Death and Truth in Aghanistan: A Doctor’s Account

Dr. Kevin Patterson wrote a personal account of his 6 week tour in Afghanistan in Mother Jones magazine. The account is gripping, and well written. It captures the pain, futility and true cost of war.
A portion of this account dealt with the death of Cpl. Kevin Megeney.
Corporal Kevin Megeny died March 6, 2007 of a “friendly” fire incident, he had volunteered to go in December. He was motivated by a desire to help.

“He believed in the mission we are carrying out in Afghanistan today,” Cpl. Bowden, dressed in beige fatigues, said in a eulogy that mixed humour with raw emotion.
“That was his reason for serving. That was his reason for going. He believed that he would make a difference. He wanted to help.”

The account of this young soldier’s death is very graphic and hard to read. It is hard to read because Cpl. Kevin Megeney has become more than a statistic, more than another coffin ceremony. The last moments of Cpl. Megeney’s life have been described, not in attempt to shock or horrify but to understand the last sacrifice of this soldier. I did not find the descriptions particularly horrid, but they were real. Coming from a medical background (animal not human), I have been there , but certainly not to the same emotional level. A controversy arose after the publication of the article.

Members of Kevin Megeny’s family were upset by the graphic description of his death and the lack of express permission to use Kevin’s name.. Even singer, Loreena McKennit, entered into the debate:

“The real issue of this story is not that gruesome details of war were divulged, but rather that a soldier and his family’s privacy was invaded,” Ms. McKennitt wrote in a posting on Mother Jones’s website.
“Hopefully, Dr. Patterson secured the permission of the soldier’s family to disclose his identity. If not, this is a deeply regrettable breach, not only of his own code of ethics as a doctor and quite possibly in his duty to the Department of National Defence, but significantly to the privacy of the soldier and his family at a time of exceptional vulnerability.”
Mother Jones did not expressly seek the permission of the Megeny family before publication, but they did make them aware of the article before publication.
…what The News failed to report (in part because it didn’t talk to us or Dr. Patterson) in its initial article was that I spoke to Cpl. Megeney’s mother at length by phone and that even after reading the article, some members of the immediate family wrote us to thank us for publishing the article and Dr. Patterson for doing all he could to try to save Cpl. Megeney. Here’s the response that I posted on our website after a few people who’d read The News article wrote in to express their outrage:
As the co-editor of Mother Jones, I would like to make a few things clear in regards to the part of this story that involves Cpl. Kevin Megeney. First, we sent a letter to Cpl. Megeney’s parents, uncle, and sisters, ahead of publication, informing them that this 7,000 word diary of a doctor’s month of service at Kandahar Air Field did contain a scene involving the tragic death of their son. That it was written by a doctor present when Cpl. Megeney was brought in for emergency surgery, and that it would likely be disturbing to those close to him. We offered to send it to them or any intermediary they would like if they thought it would be too disturbing to read it themselves.

I then spoke with Mrs. Megeney by phone at length. She assured me that the family would like to see the article, and that she was a nurse and would read it before any other members of her family; she said it would help to have closure to know more about what happened. We heard from other members of the family who also wanted to read it, and some whom, after they did, expressed the desire to write to Dr. Patterson “to express my appreciation to him for exhausting every effort to save [him].” They asked that we link to Cpl. Megeney’s memorial site, which we were already planning on doing, so our readers would have a chance to express their condolences [they’ve since asked that it be removed. See below].

As to the question of anonymity: The death of Cpl. Megeney was an extremely well covered story in Canada. There was no way to write about the incident and not have it be instantly clear to any member of his family or any member of the Canadian press, or anyone who’d followed the story who we were talking about simply by omitting his name. So we felt it would be false anonymity at best. Doctors can and do publicly talk about how patients die when the story is already in the news—consider press conferences following tragic accidents. And there was certainly nothing in this account that disparaged Cpl. Megeney, who served his country admirably and died in a tragic accident.

This was an extremely emotional story to work on. The account of Cpl. Megeney’s death was particularly poignant, but there were many other stories in there of death and injury to soldiers and civilians that are hard to read. But in our opinion for the greater public to live in denial about what happens in a war does a disservice to those soldiers who serve and the civilians who are affected.

The correspondence that Mother Jones provides does not depict a family uniformly opposed to the article. Comments to the article indicate that members of the family were appreciative of the article and of Dr.Patterson’s efforts.

