As it was for many Americans, 9/11 was a turning point in Dr. Omar Bholat’s life. The devastation caused by the terrorist attacks fueled his inspiration and sense of patriotism to somehow use his medical skills to serve his country.
It began that very day with his work at Ground Zero and later translated into nearly two decades in the US Army, where he is a command surgeon and holds the rank of colonel in the 353rd Civil Affairs Command at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island.
An acute-care surgeon at North Shore University Hospital, Dr. Bholat has juggled his medical career and family with a call to serve that has made him a witness to the traumatic events of war. He has saved countless lives and is always at the ready for his next deployment.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, he was between surgical positions, preparing for his next venture at Hackensack (NJ) University Medical Center, when the attacks came.
“I was just a simple surgeon from Long Island,” he said. “I was at home (in Manhattan) waiting for my New Jersey license to go through.” When the planes struck the towers, he decided he was not leaving New York City. Instead, he opened his Midtown condo to family in the area, packed a bag and began walking downtown.
“I ended up at Chelsea Pier and was assigned to the Red Zone Triage facility and I spent a day there,” Dr. Bholat said. “There were 50 tables set up with four people at every table, all of them medical and none of us did a damn thing because there were so few survivors.
“A whole bunch of firefighters came into the Green Zone Triage to have their eyes washed out of all the alkaline dust from the concrete. The next day they sent me down to South Ferry to go work a triage facility.”
At South Ferry, Dr. Bholat treated everything from heart attacks to more individuals needing their eyes washed out.
He doesn’t remember when he went home, but he knows he took the West Side Highway. He still volunteered each day at Ground Zero until the Disaster Medical Assistance Teams (D-MAT) arrived to begin providing care.
When Dr. Bholat’s wife, Elizabeth Cirincione, MD, a colorectal surgeon at Nassau University Medical Center, made it home that day, she and her husband rekindled a previous discussion about joining the Army.
Anger fueled his passion.
“The more I went through all of this, the angrier I got,” he said.
The decision to join was simple.
Dr. Bholat notified the Army of his decision in December 2001. He was enlisted March 29, 2002, was assigned to the 1st Forward Surgical Team (FST) and was mobilized for Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Iraq on February 14, 2003.
The war was just beginning.
Dr. Bholat rode in a six-vehicle team traveling from Kuwait to Mosul, a major Iraq city about 400 kilometers north of Baghdad.
“We got to Balad, where the 21st Combat Support Hospital was located,” he said. “They grabbed us as an asset to stay there.”
Balad was becoming the logistical medical hub for the region because of the air base is nearby (the air base was attacked a few weeks ago amid rising tensions between the US and Iran). Dr. Bholat’s team worked with another FST to support the combat hospital.
“We’re kind of like a small community. There are not a lot of Forward Surgical Teams in the Army,” he said. “And they invited us over to see a movie (Major Payne).”
Dr. Bholat and his teammates declined their invitation, the right choice considering the makeshift theater was struck by mortars. One detonated on the camouflage netting over the screen, wounding 13, six of whom required emergency surgery.
“The two docs there were fine, but shell-shocked. The only reason they weren’t injured is because their duffel bags were ripped to shreds by all the fragments that kicked up,” Dr. Bholat said. He redeployed from Balad, but the mission continued for the 1st FST. “When we got to Mosul, we were hit by one of the first IEDs (improvised explosive devices). One guy lost an eye and another had a significant head injury. The FST lost enough of its equipment that it became non-mission capable.
“That was my introduction to Iraq.”
Since then, Dr. Bholat has completed five tours, including four combat tours. He has been to Afghanistan, Kuwait and Iraq. Typically, his deployments last 90 days, but he says surgeons are in high demand, so they can last longer.
He has taken on leadership roles, serving with the echelon above the Brigade Medical Unit, which commands all the medical units for central command, as a command surgeon and also as chief of clinical operations (acting) for the Combined Joint Task Force — Operation Inherent Resolve.
For his latest deployment, which he returned from in May, he was the chief surgeon for three months at the US Military Hospital in Kuwait and then pushed forward to work with the 848th FST.
Dr. Bholat recalls one of his most troubling moments in Mosul in 2008. He and Maj. John Pryor, a prominent trauma surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania, grew close while they served with an FST with the Army’s 1st Medical Detachment.
“John and I were up there for about two weeks when there was a rocket attack on Christmas Day,” he said.
One of the rockets ricocheted off the top of a combat housing unit, slammed into the concrete in front of John and struck him in the head, killing him in an instant.
“We worked on John for about half an hour before we pronounced him dead — even though we knew what the outcome was,” Dr. Bholat said. “We’d been crossing paths for years. It hurt like hell. And you get that survivor’s remorse. That takes a while to get past. Is it gone completely? No, it’s never gone completely. But it’s gone enough.
“Ten steps slower or 10 steps faster and he’s not dead. It makes you really angry. And it’s a process to get through.”
The process, Dr. Bholat says, continues even after he’s back on US soil. His wife tells him he never returns the same. But it does get better.
Dr. Bholat says his family life is good. They spend as much time together as they can. His two daughters, Isabelle, 16, and Alicia, 15, are cheerleaders. His son, John, plays baseball and does Kung-Fu.
As hard as it has been to leave them in the US, it has been equally hard on his family to live with him overseas. But they manage, knowing his time in the Army is closer to its end than its beginning.
He’s currently pursuing a master’s in strategic studies at the Army War College — the last school before becoming eligible for general officer. The promotion may be tempting, but he has additional plans to consider.
“The first thing I’d do is sleep more,” he said. “I used to have a passion for restoring old motorcycles. I’ve got a 1957 Harley Davidson that I did a frame-up restoration on. I got a side car to go with it that’s been sitting in my garage for the past five years.
“I also haven’t gone to my daughter’s cheerleading competitions. And I’d be an assistant coach on my son’s baseball team.”
Despite everything he has witnessed and endured, would he do it over again?
“Would I go down to Ground Zero? Absolutely, 100 percent,” he said. “Would I join the Army? Yes. It is an honor to treat soldiers wounded on the field of battle!”
The call to service remains and his commitment to service continues.