BARRE - When Vermont National Guardsman Jeremy Orr was deployed to Iraq in March 2005, he knew his training as a physician's assistant would be vital to fellow soldiers wounded in combat. He had no idea that the care he was providing would spin his own life in an entirely new direction - as head of an international relief effort to provide medical assistance to Iraqi children.
Orr, a 35-year-old, fifth-generation Vermonter from the Mad River Valley, was stationed in Najaf, a mostly Shiite city about 100 miles south of Baghdad. At the time, the city was relatively calm in comparison to northern neighbors plagued by daily car bombings and insurgent attacks.
Faced with few military casualties and plenty of free time, Orr and his fellow soldiers would occasionally venture out into the city on unannounced humanitarian missions. Other times, they'd invite Iraqi civilians onto the base for medical exams and care.
Orr soon became known as the "go-to guy" among the locals, including the religious clerics. Although a few officers objected to the practice of allowing Iraqis onto the base, his commanders allowed it. As Orr puts it, "We had such a low casualty rate coming out of our area, they assumed we must be doing something right."
Some of the maladies he treated were war-related injuries, such as burns and amputations. More commonly, though, Orr was treating diseases indigenous to the region, such as leishmaniasis, a parasitic infection carried by sand fleas, which can cause horrific scarring, disfigurement, sickness and death.
He also saw a lot of congenital birth defects. About a month into his tour of duty, someone brought in a 7-year-old girl who'd been born with her bladder on the outside of her body. Some birth defects can be treated in the field or at regional hospitals, but pediatric urologists are exceptionally rare in most parts of the world. Orr knew the girl would need to be flown to the United States for an operation. He contacted Steve Sosebee, founder and executive director of the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, a group that's been providing medical care for years to Arab children in the Middle East. With Sosebee's help, Orr found a doctor in the United States who would perform the surgery - at Children's Memorial Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.
Orr needed $2500 to fly the girl and her mother to the States. He asked fellow soldiers for donations and even posted flyers in the men's bathroom stalls. "I knew that was the only time the men would sit and read about something like that," he says. Within 10 days, he says, they'd raised $6000.
In all, it took about eight months to finalize the travel arrangements, but the girl eventually had the surgery and made a successful recovery. "She actually got to Columbus before I got home," says Orr. "That was my goal, to get this girl to the States before I did."
The patient's father was so appreciative, he offered Orr both his daughters - ages 7 and 9 - in marriage. At first, Orr thought the man was kidding, until his translator set him straight. He respectfully declined the offer.
When Orr returned to Vermont in January 2006, he launched the nonprofit Iraqi Children's Relief Fund. Although the organization directly benefits civilians, it also serves an important diplomatic function. Orr believes the medical services he and his fellow soldiers provided not only saved Iraqi lives, but those of Americans as well. "As a result of the work we did, we didn't lose one soldier in our operation," he says.
The same can't be said about the soldiers who replaced him. According to Orr, he and his fellow guardsmen were replaced by the Fourth Infantry, a regular Army division that immediately put an end to all humanitarian assistance, including medical services and base access for civilians, school supplies and infrastructure improvements. "In the first four months, they lost 23 guys," Orr says. "You do the math."
These days Orr is trying to raise money for his organization, find office space and get technical assistance, including help on his website - www.iraqicrf.org. Since his return, the group has raised $3000 and helped a second child get medical care outside Iraq. Now he's working on a third. It's slow going, Orr admits, but it's a process he believes will have positive repercussions in the future.
"You help this one family and as far as they're concerned, you will be in their hearts and minds forever," Orr says. "One act of goodwill at a time can make a big difference."