War and after


Glen Gechlik ’05MBA, acting chief medical officer, Veterans Administration New England Healthcare System.

Age: 47.
Hometown: Milford, Connecticut

Air Force Reserves, 2001–2015. Deployed to Kuwait in 2006 for six months.

For safety, jets landed in the dark at the American base in Kuwait City. The base was quiet during the day, recalls former Air Force physician Glen Gechlik, and at night, “it was like Kennedy Airport.” Major Gechlik would fall asleep listening to the roar of one jet after another arriving with troops and equipment destined for Iraq and Afghanistan. “There was a jet landing every 20 minutes,” he says. “It was like counting sheep.”

There was no predicting when helicopters would arrive. They came from nearby Iraq, bringing injured Americans and Europeans. Gechlik would stabilize their injuries and send them to a hospital in Kuwait or Germany.

The base also served as the “mortuary evacuation point” for both Iraq and Afghanistan, which meant that the bodies of all the Americans who died in those countries would pass through it. Gechlik identified remains, certified death, and inventoried amputated or severed body parts. When he had time, he also worked with the mortuary team. He helped undress the body, wash it, and zip it into a black bag. “It’s a component of war that people get killed,” says Gechlik. “They made sure that the bodies in the theater were treated respectfully.

“Being in the medical field, I was used to what happens in trauma and death,” he adds. “I used to work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. Cancer is a tragic disease, and it affects people of all ages. I used to sign a death certificate every three days, for people I’d kind of get to know.”

After Kuwait, Gechlik began a new career. He had studied finance at the Yale School of Management before his deployment, and once home, he got a job on Wall Street. He worked 15-hour days, and then on weekends he saw patients in the emergency department at the Veterans Administration Hospital in West Haven, Connecticut.

Gechlik enjoyed finance and says he did well. But he found the culture monotonous. “This is a boys’ club—all white men. And no one went out to lunch. It didn’t have the diversity of the health-care world.” After 18 months on Wall Street, he left. He began working full time at the West Haven VA and now serves as acting chief medical officer for the Veterans Administration in New England. Its eight medical centers employ 13,000 people and care for 280,000 patients each year.

Among those patients are many who suffer from PTSD—physical and emotional reactions to trauma. For them, Gechlik says, “a first treatment is a check.” That is, disability payments buy time to recover. “In Maslow’s pyramid [representing a hierarchy of needs], you can’t look at higher functioning if you’re worried about your food and shelter. That’s why it’s very important for anyone who has PTSD to get a proper diagnosis and get compensated for that disability. It’s a recognized disease that impacts your ability to do work.”

Gechlik did not develop PTSD, but about a year after he got home, friends began mentioning that he seemed detached. He told himself, “I’ve got to figure out how to be happy again.” He learned to ski and bought himself new golf clubs. “Of course, most people don’t shoot 150,” he says with a laugh. (That’s an abysmal score.)

Gechlik has observed that part of the difficulty of returning home is that veterans feel isolated; only a small proportion of Americans have served with them. But he opposes a peacetime draft. “Forcing someone to do something they don’t want to do is not freedom. If we’re not being attacked, live your life. You should be free.”