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. Shawn Anderson works in Boston Children's GI and Nutrition Clinic.
The Boeing Apache is one of the most advanced airborne weapons systems ever developed. Weighing almost 12,000 pounds, it's capable flying up to 182 miles per hour and it can be operated in some of the most adverse weather imaginable. Shawn Anderson, clinical assistant on Fegan 5, knew all of this when he arrived in Iraq in July 2004 for an yearlong deployment. But the thing that sticks out in his mind today is just how quickly the entire vehicle can burn down to nothing.
He had only been in Iraq for two weeks when an Apache helicopter, flying low to practice flight maneuvers, took a turn too sharply or at too low an altitude - Shawn couldn't tell which from where he stood - and struck the ground violently enough to kill both pilots. Shawn, who had been in the middle of battle drills nearby when the vehicle crashed, was amazed at how quickly the flames spread and swallowed the entire helicopter. "It was dust and rubble within 15 minutes - the whole thing," he remembers.
Many military vehicles, including the Apache helicopters and Humvees used to support ground forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, are chemically treated to burn quickly when they catch fire. The purpose, Shawn later learned, is to destroy any sensitive equipment and information onboard before insurgents could get a hold of it. Interesting as the information was, Shawn's mind was consumed by a completely different thought.
"We were all just thinking that we were going to be inside a vehicle that would burn just like that if we ever caught fire," he explains.
An unenviable reputation
From an early age, Shawn's older brother and sister both seemed to have it all figured out. That at least, is how he remembers it. Shawn was never as certain about his future and struggled in school for a long time. By the time he reached high school, he had made fast friends with the wrong crowd. Vandalizing, shoplifting and fights became a regular part of his life, earning him a reputation with the East Bridgewater police department. "I pissed my mom off quite a bit, and worried her a lot," he recalls.
Because his father was only an occasional figure in Shawn's life, Shawn's mother turned to a family friend, a police sergeant, to give Shawn a sense of direction. The sergeant seemed to know the right chord to strike with Shawn, and the two developed an easy rapport in little time. "He knew my reputation - it wasn't a big town - but it didn’t cloud his motivation for having me come out and spend the weekend with him," he says.
At first, the evenings and weekends Shawn spent on patrol were more fun than informative. Shawn got a thrill out of being on the other side of the law for once, and relished the excitement of pulling other drivers over. But the more time he spent with the sergeant, the more Shawn realized just how compassionate a police officer could be.
One clear night, while driving down a poorly lit and wooded residential road, a woman took a turn too quickly and drove straight into a large boulder. Shawn and the sergeant were the first on the scene. Ordering Shawn to stay in the car, the sergeant approached the woman and did what he could to keep her calm while paramedics raced to the scene. "The car was a wreck," Shawn remembers. "He didn't even want to touch her because she might have had a neck injury or something."
Although the woman appeared uninjured, the car's deformed interior made it impossible for her to move and see that for herself and she began to panic and shift about - something the sergeant knew would only increase her changes of sustaining an injury. "She really started freaking out and panicking and he just made her feel better," Shawn says. "He was so compassionate with the driver when they were waiting for the ambulance to show up; it was pretty powerful just to watch."
That night proved to be the wake up call Shawn's mother had been hoping for. Shawn began thinking seriously about a career in law enforcement. Having that goal, in turn, inspired him to put in more effort in class. He stopped hanging out with his usual crowd - spending his weekends at the police station made that easy - while his improving grades made college an increasingly viable option.
Super Troopers in Germany
The police sergeant had started Shawn on his path, but it was Shawn's maternal grandfather who inspired him to enlist. He had fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day and his photos and memorabilia of that time had long been a point of common interest for both him and Shawn. "I thought it was perfect," Shawn says. "I could join the army, they could pay for college and I could get into a police spot and be golden."
When the September 11 attacks took place in the middle of Shawn's enlistment process - he had joined the National Guard the summer before his senior year of high school - his resolve only grew stronger. "That really poured the concrete over the decision because I thought that now, I could really have an experience like my grandfather," Shawn says. "I really had no idea what that meant, but I had always admired him and I thought maybe my experience would now be even more valuable."
Still set on transitioning into a career in law enforcement after his service, Shawn joined the Military Police Corps. After basic training, riot control practice, prisoner internment, mock room and vehicle searches, interrogations and close-quarters combat training became parts of his new routine. Months later, only a day after he had returned home, he got the call he had been waiting for...only it wasn't Afghanistan or Iraq, as he had hoped. He would be going to Germany.
