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VOL. 8 | NO. 35 | Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Remarkable Life of Dr. Richard Briggs

From battlefield MD to artificial heart researcher to Tennessee state senator

BONNY C. MILLARD | The Ledger

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Richard Briggs is recognized in East Tennessee as a respected heart and lung surgeon, a one-time county commissioner and most recently an elected state senator, the Republican who defeated Stacey Campfield in 2014, ending his rather colorful tenure in the General Assembly.

While Campfield had made the state the butt of many jokes on shows like Letterman and The Daily Show, Briggs is a politician of another stripe, a conservative to be sure, but one who appears content to stay under the radar, at least for now.

Dr. Richard Briggs at the Bath Party Headquaters in Baghdad. Briggs, an East Tennessee heart and lung surgeon, was elected a state senator in 2014.

(Submitted)

A practicing physician for 37 years, Briggs’ experience goes well beyond exam and operating rooms in East Tennessee.

Rather than settling for the comforts of home, he has chosen over the years to serve as a combat trauma surgeon with combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. Doctors and nurses are as at risk as the men and women they are trying to save, and four doctors whom Briggs knew were killed during the conflicts.

Beyond East Tennessee, Briggs may be better recognized as the doctor in the field who treated ABC news war correspondent and anchorman Bob Woodruff in 2006 when he was seriously injured while reporting from Baghdad. Briggs later worked with Woodruff’s wife, Lee, to raise awareness about head injuries and the impact it has on the families of the victim.

A retired Army colonel in addition to his many other careers, Briggs recently shared the details of his military life, the risks of war and his accomplishments, with The Ledger.

A different West Point
Briggs grew up in West Point, Kentucky, not named for the United States Military Academy at West Point, though both have roots in the Revolutionary War.

The small community, located between Louisville and Fort Knox on the Ohio River, was founded by Briggs’ about eight-times great grandfather, James Young, who was awarded a land grant in Kentucky for his service in the Revolutionary War. Young also fought in the War of 1812.

“We have a long, long family history of military service,” Briggs says. “The home is still there that he built in the 1780s. We’ve had presidents that have stayed in the home.”

A “Jenny Lind bed,” spool-turned beds named for the Swedish Nightingale singer who become popular in the U.S., also played a part in his family’s history.

“Jenny Lind (1820-1887) slept there too,” Briggs explains. “The bed that I slept in as a boy growing up was the same bed that Jenny Lind had slept in back whenever she was there, sometime after the Civil War. We used to call that our Jenny Lind bed. The original Jenny Lind bed.”

His father, Richard A. Briggs, now 90, still lives in West Point. The senior Briggs was awarded a Bronze Star and earned a Purple Heart for injuries he received in World War II. When Briggs was home recently, his father took him to see Young’s grave. On the bottom of the gravestone were the words: “Mounted Spies in the War of 1812.”

Multiple relatives fought in the Civil War, and a great uncle served in the U.S. Navy in World War I. His mother’s oldest brother was a navigator on a B-17 when it was shot down and he became a German prisoner of war.

“My dad was an 18-year-old when he was drafted in World War II. He was in the infantry in Europe,” Briggs says. “He was wounded in Germany in 1945, and just when I was growing up, I was listening to the stories of all those World War II people, and even when I was a little boy, I always wanted to go into the Army.”

Teddy Roosevelt and Geronimo
Briggs joined the U.S. Army in 1974 after graduating from college, and the military put him through medical school at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine in Lexington. He graduated in 1978 and was sent to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where he received his heart and thoracic medical training. The medical center has a legendary place in history.

“It’s an old post. It’s where Teddy Roosevelt trained for the Rough Riders. When they captured Geronimo in the late 1800s, they brought him there and had him locked up. After Dwight Eisenhower graduated from West Point, it was his first assignment as a second lieutenant. Just a little history,” Briggs says with a smile. “It’s a very famous old, old Army Post.”

Briggs spent about 16 months in peacetime Korea in the mid-80s, then went from active to reserve status in 1989. He returned to Louisville, Kentucky, where he was involved in groundbreaking work with the Jarvik heart, named for its inventor, Robert Jarvik.

“We were doing the artificial heart transplants,” he says. “The FDA closed that project. It was a purely experimental project, and they closed that in November 1991.”

