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Daunting task: Saving the life of a hero at Walter Reed

Friday - 3/22/2013, 9:04am  ET

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Navy Capt. Philip Perdue, chief of surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been in service for 25 years. (WTOP/Darci Marchese)

Darci Marchese, wtop.com

BETHESDA, Md. - Imagine showing up for work each day with this daunting task: Trying to save the life of a hero.

That's what surgeons, physicians, nurses and emergency room staff have been doing for more than a decade in treating the nation's war-wounded in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.

Capt. Philip Perdue, chief of surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, has been stationed in Bethesda since 1997. He has seen his fair share of catastrophic wounds.

"They have terrible wounds that no one should have to see," he says. "It's challenging to have to take care of these guys."

Perdue says it was difficult during the height of the wars, when staff treated wound after wound.

"Certainly during those very busy times it's very easy to just become overwhelmed with the gravity," he says.

Perdue says Walter Reed tries to move staff around to shield them from being over- exposed to trauma. Even still, burnout is a real concern.

He says he's found himself thinking "that could easily be my son, it could easily be my daughter," in quiet times after the surgery is completed.

There are ways to cope

"These guys are heroes, so we kind of say we get to care for heroes every day," Perdue says.

He says however the biggest reward is seeing the young warriors survive and get on with their lives.

"You see the amputees walking around on their prosthetic limbs. You see the families reunited. You see life going on for these guys," Perdue says.

Perdue is rewarded to see the growing ability to save more lives today.

Perdue says there's been a shift in treating catastrophic, war-wounds.

Instead of creating full-blown hospitals in the theater of war, which occurred during the Gulf War, the goal now is evacuate the wounded back to the states as quickly as possible.

Part of that care is what's best described as "ICU units in the sky." Planes are outfitted with "flying hospitals" where the chain of care is never broken. Perdue says that alone is responsible for saving many more lives.

He says another medical trend leaves wounds open until the patient arrives in the U.S. That has cut down dramatically on deadly infections.

Purdue says remarkably, patients arrive at Walter Reed in just three to five days after being injured -- and typically -- their families are there, waiting for them.

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