FORT HUNTER LIGGETT, Calif. — While in the field, he wears a pair of trauma scissors tucked into his Army vest. The blue handles pop with color against the faded green and brown camouflage of his uniform. They’re within easy reach in case of an emergency.
“Every Soldier should carry (them) whether you’re medical or not,” said Lt. Col. Louis DiBernardo, a U.S. Army Reserve doctor, while training at Fort Hunter Liggett, California.
“You never know when you’re going to need them to expose an injured area … When there’s an incident, we jump on it as immediately as we can,” said DiBernardo, who is the lead surgeon for the 11th Military Police Brigade.
In the dry heat of Fort Hunter Liggett, DiBernardo didn’t have the comfy amenities most civilian doctors enjoy at a hospital. He was on constant call in the field working out of a van or a tent in 100-degree temperatures, responded to several real-world emergencies (including a tent collapse and a vehicle that crashed into a ditch), while treating Soldiers for routine medical needs and helping medical units with resupply runs.
“We’re still Soldiers first,” said DiBernardo of himself and his fellow Army medical professionals. “You might not experience that as much in a hospital, but in the field, that’s quite different because you have that intimate experience of embracing the suck together. We wear the same uniform and bleed the same color. When you remove that white lab coat barrier, it shows everyone else that we are on equal terms. A Soldier is a Soldier as any other.”
In his left front pocket (by his heart), however, DiBernardo carries something all his own to keep him going. Sealed inside a plastic Ziploc, he unfolds a handful of drawings made by his two sons, Louis and John. The drawings are from years ago, when the boys were much younger. They are 18 and 9-years-old respectively now.
As he thinks about his role as a father and Army surgeon, he remembers a scene from “We Were Soldiers.”
“‘How can you be a father and a Soldier at the same time?’” he paraphrased one Soldier asking another. “‘Well, hopefully being good at one makes you good at the other.’ I’ve always found motivation in quotes like that.”
For a while, however, he couldn’t do both.
He walked away from the Army Reserve in 2010 after completing his first 8-year contract. He had mobilized twice and deployed once in a span of five years from 2004 to 2009. With his family in Southern California, the Army sent him to New York, Alaska and Iraq, on almost back-to-back rotations.
“My son went from, ‘I want to be just like daddy,’ to: ‘I don’t like the Army,’” he said.
As a civilian doctor, DiBernardo specializes in family practice for nearly 20 years. When 9/11 happened, and he watched the twin towers come down, his first thought was: “I know they’re going to need physicians.”
He commissioned into the Army Reserve in spite of every warning by his father, who fought in Vietnam, and his grandfather, who served in World War II.
“They all told me the same thing: ‘Don’t join the military. Go to college, and do what we never had the opportunity to do,’” said DiBernardo.
So he did. He was the first in the family to complete a 4-year degree, and went on to complete medical school. But when the images on the television showed the towers fall, the pull to serve was too strong.
That same desire to serve returned after a 5-year break in service in 2015.
“I just love taking care of Solders. I see a lot of veterans in my clinic. Lot of younger veterans. Amputees who come into my urgent care, and those conversations really helped me solidify my decision. I missed it. I loved being a Soldier,” said DiBernardo, who works at a clinic just outside of Los Angeles.
DiBernardo doesn’t fit the general stereotype of the absent, uninvolved doctor. He takes the time to talk to his patients and Soldiers.
“The thing that I admire and look up to with Lt. Col. DiBernardo is how passionate he is about not only the military but being a brigade surgeon … Every patient that he comes in contact with, it is always in a friendly manner. Almost like he knows them on a personal level,” said Spc. Ryan Lowman, a medical specialist who assisted the colonel from sun-up to sundown during a Combat Support Training Exercise (CSTX) in California.
Many patients who see DiBernardo at his clinic ask if he has his own practice. They want him as their primary care doctor. But he enjoys the shift work because it allows him balanced time with his sons and continued service to the Army.
As a brigade surgeon, he is responsible for the overall medical readiness and medical care of approximately 3,000 Soldiers across multiple units. If he were to deploy with the military police, he would also care for civilians and enemy prisoners at MP detention centers. While training at Fort Hunter Liggett in July, he was constantly in demand. One minute he was changing out bandages on a Soldier’s wound, the next he was briefing medical officers in charge of the entire training area, then on to resupplying fellow medical units across the training areas with whatever they needed.
During CSTX, he was also asked to provide a medical report to the 91st Training Division on how to improve field medicine during training. The report will help provide better care to Soldiers in austere training environments and prevent casualties.
One example: The military police units on the ground had the lowest percentage of heat casualties out of all the Soldiers at CSTX. DiBernardo said this was due to a higher medical support presence among the MPs. This is something he’d like to see increase across all units. Additionally, DiBernado took it upon himself to conduct a refresher Combat Lifesaver (CLS) course to his MPs at the start of training. CLS equips Soldiers who are not medical professionals to provide an immediate trauma response when fellow Soldiers are wounded or injured.
“There’s a false impression that help will come within seconds,” DiBernardo said, cautioning that Army doctors and qualified medics can’t be everywhere at once. “That’s why the Combat Lifesaver program is so important.”
And yet, this extra work doesn’t come with extra pay. That’s fine for DiBernardo, who said he doesn’t do it for the money. In fact, he takes a pay cut to don the uniform in the Army Reserve. Yet, so long as his trauma scissors are on his vest, and his sons’ drawings are by his heart, DiBernardo is ready to serve wherever the Army needs him next.