Ten years after his deployment to Iraq, retired Air Force flight medic Capt. Ed Hrivnak of Puyallup thinks about the wounded troops he helped and the ones he could not.
Most days his team filled its cargo jet with wounded men and women in Iraq on their way to better medical care in Europe. Sometimes, for reasons such as threats and field conditions, the airmen could not stay on the ground long enough to wait for just-wounded patients.
“We all have a degree of survivors’ guilt from difficult decisions we had to make,” said Hrivnak, 44. “I came home without a scratch. For me, something I struggle with today is having to leave wounded behind in Baghdad.”
Hrivnak, who now works as assistant chief at Central Pierce Fire District, explores his experiences at war and adjusting to life after combat in his new book, “Wounded: A Legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
It’s a collection of short vignettes he hopes will shed light on difficult transitions many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are making now that the wars are ending and the military is reducing its forces.
To Hrivnak, now is the time for civilian communities to embrace veterans and help them establish their lives after combat.
“Our service men were gone for over a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now we’re starting to bring them home to our communities,” said Hrivnak, a former flight nurse from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
“Our country needs to focus on the next decade welcoming them home and reintegrating them into society. Our people, our civilian population needs to take that extra step and welcome them back,” he said.
Hrivnak has been writing about the war for years in journals and in short stories. The News Tribune gave him a start, in a way, when the newspaper published excerpts from his journals 10 years ago.
Since then, he has contributed to two other books. His work has appeared in The New Yorker magazine and in the Emmy-award winning documentary “Operation Homecoming.” The film had jarring descriptions of scenes from Hrivnak’s medical evacuation flights and a hint at their emotional toll.
“I know there are parts of his leg and thigh missing from reading his medical record, but I can’t tell from the thick bandages. He looks at me and our eyes are locked. These are some of the longest seconds of my life because I know he’s counting on what I say to him,” read one of Hrivnak’s journals included in the documentary project.
Hrivnak served 20 years in the Air Force, deploying overseas for missions in Somalia, Rwanda and the Balkans. He deployed to Iraq for the first Gulf War and from 2003-04 at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Married with two young children, he’s a Pacific Lutheran University graduate who maintains a connection with its School of Nursing. He also continues to drop in at McChord Air Field to stay in touch with airmen.
In June, he spoke about post-traumatic stress disorder in a discussion about mental health at the base, encouraging medics to seek help for the invisible wounds of war.
“There is a misnomer out there that somehow medical people are given some sort of specialized training that protects them or insulates them from combat trauma, and there really isn’t,” he told the airmen, according to an Air Force news story about the symposium.
“How do you go from treating casualties to flipping a mental switch and taking care of your children?” he asked.
Hrivnak’s publisher, Garfield Book Co., hosted a book-signing for him Thursday night at PLU. The firefighter joked that he was still feeling the effects Friday from greeting so many supporters from Pierce County’s military, public safety and medical communities.
“It was outstanding; my hand is absolutely worn out,” he said.
• Ed Hrivnak’s book “Wounded: A Legacy of Operation Iraqi Freedom” is available at the Pacific Lutheran University bookstore and at Amazon.com. Signed copies are available online through PLU at bit.ly/1etVfsa