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Zulu Time

December 1, 2007

Tom Frank

In Afghanistan we count off the hours in Zulu time. Zulu time is Greenwich Mean Time—the time of day in London, England—a city thousands of miles, many time zones and a war away from Bagram Airfield. Zulu Time has nothing to do with the position of the sun in the Afghanistan sky. But I have grown accustomed to Zulu time; it adds one more dimension of the surreal to a place where the surreal is commonplace.

zulu1_1_1I’m not sure exactly why we use Zulu time here. Maybe it is because Afghanistan’s local time cannot be converted to a whole number in any Western time zone. It always comes out on a half hour.

Like everything else in Afghanistan, even the time is just a little bit off. My day starts at 0300 Z– 3 a.m. in London, 7:30 a.m. in Afghanistan.

I’ve stopped trying to convert Zulu to local or vice versa. It is too difficult and causes confusion. By 1900 Z, if the hospital is quiet, most of the doctors are seeking the refuge of their hooches.

The patients, most of whom are Afghan, are oblivious to our Zulu world. We live in a different time zone than they do, and this seems oddly appropriate.

In a land where automobiles vie with donkeys, camels, anemic horses and rickshaws for room on the road; where a small boy with club feet wears shoes on all extremities so he may undulate through the streets like a reptile; where yesterday a man strapped a bomb to himself, jumped on a bicycle and rode into a crowd of his fellow countrymen and two soldiers—it seems appropriate that here we live in another, separate time zone and in a world of which we cannot be a part.

Both of the pilots are conscious and breathing on their own. One of the men does not look too bad at all. A few divots of flesh missing from his torso. A broken leg. Some other inconsequential wounds. Nothing life threatening.

The other pilot will also live, but he is not so lucky. Where his right arm once was, near the shoulder, strands of shredded muscle and the white of bone are visible. The remaining tissue of his arm is hamburger. It has been re-dressed and is oozing, but there is no brisk bleeding.

The thick crush of bodies around the stretcher has begun to ebb. I approach him, tell him he will be OK. He speaks to me. “Sir,” he asks, “have you ever known a doctor with one arm.”

Surprised by the question, I cock my head questioningly.

“I’ve been accepted to medical school. I’m supposed to start in July.”

“Yes, I tell him,” without lying. “I did once know a doctor with one arm. He was one of the finest infectious disease doctors I have ever known. And he was in the Army.”

“I wanted to be a surgeon,” he said.

“You may not be a surgeon. But you can still become a doctor.”

I left him, troubled. Too close to home. His career stolen from him before it began. Yes, he was still alive and he could have a good life but he had lost his dominant arm and the chance of a future that had seemed so close to him.

At least he is alive. But how terrible must losses be that they are always held up to this standard?

Someday soon I will return to a place where losses don’t have such a high standard to meet. Where it is OK to feel angry because someone scratches your Toyota, where it is permissible to feel sorry for yourself because your throat hurts. Where you are allowed to have a bad day.

To walk through our wards and see the limbless altered bodies, any self-pity must be tempered by guilt. I take my hand from my pocket, gently clench and unclench it. A “bad day” seems such an oddly trite concept here.

zulu2_1_1 Afghanistan has had a long bad day.

It is difficult to understand this country. It is impossible for me to comprehend this world.

We live in Zulu time here. Everything is a little bit off in Afghanistan.

Col.Tom Frank (A&S ’83, G ’85, M ’89) wrote this piece as a journal entry during the year he spent in Afghanistan running the country’s only full-service U.S. hospital. He was awarded a Bronze Star in recognition of “exceptionally meritorious service” and his “courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone under the most extreme of circumstances.”

Frank also has served as a field surgeon in Korea with the 43rd MASH and spent six years at the U.S. Army Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany.In fall 2005, Frank was sent to New Orleans to provide emergency medical care to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Frank is stationed in El Paso, Texas, where he is chief of the Department of Medicine at William Beaumont Army Medical Center. He lives with his wife, Susan Marie Smith, and his 10-year-old daughter, Samantha.

Fall 2007

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000