While he was building his career in Louisville, Iraq invaded Kuwait, leading to the Gulf War and the U.S. military’s Operation Desert Storm.

“I got called back up. I was actually in a real MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) not a field hospital. It was 807 MASH. We were assigned to the support the 1st Armored Division in Desert Storm, and my first trip to Iraq was in 1991 when we went into southern Iraq.”

The air attack started in January 1991, but the ground invasion didn’t occur for another month.

“In the meantime, Saddam was shooting those scud missiles into Saudi Arabia. We were still down near the ports waiting for our equipment to come in when the air war started. Every night they were shooting the scuds in, and we had the Patriot missiles, which shoot the scuds down.”

Briggs says they didn’t know if the scud missiles contained chemicals weapons or not, but they stayed prepared for it.

“Every night we were spending the night with our gas masks and our chemical suits, not knowing what was going to happen. There’s a lot of confusion, to say the least, in these situations.”

“We were expecting to get hit with chemical weapons any time. We had our chemical suits on so really all we had to do was put on the masks.”

Heroic effort
In the Battle of 73 Easting in February 1991, coalition forces with 2,000 armored vehicles crushed the Iraqi forces.

“We had to keep up with the armors so when they started taking casualties we were as close as we could be,” says Briggs. “We had to stay up close so you could use the ground evacuation.”

Briggs and fellow Republican Sen. Randy McNally of Oak Ridge listen to testimony in June about physician-assisted suicide.

(AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

Like his father before him, Briggs’ actions in a tent hospital against an enemy Iraqi combatant earned him the Bronze Star. Although he downplays his heroism, if it hadn’t been for his lightning-fast response, many people might have been killed that day – including Briggs.

A wounded and captured Iraqi soldier had been taken to the hospital for treatment with a hidden threat.

“There was an Iraqi – this is in Desert Storm – that had been wounded in the shoulder, and they brought him down on a litter,’’ Briggs explains. “This should never have happened. It should never have gotten to this because he came in on a helicopter. I was standing on one side of him, and there was a male nurse on the other.

“He (the Iraqi) reached down and was fiddling. I saw him. He had a shirt on, and he pulls out two hand grenades. He was on a litter. We had these litter stands where you put the handles to hold it up. It looks like a sawhorse. As soon as we saw that, I just pushed the litter off on the floor and that made him lose his balance, and then we could jump on him and wrestle the hand grenades away from him.”

One of Briggs’ favorite photos shows him and his father with their Bronze Stars.

Very dangerous work
Briggs stayed in Iraq until returning home in the summer of 1991.

After the artificial heart transplant program ended later that year, Briggs came to Knoxville to the University of Tennessee Medical Center. Many of his former Army medical colleagues from San Antonio were there at the time.

“They were recruiting, and they looking for someone to come down. We’d known each other and worked with each other for years when we were in the military together, mostly down in San Antonio.”

A couple of years later, he was deployed once again. This time it was to Egypt in October 1993 during the Somalia crisis, but his medical responsibilities were somewhat different.

The Army had stevedores who were responsible for unloading equipment from naval transport ships so it could be transported to the forces in Somalia. Briggs was there to provide medical treatment for injuries sustained during the unloading process such as broken arms and legs.

“The army unloads ships, not the navy, but it’s very dangerous work. We had a soldier killed. He fell like 40 feet down into the hold of the ship and was killed while we were there.”

It was a short-lived assignment of only two months because once the ships were unloaded, there was no reason for medical personnel to remain there. After leaving Egypt, Briggs was promoted to a full colonel and became the commander of a combat support hospital in Chattanooga.

Volunteer spirit
After the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he volunteered to return to active status and later was deployed to Afghanistan in May 2004.

“It’s something that I think people don’t understand,” Briggs explains. “You absolutely feel compelled. It didn’t matter whether it was Desert Storm or 9/11. When you watch those troops loading up in the planes to go overseas.

“I almost can’t describe it. It’s one of those irresistible things. You’re just drawn back to where you want to go be with the troops.”

Briggs with an injured boy in Iraq.

(Submitted)

Briggs was stationed in Afghanistan at Bagram Airfield, which is the U.S.’s largest base there. The former Russian airbase, about 60-70 miles north of Kabul, is in the valley of the Hindu Kush Mountains, near the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The highest peak is more than 25,000 feet.