I have spoke to the family concerning this issue, and once again the media has made a complete mess. They are very appreciative for the efforts the medical team put forth to try and save their family member. The only issue concerning this article was that they would have wanted to see it before it hit the stands. THATS IT!!! They have not asked Mother Jones to pull the article and I see by peoples comments its actually the general public saying to pull the article. Not them. But the media loves to stir the pot, and in this case they did a good job….Posted by:Barb from Nova Scotia onAugust 4, 2007 2:55:39 PM

How far does doctor – patient privilege extend ? Does it extend beyond death ? Certainly Dr. Patterson’s account while gritty, does not reflect badly on Cpl.Megeney. I am not qualified to discuss the ethics of the situation. But, if most of the family , especially the immediate family thought that the article was a service to Cpl.Megeney, I fail to see any controversy. With the title “Doctor’s gory tale angers soldier’s family”, any thought of balance coverage is immediately abandoned, and the thrust of the article is to stir emotions rather than cover a story.

The news articles covering Cpl. Megeney discuss the immediate circumstances of his death, how Cpl. Megeney believed in what he was doing and the support the community has given the family. While this is truthful, to an extent, I think these articles do a poor service of what is actually happening in the war.
Dr. Patterson’s account of the war in general and in Cpl. Megeney’s death in particular are suffused with a sense of bravery, despair and futility. Could the account of Cpl. Megeney’s death been given without revealing his identity ? Yes. But, I think the account would have been lost like any other tragic statistic. A sad incident floating in an impresonal void with nothing to root it to the people back home. By, revealing Cpl. Megeneys name, the whole incident becomes that much more real – this is somebody’s son, nephew, friend. He has really died and there are real people feeling the pain of his death back in Canada.
This, in the end is what war is really about. There is no glory just blood and more blood. The main stream news just can not or will not cover this aspect of the war. This would be bad for the hometown readers, bad for recruitment and ultimately “bad” for the troops because we are “not supporting them” by truthfully telling the world what war and life is really like.
It is this very truth telling I think that has gotten that has prompted DND to limit what civilian doctor contractors may release.

Stung by the publication of a magazine article by one of its doctors that includes the graphic description of the death of a Canadian soldier in Afghanistan, the Department of National Defence has changed its contracts with civilian physicians, warning them not to release sensitive information and to respect patient confidentiality.
The military has launched two investigations of Dr.Patterson.
“One conducted by the military police will determine if Dr. Patterson disclosed classified information about the Megeney case, while the other investigation being conducted by the military’s health services branch will determine if Patterson breached any medical codes of ethics and conduct by writing the story.”

It is interesting that the Canadian military has launched into more investigations of Dr.Patterson. At the same time, several months after Cpl.Megeney’s deat , there has been no official word on the outcome of the investigation into the circumstances of his death. With doubt and controversy arising from the U.S Ranger, Pat Tillman’s death, the Canadian military is likely trying to avoid any appearance of a quick investigation and coverup.
The delay in any official response , the rapidity in launching two new investigations, and the tightening of any information leaks (leaks that do not affect the security of Canadian soldiers, but might affect the way Canadians perceive the mission in Afghanistan), is cause for speculation that there is more left unsaid in this story.
Once again, as it has before, the miliatary and the government of Cadana is trying to control the information that is leaving Afghanistan. They are doing it not to protect soldiers, but rather to protect the image of the military, the mission and the Harper government back home. Propaganda by omission.

War is dehumanizing, brutal and cold. To provide a clean and sanitized view of this insane activity is to perpetuate the myth and the glory of war and to live somewhere outside of the truth. Why was it that the Bush administration did not want pictures taken of anonymous flag draped coffins of its returning soldiers ? Tto so spare the families — how can one coffin be differentiated from another, but rather to spare the sensibilities of a delicate public that ware really kills and it kills people that we know.
Dr. Patterson’s article is well written, informative and packs a tough emotional punch, because it does not hold back or preach the platitudes of war. To truly support the troops does not mean blind acquiescence to all that they are ordered to do.
We should be informed of the conditions these men and women have to work in and appreciate how tough the job is. This means not shying away from the truth about the plain horridness of war, the fate of Afghani civilians , the torture of detainees. Anything less than a full understanding of what is happening in a war fought under the Canadian banner is an abdication of the duties of citizenry. Any organization – the government, military and news included – that decides that certain truths are harmful, not because it endangers the troops but rather because it endangers the image of the government on the military brass, is an institution that is betraying the ideal the troops are supposedly fighting for. Such an institution is no friend of democracy.

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