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Thu, 5 February 2004

At 51, Virginia Beach doctor found new calling in Army
By MATTHEW DOLAN, The Virginian-Pilot

Lt. Col. Donald Edelheit, now 53, gave up his civilian practice in internal medicine in Virginia Beach to be a full-time, active-duty officer and Army surgeon.
Dr. Donald Edelheit harbored a dream.

After two decades treating patients in Virginia Beach, he would close his internal medicine practice. He would sell his house. He would begin again, this time to serve his country.

Maybe as a foreign service officer? Maybe a rural doctor working with Native Americans?

Nothing sounded right until April 2002.

That’s when Edelheit found the Army.

Actually, the Army found him.

The conversation with the military recruiter at a doctor’s conference went something like this:

“Have you thought about the Army?”

“Well, I’m 51.”

“We can fix that.”


“If your stuff checks out, we have a place for you.”

But would he want to go? The war on terrorism had just begun, and American soldiers were dying in Afghanistan.

Normally, the Army won’t let in new officers after the age of 46½ . But the age limit can be waived for those up to 59½ if they have special skills the Army needs. By that July, Edelheit was in.

Not in the reserves or the National Guard.

He received a commission as a full-time, active-duty officer. He was the oldest soldier in his training class by 20 years.

“This country had been very good to me,” Edelheit said in an telephone interview. “At some point, you give something back.”

The Army was excited. They told Edelheit: We’ll even send you to Hawaii if you want.

No, he said, I want to be in the fight.

After 82 days of basic training in Texas, Edelheit, his wife and young daughter shipped off to Germany, the closest medical staging point outside Iraq.

Soon he found himself in administration as head of the internal medicine department at a military hospital in Landstuhl.

That’s not what Edelheit wanted. He told his commanders that if they ordered him to Iraq, he’d go with the right attitude.

The Army’s response? You’ve just volunteered.

Since December, Edelheit has been assigned as the Army surgeon for 503rd Infantry Battalion of the 173rd Airborne Brigade in northern Iraq.

The battalion, headquartered in Kirkuk, has lost three soldiers, with 50 others wounded since the beginning of the war, he said, but they have had few combat casualties since Edelheit’s arrival.

“We do get rockets and mortars. They’re close enough to rattle the windows,” he said.

Edelheit admits he’s often not sure whether the blasts and rumbles are friendly fire or an incoming attack.

The adjustments to military culture are taking time. He goes on night raids to offer medical assistance to wounded soldiers. But when his commanding officer, also a lieutenant colonel, told Edelheit to address him by his first name, the rookie soldier couldn’t do it.

“I don’t confuse my rank with your authority,” Edelheit told his boss.

He expects to be in Iraq at least another month, maybe longer if he’s transferred to another command.

In a brief e-mail from her home in Germany, Melissa Edelheit said she supports her husband “100 percent.”

Edelheit said the military life was “like coming home” for Melissa, who is caring for their 2½-year old daughter, because her father spent his career in the Navy.

The deployment has inspired some of his old patients. Last week, a group of them finished preparing two shipments of donated medical supplies for needy Iraqis.

The pallets will be dropped at Fort Eustis in Newport News and shipped to Edelheit’s command.

Jane Hixon, a nurse case manager whose late mother was under Edelheit’s care, spearheaded the effort from her Chesapeake garage. She described Edelheit as a doctor known for his round-the-clock dedication to patients and exacting standards in his solo practice.

Then she laughed.

“Now he’s in a position where other people are telling him what to do!”

If there is a Rosebud, a telling detail to why a man in midlife would give up everything to pursue his dream, maybe it’s Sept. 11, 2001.

Edelheit watched the people jumping from the World Trade Center on television that night.

“That footage still stays with me. I realized my daughter crawling around – she was going to inherit a very different world than the one I had grown up in.”

So he examined his own life.

“I took care mostly of people in their 70s, who had mostly lived their lives.

With my care, they would decline more slowly.

“Here, for the first time in my professional life, kids in their 20s or younger need me. If I do it right, I can add 50, 60 years to someone’s life. “It makes it all worth it.”

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