To honor and celebrate the many veterans who serve the Boston Children's community every day, the hospital profiled four staff members. Their stories, and their connections with the armed forces, are as diverse and unique as the roles they play in the hospital today. Peter Hopkins is a Clinical Assistant.
Though the young boy had already carried out his orders from the Taliban militants, a dangerous combination of curiosity and childhood daring compelled him to return to the site of the crime. With the battery he had installed, he knew that it all came down to applying just the right amount of pressure. Nearby, at their company outpost, or COP, Peter Hopkins, clinical assistant on 8 East, and other members of the platoon watched their screens disbelievingly.
The young Afghan child returned again and again to the spot where, moments before, he had buried an Improvised Explosive Device, or IED. Each time he returned, it looked like to Hopkins and the others, he would apply just a little more pressure, linger just a little longer before running away.
Then, apparently emboldened by his success, the boy stepped fully on the IED for an instant and ran away again. Peter and his platoon prayed this latest stunt would satisfy enough of the child’s curiosity for him to move on to other diversions. But the child returned and, this time, jumped rather than stepped onto the IED.
They held their breaths.
The boy, more confident then ever now, jumped a second time.
When he jumped and landed back on the IED a third time, it exploded.
A Dream Deferred
For as long as he can remember, Peter had dreamed of being a hero. As a child, he dreamed of secretly fighting crime at night with special abilities while maintaining a sedate, second life during the day. As he grew older, his dream self swapped tights and capes for the pressed blues of a police uniform. By high school, his dreams had narrowed even further: he wanted to join the army as a medic.
"I wanted to work with troops on the ground," Peter explains. "Obviously experiences vary, but when you're out in the desert with no medial facilities near you, all you have is your medical team. I was drawn to that."
There was just one problem: Peter had a rare genetic bone condition, Multiple-Recessive Epiphyseal Dysplasia. Although it affected different parts of his skeletal system, the effects were nowhere more apparent than in his legs. There, his long bone growth was stunted, causing the bones of both legs to grow at uneven rates and leaving him extremely bull-legged.
Peter had been able to function normally in childhood, but the condition grew much worse when he entered puberty. His growth spurts left his knees weak and he began to experience bouts of instability during which his knees would give out and send him careening to the floor - and occasionally down a flight of stairs.
When Peter was 14, he had two stainless steel staples implanted in his legs. The surgery stunted his growth, but straightened his legs. With physical therapy he soon regained full and normal use of his legs.
Unfortunately, the military recruiters Peter would later meet did not see matters the same way. The way Peter remembers it, they were always happy to receive him when he applied, but their smiles vanished when they discovered his medical history. It did not help that Peter’s surgeon had passed away and therefore could not speak on Peter's behalf.
By the time he had finished high school, army recruiters had already turned Peter away twice, while recruiters from the Marines and the Air Force refused to even sit down with him. His attempts to enlist after high school proved to be just as fruitless. "I just got a lot of stern faces," he recalls.
With seemingly all avenues to military life closed off to him, Peter took what seemed like the next logical step. He went to college. He began a studio arts program only to transfer to a different university for graphic design. Although he enjoyed the arts, a vague but insistent feeling of dissatisfaction continued to haunt him.
Things changed in 2001 when, after a fight with lung cancer, Peter's mother passed away. That, he says, forced him to take a more serious look at how he was doing good in the world. "There's definitely a place in the world for art, but I don't fall into that category," he says.
Eight years later, Peter still couldn’t shake the feeling he had missed his life's calling. As a child, he had imagined that at that point in his life, he would be spending his days maintaining a mild-mannered secret identity and fighting crime by night. But reality proved underwhelming. He had left school to start working full-time and now spent his days as a debt collector and his nights as, in his own words, "a mediocre, perpetually narcoleptic bartender."
The way Peter sees it now, his decision to try to enlist again was as much about turning his own life around as it was about saving anyone else's.
Inside the Horn
The Horn of Panjwai is a triangular swath of land bordered on two sides by river; it earns its name from the curve of its western-most top, where the two rivers meet. The Dori River flows westward along the horn’s southern edge before it joins the long and winding Arghandab River, which forms the horn's upper edge. Hostile and forbidding mountains rise north of the Arghandab while desert stretches endlessly south of the Dori. But the rivers' rich waters make the horn an unusually fertile area of southern Afghanistan and one of Peter's first memories of the area is the sight of row upon row of grape vines.
He had arrived in April 2011 after deploying from a duty station in Alaska. Of all things, it was pure chance that finally paved the way for his enlistment. The army recruiter he spoke too in 2009 was a former surgery tech who saw beyond his medical history. The orthopedist who later examined Peter and approved him for service was perhaps even more excited than Peter.
"He was very impressed with my results," Peter recalls. "He would say 'Hop on one foot. Oh, that’s fantastic! Now do this!' " The succeeding months passed quicker than Peter expected: basic training, medic training, his duty station in Alaska and, finally, the horn, where he discovered that grapes were only one of many popular crops. Wheat flourished in the horn, as did marijuana and poppy. Eradicating the cultivation those last two crops was one half of the unit's mission. "We were seeing a lot of that money go to warlords," Peter explains.
The other half of the mission was counter insurgency. The unit discovered the needs of the surrounding villages and did what they could to meet those needs. As Peter remembers it, the unit spent a lot of time building wells and patting kids on the head. In the absence of a well-stocked or staffed hospital, the clinic in Peter's COP became the de facto healthcare provider for the nearby villagers.
"We had very specific rules of engagement when it came to medical aid," he explains. Because the COP was not set up with a full hospital, Peter and the other medics in his unit were limited in what they could offer. When a child visited them with an arm he had broken the year before, Peter knew the bone needed to be broken again and reset, something he didn’t have the resources to do. And because he was prohibited from having the child flown to the larger army hospital in Kandahar, he settled for giving the child a proper bandage and cast to replace his poorly made fiberglass cast.
Another villager soon came in looking for medical help, followed by another and another. Peter’s new role as community doctor brought him into close and regular contact with many of the local and nearby villagers. "Everyone was so welcoming," Peter remembers. "We would walk in the bazaar and people would say 'America!' and flash peace signs and we gave them candy."
It didn't take long for that state of affairs to change. The horn is widely considered to be the spiritual home of the Taliban, the horn has been the setting of the most intense and prolonged fighting of the war since U.S. operations began in Afghanistan. Casualties from IEDs were common. Almost a month and a half into its deployment, Peter’s unit came under fire. The fighting got worse as the troops pushed farther south, and the unit constantly intercepted radio chatter in an effort to predict ambushes and/ or avoid planted IEDs, often both.
It wasn't until the fighting broke out in earnest that Peter began to appreciate the fluid, uneasy relationship between the villagers and the Taliban. Members of the Taliban would recruit villagers, usually young children, to arm IEDs by installing the batteries that powered the devices’ pressure plates. Sometimes, when they planned to arm an IED in anticipation of U.S. troop movement, the militants would spread word that villagers ought to stay away from certain areas. "But it wasn't official; it was mainly word of mouth so a lot of villagers didn't hear," Peter says.
The arrival of a multimillion-dollar camera system that could be launched into the sky and controlled remotely, saved a lot of lives. Knowledge isn't always power though and even the highest quality live camera feeds didn't mean the unit always had enough time to intervene. When the young Afghan boy started playing with the IED, Peter and other members of his unit could only watch. Miraculously, he survived the explosion and was rescued by his family. Out of fear of Taliban retaliation, however, the family waited before bringing the boy to the COP.