27 Years After Retirement, Doctor to Serve in Iraq
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 29, 2004 Some might say he's got it all: a military retirement, a happy marriage spanning almost 50 years and a successful medical practice in Fayetteville, N.C.
Retired Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) John Ritchey, 68, closed his civilian medical practice April 29 to return to active duty in Iraq. Photo by Tracy Wilcox, courtesy of The Fayetteville Observer
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
But today Dr. John Ritchey will close his ophthalmology office, turn over his patient records to two other local doctors, and prepare to put on the Army uniform he last hung up 27 years ago to serve in Iraq.
Ritchey, age 68, said he has volunteered to return to active duty to serve in every major conflict since Operation Desert Storm -- but with one condition. He didn't want to serve as "backfill" for deployed troops, but rather, to deploy to the theater.
So this time, when Ritchey got a call from the Army Surgeon General's office telling him the Army needed eye surgeons in Iraq, he accepted.
"I think of it as payback," he said. "The Army has always been very good to me."
So on June 1, Ritchey will report to Fort Bliss, Texas the same post where, fresh out of the U.S. Military Academy, he spent three years with an air defense artillery unit before going to medical school at the University of Oregon.
He's not sure how long he will be at Fort Bliss, what the Army will do to prepare him for his deployment, or when he will ship out to Iraq. He's also not sure exactly how long he'll be deployed, or if he'll resume duty as a lieutenant colonel, his rank when he retired from the Army in 1977.
What Ritchey does know is that he'll be working in Iraq with the 1967th Surgical Detachment for three to six months, and that he's likely to see far more eye and face trauma than he typically sees in his civilian practice.
Ritchey has experienced combat before, when he served as a flight surgeon in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division. Thirty-seven years later, he admits he's a bit scared about what's ahead, "but certainly not enough to back out."
Even the latest rash of violence in Iraq hasn't discouraged him. "I've got no second thoughts," he said. "If anything, it's firmed my resolve more than ever."
In reality, Ritchey has been a lot closer to conflict than many of his medical colleagues. He and his wife June are active in SEE International, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based group that provides volunteer medical care in poor and war-torn countries. SEE stands for Surgical Eye Expeditions. Ritchey has traveled to Mongolia, Bulgaria, Nepal, Africa, El Salvador, Guiana and Peru, among other countries, to provide much-needed medical care.
He calls the experience a "great source of satisfaction and adventure," and said he looks at his deployment to Iraq as "another opportunity."
As he prepared to see his last patients this afternoon before closing down his practice, Ritchey admitted he felt a tinge of sadness about leaving behind a staff he adores and some patients he has treated for more than 30 years, since he was still on active duty at Fort Bragg's Army Medical Center. "That's probably the hardest part," he said. "But I don't look at this as a sacrifice at all. I see this as an opportunity to use the skills I'm trained in to provide the best care possible to the people who need it."