It’s a pretty common question these days. “Where were you when the terrorists took down the World Trade Centers?” You may have also heard 9/11 referred to as this generation’s Pearl Harbor. For those Americans old enough to do so, that horrible day proved to be a catalyst for joining the military. It wasn’t just the destruction of the Towers, the deliberate downing of Flight 93 or the attack on the Pentagon – it was an assault on our American senses. It’s no surprise that our military recruiting offices saw queues of men and women on 9/12, the day after the attacks. Whether spurred by righteous anger or driven by inspiration, so many demonstrated their commitment to this country by enlisting.
Dr. Brian Willis graduated from Louisiana State University in Shreveport before completing his medical training at the LSU School of Medicine in Shreveport. He was a successful, practicing physician long before 9/11. His son had joined the Army a year prior to the attacks and was serving in the 3rd Armored Calvary. Dr. Willis, not only a gifted neurosurgeon but a shining example of American exceptionalism, was one of those who found their way to a recruiter the day after the attacks. He knew that war was imminent and that his skill set would be needed on the battlefield. He joined the Navy Medical Corp, the senior corps among all staff corps, as a DCO (Direct Commissioned Officer). His military training was spent in Pensacola, Florida and consisted of one year of Naval Operational Support. He moved over to the more active 1st Battalion 23rd Marines and within a month was deployed to the Anbar Province, ironically the same duty station as his son the year prior.
At that time, the Iraqi resistance in the Anbar Province was stronger than in any other region. The hostility toward American forces was greater and a series of US forces operations proved futile in driving the clans from the region. Ramadi was under resistance control. The US sent more Marines to re-establish control. According to the Iraq war website, icasualties.org, 1,842 Iraqi soldiers, 2220 US Soldiers and 7542 Mercenaries were killed in action in the Anbar Province between the start of 2004 and the end of February 2006. Many of these died in and around Fallujah and Ramadi. To say that Dr. Willis was busy during his deployment is an understatement.
As a general medical officer and a Battalion Surgeon for the Marine Corp, Dr. Willis’ “hospital” was a burned out building that had been converted to serve as his Advanced Life Trauma Support unit. With less than 1000 square-feet of working space, he and his corpsmen treated everything from orthopedic injuries, respiratory problems and psychological issues to Level 1 Trauma. Facing inimical situations on a daily basis it would be easy for most people to want to forget all they encounter. One incident he will never forget is the mindless slaughter of civilian Iraq men killed because they were caught transporting water supplies to the US troops. As far as American soldiers, Dr. Willis remembers to some degree most of his patients. One Marine he recalls many of us would consider a candidate for a psych ward but to Dr. Willis, he personified the military mindset. This particular warrior came in from the battlefield having encountered an IED. Nothing major, just a few scrapes, some stitches and bruises. The same soldier came in the next day with another IED injury. This time, the injuries were more intense. He suffered a minor head injury and was told to sit it out for a day or two. Day 3, same soldier, another IED and this time he had a fractured leg and was forced to give it a rest. This Marine’s training, strong sense of pride and “Band of Brothers” mentality wouldn’t allow him to take a break until he sustained a broken leg.
Dr. Willis is still in contact with many of the men who served alongside him. He was impressed by their stamina and dedication to their job. Most were of Hispanic decent from McAllen, Texas. Working 18 to 20 hours a day on little sleep, little food, these men (all men, women weren’t in the infantry at the time) were his heroes. They demonstrated valor and fortitude on a daily basis. Of the 1000 in the 1st Battalion 23rd, 13 were killed in action. Dr. Willis lost count of the purple hearts that were awarded. His experience with the military left him much more appreciative of our freedoms
After 13 years of service, the Marines wanted to send him to Washington D.C. It was then that he decided to go back to a full-time civilian life. He and his wife Loree are active in our community. They have four grown children, Stephen, Valerie, Michael and Michelle. He is a Professor and Chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery. He specializes in trauma, the spine and pediatric neurosurgery. Twice a week he operates with a resident. He also works the OR and Clinic at the Veteran’s Hospital. His private practice is located at the new Margaret Place Clinic. There’s a reassurance in knowing that Shreveport and Bossier City are better places because men and women like Dr. Willis stepped up.