Shawn likes to use the 2001 movie Super Troopers to describe his experience there. It was as close to being a police officer as he had ever been. He spent his days patrolling streets in a military installation and some of the surrounding area and, for the first time since that night in East Bridgewater, Shawn began to second-guess his career choice. "It was basically a lot of 18 year-olds driving around in police cars without a lot of supervision having a good time," he remembers. "I hadn't known how much downtime there can be in that job."
After returning from Germany, and approaching the end of his freshman year at Salem State University, he got another phone call. "I knew it was for Iraq this time," he says. "We didn't know what the mission was when they asked for volunteers. I said hell yeah."
Three months after that, as he watched the wreckage of the Apache helicopter burn faster than he thought possible, he wondered exactly what he had gotten himself into.
The U.S. Army Forward Operating Base in Tikrit, Iraq - Saddam Hussein's hometown - sits atop a cliff that runs alongside the Tigris River. A suburban area sits on the other side of the river, at a lower elevation. From most vantage points down there, it's almost impossible to fully see the base. Most of the insurgents who, almost every day, launched mortar attacks on the base could see only the minaret of a mosque located in the middle of the base. "As small as the base was, there was enough space that most of the time, the mortars wouldn't hit anything of value," Shawn says. "Sometimes, they'd injure one or two people."
Because the insurgents launched their attacks from random points, it was almost impossible to completely stop them and it didn't take Shawn or the other members of his unit long to accept the attacks as a regular part of life. Even without the mortars though, the unit saw more than enough combat to become jaded.
During his second mission since his arrival in Tikrit, Shawn's unit was ambushed; they took fire from nearby insurgents and, at one point, a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) flew over the unit gunner's head. Fighting never ceased, only paused, after that. RPG attacks were rare; most of what Shawn encountered were small arms attacks, snipers and roadside bombs, which hit every fifth or so convoy. Sooner than he thought possible, he became numb to news of a death; sometimes, it didn't register enough to even give him pause. "That was the weirdest thing, getting numb to the violence," he says. "It was everyday."
Other times, Shawn couldn't help but react. Like when two of his best friends were almost killed when they ran over an anti-tank mine in their Humvee. Or when a lucky attack successfully landed a mortar in the middle of the dining hall, and then two others in the parking lot. Their combined concussive strength tore apart the gravel installed to hold the dust down and turned it into shrapnel. Shawn, then on his way back from the dining hall, was running towards cover when the third mortar struck and he was sent flying. When he came to later, he spotted and started first aid on a soldier with a sucking chest wound before Special Forces arrived and began, Shawn's says, "basically doing surgery on the ground."
"I remember leaving there and I don't think I spoke the whole day," he says. "I was just robotic for the next few days."
He had six more months to go.
"When I came home, I knew there was no way I could go into law enforcement," Shawn explains. "I was not going to be in a situation where I had to carry a gun anymore. I'm all set with that."
Determined as he was to put his experiences behind him, it took Shawn almost a year to start therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), during the course of which he discover an interest in psychology and a new path. He returned to college, changed his major from criminology to psychology and started working as a mental health case manager. That's how he met Norman.
For most of his life, Norman had been a successful architect with a thriving family. "He was the sweetest man, just so polite, I don't know what happened," Shawn says. "He developed major depression and just stopped functioning or eating. Six foot four, not even 150 pounds - just emaciated." Once in a while, Norman could be cajoled into eating a loaf of bread, but most days, he refused to eat even a single slice. His malnourishment had led to multiple hospitalizations, during which Shawn would often stop by for a visit after work.
Desperate to place him in a facility where he could be force-fed if necessary, Shawn and his manager petitioned to have Norman transferred. The petition was denied, a decision Shawn couldn't help but feel had more to do with money than delivering the best care. Shortly thereafter, Norman developed pneumonia and passed away. "For me to be that close to death again...I didn't want to be in a position like that. If someone I knew needed help, I needed to be able to do something."
Certain that his position could never empower him to help people who might need it, Shawn left for a research role at Mass General Hospital, where he performed brain-mapping for research. A subsequent position performing IQ tests on children at Brigham and Women's Hospital convinced Shawn that his future lay in pediatrics. Today, he works for Boston Children's GI and Nutrition Clinic in Boston. He is preparing an application for medical school.