AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Dr. Carolina Perez is a surgical podiatrist with the Amarillo Veterans Healthcare System. Dr. Perez herself is a veteran, having served 12 years in the United States Air Force.
Perez was born in Colombia and at the age of 11 moved to south Florida.
When she was 18 years old, Perez enrolled in the United States Air Force, looking for something different.
“When I grew up in Colombia and also in West Palm Beach, it was a lot of service industry kind of like, vacation jobs and things like that. So, I wanted to do things differently, so when I heard about the Air Force, I was very interested in doing something different, traveling and doing something exciting,” said Perez.
Perez’s first base was Lackland Air Force Base.
“That was the first time I had left West Palm Beach, went to Texas, and at that point, I just figured, I love Texas, even though I was in basic training,” added Perez.
After completing basic training, Perez would be stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base in Idaho, during this time September 11th occurred, and the base was activated into combat.
“I was in active duty not too long before going into combat for 9/11…We got called maybe around 4 P.M., everybody saw on TV what had happened and about three hours later, we were basically in full kevlar, full combat gear, they called out bugged out status and we were all on air crafts, full weapons going, but they didn’t tell any of us where we were going. They just told us ‘You are getting on this plane, we are going to arrive eventually,’ and we didn’t know where we were going,” said Perez.
Perez said going into combat at that time as a female was challenging.
“At the time when we arrived at our camp, it was me and another female and about 202 males, so that was very challenging for a couple of reasons. They really didn’t have a lot of experience at that time with females in combat and they really didn’t have a lot of time and experience to set up something as simple as a tent, a living facility. So, at the time, they were like ‘You are two females, so go stay in that tent and all the guys are going to stay here,’ and we were like ok, we are going to get mortared by ourselves in this tent because no one is watching because it is just the two of us, so it was challenging to say the least to be one of the only females at the time,” said Perez.
Initially, Perez was assigned engineering for Operation Enduring Freedom.
“So, when we deployed after 9/11, we actually made the first air base of the entire war when we got deployed with my base. So our job at the time, with being an engineer, is you go and you set up a camp, tents, shelters, it’s kind of like you set up what you would call a tent city, which is a mini establishment, a mini town to take care of everything and another part of our job was to put the airfield back together after it got bombed, which at the time was quite a bit,” said Perez.
Perez remained an engineer for about four years until she was able to choose another career field, which led her to combat medic.
“So the school for being a tech or being a combat medic, it entails an aggressive, like one to two years of lots of combat training, but also lots of first responder and lots of hands-on patient care, so they train you pretty well and by the time you get there, you kind of know what you are doing and I kind of had the extra advantage, that I had already been in combat, not as a medic, but as an engineer, so I had already been there done that. I had been in mortar attacks, and I had already experienced live fire, so those are the things that will make a difference when you are trying to do your job,” said Perez.
Perez added being a combat medic is much like working in a trauma center stateside, except that people are trying to attack you while you provide care.
“You will be kind of in a stretcher, with your battle buddy and you will be taking shrapnel out of a leg, like we do, making a small incision removing shrapnel, but all of a sudden there is a huge scud flying over you that almost, what we call clipped you, meaning almost blew your head off. So that’s kind of a big difference, within in that, of course, you take cover inside of our tents when we have a hospital, the entire tent is not protected and many times you are getting patients in and out of choppers. A lot of times you are patroling, so there is not much protection. It’s like you are trying to do your job, but everybody is trying to blow you up and shoot you while you are doing it, sometimes even the patients,” said Perez.
Perez added that there are sides of being a combat medic that the public oftentimes doesn’t see.
“So, you are under the Red Cross, and under the Red Cross, you take care of everybody. You take care of detainees. Detainees, meaning the guy that just planted a bomb on your tent and they detain him, they get him, but he actually got shot, let’s say in the torso or leg, he still comes to your tent and you still have to take care of him, in a very unbiased professional way. Another thing people don’t see when you’re a combat medic, you are not just taking care of our own guys, of course we do, that is our job, but there is, at least there was where I was, a lot of pediatric injuries and casualties. Mothers, children and that’s very difficult to see and difficult to process,” said Perez.
Perez said the number one targeted area when she was in Iraq was the hospital.
“Because they knew that was a place where you could get the most amount of people if you threw one mortar, they obviously didn’t want to waste their mortar, so that was an ideal place to throw it there. Church, they knew when people were having church services, like the church tent or the mass tent and the other one of course was the chow hall, where we eat. But the hospital was the number one or two target,” said Perez.
After 12 years, Perez left the Air Force, but still had a calling to help, and decided to go to medical school.
“At the time being a medic, it’s almost as if you feel like you are a dog chasing a car. There is so much chaos and so many wounded people and just seeing some of the most horrible things you will ever see in your life on a daily basis per minute, although you are doing your best job, you feel really helpless, no matter how good of a job your doing and the physician working with you and the PAs are doing, and the nurses are doing. One thing I took away from it, from being in combat is you can’t save the whole world, you can’t help everybody, but you can help one person at a time…Though, I loved being a combat medic, I felt just a huge limitation in my scope of practice when I saw things that were big injuries that were over my head, I always just wished, I wish I was a physician, I wish I had the skills right now to help you to make sure you don’t go into cardiac arrest, but being a combat medic, you have limitations, because you are not a surgeon, and you are not a physician, and you didn’t go to med school at that point for 12 years, so you are acting on instincts and the training that you have been given,” said Perez.
According to Kentucky/Indiana Foot & Ankle Specialists, Perez obtained her bachelor’s degree at the University of Central Florida, then attended Temple School of Podiatric Medicine in Pennsylvania to obtain her degree in podiatry. She would successfully complete her 3-year residency program at New York Presbyterian in Brooklyn, New York.
“So I’m a surgical podiatrist and when I was in combat, I treated a lot of lower extremity injuries, whether that was fractures, wounds, infections, or anything like that…So I took care of this body part for a very long time in active duty and that is why it was an easy transition when I went to pick my specialty. I wanted to do something that was hands-on, something that was surgical, and something where I was doing lots of procedures. So, I think a surgical podiatrist brings all of that together for me,” said Perez.
For Perez working at the VA is an extension of her active duty time.
“This is a wonderful in-between where working at the VA is a little bit or a lot of it is like working in active duty and having comradery and having all of these people you can talk to and share all these experiences with you… I think that is why patients that come here to the VA love coming here to the VA or many of them do, because it is a space where you can sit as an ex-military or prior military person, you can say all these things, and we are like this big family where everybody knows what you are talking about. Yes, I have been there. Done that. I can be sitting in a chair and maybe somebody is World War II and I was in Iraq and we can talk about the exact same stuff, like the food was terrible, like you used to drink cold coffee and you can also relate and bond on these things. So this bond kind of transcends time, it transcends gender most times, that link you have with people and certainly time zones. You can put veterans together from Iraq, Afghanistan, World War II, Korea, Desert Storm, and Vietnam, they will have so many things in common, and a very similar experience after getting out of active duty or coming back from combat,” said Perez.
Lackland Air Force Base was not only Perez’s first base, but it was also her last, and during her final time there she served as a combat instructor for the Stars program.
Perez added her first deployment during Operation Enduring Freedom was eight months and she was deployed for another ten or eleven months to Iraq during Operation Iraqi Freedom.