By Roger Hoover / Smokies Radio Network
A valued member of the Tennessee Smokies family is safe and sound this spring, happy to watch baseball from the home dugout instead of dealing with war abroad.
Dr. John McGraw, who has been the Smokies team physician for many years and lives and works in Jefferson City, recently completed a U.S. Army combat deployment to Afghanistan from mid-November 2011 to February of this year.
“It’s great to be back in East Tennessee, the most patriotic place in the United States of America,” McGraw said. “I’m just happy to be back and nobody shooting at me.”
McGraw and other Army physicians worked 90-day “boots on the ground” assignments, serving the forward operating base hospital in Afghanistan. While McGraw has had other combat deployments before in his military career, he said this was the most intense.
“This was a time as an orthopedic surgeon I was taking care of significant battle injuries,” said McGraw. “There were a lot of not only U.S. forces and NATO forces but a lot of Afghan soldiers were severely injured. Day, nights, weekends, holidays, the radio would go off and we would quickly put on some clothes and get to the hospital as quickly as possible and wait on the helicopters to land, bringing us the casualties from the battle front.
“There were three general surgeons who were trauma-trained as well as myself and an emergency room physician and often times we would literally be overwhelmed with the number of casualties. We had to do triage, take them in the order of priorities.
“We did have some casualties while I was there and that took a toll on our unit because these were friends, fellow soldiers. When those type of things happen, it does call into question exactly why you’re there. And the reason you’re there is to protect our freedom.”
With his deployment from November to February, “Doc” McGraw missed being at home for the holidays with his family in Tennessee. He had missed some holidays before because of his military service, yet this stretch included: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s plus the birthdays of himself and his wife Ann.
“It was different in that we worked all day Christmas day, but we took time out to spend a little time with each other,” McGraw said. “One of our soldiers had somehow gotten a live Christmas tree shipped in from the states. So we decorated that and we tried as best we could to enjoy a little bit of the Christmas season.”
When McGraw got to Afghanistan he noticed that there were several posters on the walls of the hospital and base from celebrities and thought that maybe the Chicago Cubs would send a poster or two. He called on his friend Chicago Cubs Vice President of Player Personnel Oneri Fleita about the poster, and was surprised when he opened the package from Wrigley Field.
“To my great delight not only did they send us posters, but t-shirts, caps, and they sent us the white “W” flag that flew over Wrigley Field on September 7,” McGraw said. “It came at a time right before Christmas when we had really been working diligently in the operating room day and night for a long period of time, we were down. That lifted out spirits.”
In addition to the Cubs, the Smokies reached out to McGraw with a YouTube video from the entire front office wishing him and the troops a Merry Christmas.
“I appreciate Mick Gillispie, Brian Cox, Doug Kirchhofer, really the whole organization,” McGraw said. “Really appreciated the fact that they were praying for me and doing what I needed at the time to let me know that they appreciated my service.
At the end of February, McGraw left the Middle East to return to the United States where he out processed at Fort Benning in Georgia before making it back home to East Tennessee.
“It was overwhelming,” McGraw stated about coming home. “For about two weeks my emotions were so high and so volatile that I had to just be calm, de-stress, and fortunately the laws give you time to get back into the swing of things before you go back to work and that was important.”
McGraw will be at Smokies Park as much as he can during the 2012 season, assisting team trainer A.J. Larson and watching baseball from his spot in the home dugout. While he loves the game, there are now two moments each night that Doc McGraw has an added appreciation for after his combat deployment.
“Each night at Smokies Park we sing the national anthem, but we go above and beyond that here,” McGraw said. “At the seventh inning stretch, someone sings ‘God Bless America.’
“This is the most patriotic park in the Southern League, and I really appreciate the Tennessee Smokies.”