While at this base, they lived in tents. Briggs took many photos and videos while he was stationed there. He and other medical personnel would fly up into remote valleys and treat the local people and provide other services. One photo he took shows a grandfather who brought his grandson in for treatment.

During one excursion, Briggs unexpectedly found himself in a firefight with other members of his team against four enemy combatants.

“The way this whole story started, it was in the morning, and we had gone outside the base, and then they started shooting mortars into the base,’’ Briggs recalls.

“We were actually having a women’s voter registration in one of the villages down there, and we were just going to go to provide medical support, but they (the enemy) attacked our base with mortars and rockets. We were diverted from going there to go after the people who had done it. We were already out. All we had to do was go after them.

“So we went back through the mountains and finally we pinned them on the side of that hill and got into the firefight and called in the helicopters to finish them off.”

“That’s the only time I ever fired my rifle,” he remembers.

One of the soldiers recorded the firefight on Briggs’ camera. Briggs plays the video on his cellphone, which is in eerie contrast the peaceful world of physician/politician in East Tennessee.

Machine guns and AK 47 assault rifles can be heard during the chaotic scene. A short time later, the helicopters make a pass through the area as they ended the attack.

Briggs and his group had to confirm that the four attackers were dead. The timing of the attack was different than what the base normally experienced.

“It was unusual because most of the attacks on the base occurred at night. It seemed like it was usually Friday nights. But this one happened during the day.”

Bullets just fall from the sky
After his time in Afghanistan, the combat surgeon was called again to duty: this time to Iraq in 2005. He was stationed in Baghdad, at the U.S. Army Combat Support Hospital, known as Baghdad ER.

Even though he was in the Green Zone, the danger of being shot was always present. One soldier that he treated was struck in the head by a falling bullet and another one in the back. It wasn’t a direct attack but rather falling bullets. Briggs saw a boy get hit in a similar manner.

“I don’t think I’d been in Iraq three days. There was a PX up next to the palace where Saddam was. There was a boy, probably not 50 feet in front of me. I just all of a sudden saw him go down, and he was hit. Now these weren’t bullets being shot at us; these were just bullets falling out of the air. And he got hit in the thigh with one.”

He took the boy to the hospital, which was only about three or four blocks away.

“I had a cold, and I gone to the PX to try to buy some Kleenex,” he says and can laugh about it now, “and I almost got shot.”

One night Briggs went to the roof of the hospital where he and others would go to relax. He was taking pictures when he heard an explosion from a car or truck bomb that had been driven into a market, killing or injuring hundreds of people.

One of his photos shows the plume of smoke as tall as 50-story building, which speaks to the amount of explosives used, he explains.

At times, it was just too dangerous to even go eat dinner.

“The mess hall wasn’t too far. You could look out up above you. There were tracers flying over. I used to always say, if there were too many, I’d just stay in my room and eat a power bar. And I didn’t try to go to the mess hall.”

Briggs was riding in a convoy just outside of the Green Zone when the vehicle in front struck an improvised explosive devise.

The passenger was killed, and the driver lost his right arm, but survived.

It was in the same area where ABC’s “World News Tonight” anchor Bob Woodruff was nearly fatally injured in a roadside bomb attack in January 2006 while covering the war with a patrol convoy near Taji, north of Baghdad.

Briggs treated Woodruff before he was evacuated. Woodruff remained in a coma for more than a month as a result of his injuries. Since that time, Briggs has traveled on speaking tours with Woodruff’s wife, Lee, about head injuries and the impact it has on families.

Service has always been a part of Brigg’s life. After his final combat tour, he retired from the military but continues his work as a heart and lung surgeon at Tennova Medical Center.

“I could have retired 12 years earlier and gotten my retirement, benefits and all those things. But it’s just also this sense of – it sounds sort of corny – but you want to give back.”

Even though he’s no longer in the military, Briggs continues to stay updated on the War on Terror and the number of American lives it has claimed.

“We send a lot of our young men and women overseas to protect us and not all of them come home,” he says. “This war has been going on for almost 14 years, and it’s continuing to go on.

“I don’t know how much more that we’re going to have to do to deal with ISIS, but every day that we don’t have another terrorist attack in this country, we can thank the young men and women who are willing to go over there and make those sacrifices for us.”

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