Lone survivor’s story brings experiences of veterans to life for medical students

When lone survivor Marcus Luttrell, a former Navy SEAL, came to Tampa Theater this Tuesday evening to kick off the first stop of his multicity Patriot Tour, the audience included a group of USF medical students.

The students, members of the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine’s Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration, were accompanied by two physicians from James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. Many in the group had previously watched the current film Lone Survivor, which depicts the harrowing Operation Redwing mission that spared only Luttrell, and discussed challenges faced by veterans rebuilding their lives after military service.

But the Tampa Theater presentation brought the experience to life.

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First-year USF medical student Stefanie Grewe, left, with classmate Paolina Pantcheva. – Photo by Dr. Brooke Baldwin, James A. Haley VA Hospital

“Medicine is about stories, and it’s important for a story like this one to be told,” said Lois LaCivita Nixon, PhD, professor of medical humanities at USF Health. “It’s even more relevant when you consider that an increasing number of the students entering our medical school have served in the military. Their experiences and stories are dynamic and varied, and may add another perspective to how they practice medicine.”

On June 28, 2005, Luttrell and three fellow SEALS were assigned a mission in Afghanistan to kill or capture a high-ranking Taliban leader. During an intense gun battle with Taliban forces, Luttrell was the only member of his team to survive, though he sustained multiple gunshot wounds, a horrific fall, and walked and crawled seven miles to shelter before being rescued by American forces. Luttrell, awarded the esteemed Navy Cross, has worked to honor the sacrifice of his fallen brothers in his best-selling book, which became the basis for the movie , and supported charities focused on helping returning veterans.

Luttrell was joined on the Patriot Tour by other speakers who served on special forces teams, from Navy SEALS to Army Rangers.

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Former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell’s best-selling book became the basis for the current movie Lone Survivor.

Their compelling stories were of particular interest to first-year medical student Stefanie Grewe, whose scholarly concentration project is focusing on the life of military heroes after war through film, poetry and real-life accounts.  Grewe plans to meet with veterans to elicit how health care practitioners can better serve them and ease the transition back home. She will document the differences between generations of veterans, from the Civil War through the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“War has a ripple effect not only on the veterans themselves and their families, but on our society as a whole,” said Grewe, who volunteers at the VA hospital each week. “I see there is room for improvement in connecting our students, the public and military heroes to minimize the separation that often exists when veterans integrate back into civilian life.”

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Luttrell with members of his Navy SEAL team in Afghanistan

Raymond Cutro, MD, chief of Electrophysiology and Cardiac Catheterization Services at James A. Haley VA Hospital and affiliated assistant professor of cardiology at USF Health, was among the doctors attending Tuesday’s presentation with the students.   Cutro served as a U.S. Marine Corps infantryman in the 1990s, primarily in non-combat roles, including a brief stint in Somalia delivering food to starving Somalis and helping restore order in a chaotic society.

“The physical manifestations of battlefield injuries are often quite clear. But the individual emotional and psychological sequelae of these experiences are something hard to comprehend,” Dr. Cutro said.

“What I think Marcus Luttrell and his crew did well, was illustrating just how complex these issues are, and as health care providers, we must be aware of not only how hard they are to treat, but simply the challenges of recognizing ‘calls for help’ in a very proud population of veterans.”

Photos of Marcus Luttrell courtesy of patriottour.com