medical technology,” said Smith, who adds that at his practice at Sanford Health in Pelican Rapids, he is afforded the luxury of having access to equipment like MRI scanners.

“There are no available MRI scanners in Afghanistan,” he said. “This situation requires medical providers to use a different mindset when evaluating and treating soldiers.”

Smith is on orders for another 100-day deployment, a situation he knew he could be signing up for when he volunteered 18 years ago.

“All soldiers are volunteers,” said Smith. “The majority of soldiers have deployed multiple times.  I believe this speaks volumes about the soldiers and the importance of their mission.”

And when that mission is over for Smith, there is little pomp and circumstance when he returns from his individual deployments; no lime-light, no loud, dramatic stories.

He deploys quietly, does his job and returns home. Just like that. His heroism seems to fly under the radar, and according to his wife, that’s just the way he likes it.

What a family feels

It was Valentine’s Day when Smith left this time. This one was a heartbreaker.

His wife, Jen, and four daughters were saying goodbye again.

“I had been putting the idea off for a while, so when we got to the airport I was like, wow, this is really happening,” said 14-year-old Abbi, the oldest of the girls.

Thirteen-year-old Emily, who is typically the stoic one, like her father, broke down this time.

“I started to cry, and I think that made him start to cry,” said Emily, as Abbi added, “Yeah, and then when he started to cry, everybody did.”

But as the five little ladies went and had an emotional brunch after dropping their soldier off at the airport, they were handed a reminder.

“Two guys sitting behind us paid for our meal,” said Emily, as Jen added, “I felt like God knows what you need at that moment, and it made us realize that no matter what, there’s always something to be thankful for.”

The Smith ladies pressed on, like they had always done before.

Daily e-mails and weekend phone calls keep them in touch with their soldier, and while they can’t Skype from Afghanistan like they could during the last deployment in Iraq, that might be a good thing.

“I had to turn the volume off because I could hear the bombs, and he was like, ‘Oh, they’re far away,’ but then I could see the shaking (of the Skype camera), so it didn’t help,” said Jen. “I knew every time.”

Although Smith says doctors aren’t sent out in harm’s way, there is still an undeniable element of danger being in a war zone, a fact made clear when three American doctors were shot and killed in Kabul last month.

It wasn’t the same hospital as Smith, but it hit close to home for his girls.

“I got an e-mail from him saying he was alive and okay,” said Jen, “and because I know they watch CNN at the middle school, I had them pull the girls out of class to tell them that their dad was not hurt because if they heard, ‘Three American doctors killed in Kabul,’ they would have been a mess.”

The Smith girls, who all realize their dad’s deployments are much shorter than many in the military, still find it tough to deal with at night time.

Not only is there time to think about the missing man of the house, but also missing all the little things he “just does.”

Seven-year old Livy tried having his photo by her bed with her, until it got too hard.

“I miss him rubbing our heads,” she said, “and that’s when I ask him lots of questions.”

And little girls have lots of questions that daddies tend to have all the answers to.

But while Jen may be a small lady in stature, she is determined to tackle everything she possibly can.

“I don’t want my girls to think that just because they’re girls, they can’t do something,” she said. “So, I’m on the lawn mower, I run the weed wacker — whether I burn that grass or not — I’ll give it a try. I can run the snowplow if I have to… it takes me three times as long as Stacy, but I can do it. And so I just hope that they’re seeing that and learning that.”

But Jen says while she and Stacey aren’t originally from Detroit Lakes, they have grown close to a community that she says is always willing to step up and help when she needs it.

“There are things that just aren’t on my radar...things that Stacey just always does,” said Jen. “…little things from making the coffee in the morning to getting the garbage down to the end of the driveway on Sunday nights. Thank God for the garbage man who knows I have trouble remembering that and will come and get it.”

And while nine-year old Bella misses her dad’s outstanding “cooking” of Nutella-smothered sandwiches and camping with him, she felt some comfort coming from her third grade classmates this year, as they wrote letters and helped put together a care package for her dad.

“He answered each and every one of them, too,” said Jen, who adds while it’s always hard for her to ask for help from people, she has learned to do it — at least until Colonel Smith is back home and able to resume his duties as Doctor Smith and dad.

Smith, whose 100 days will be up June 5, says he’s looking forward to putting on his favorite baseball cap and hanging out with his dog and his family.

And while this little six-person unit has withstood the sacrifice of missed events including gymnastics competitions, choir, swimming and even little Livy’s birth, the girls say he’s worth waiting for.

“I love when we say ‘nah-nuh-nah-nuh-boo-boo’ and he runs after us, tickling us,” said Livy, smiling.

And for Smith, the sacrifice of missing out on precious time with his five little ladies and working long, hard hours in Afghanistan is one he is willing to make.

Those are his sacrifices as a U.S. soldier.

“America is truly a great place to live and is worth defending,” said Smith.