DALLAS (AP) — Within days of the 9/11 attacks, Jerrold Grodin responded in a way thousands of other Americans did: He marched into an Army recruiter's office and enlisted.
But Grodin wasn't your typical fresh-faced recruit. He was a 50-something doctor, a board-certified cardiologist with a long-established group practice at Baylor Hamilton Heart and Vascular Hospital. And he had three college-age daughters and a wife of 26 years, whom he hadn't yet told of his plans to enlist. At a time when his peers were thinking ahead to retirement, Grodin was about to trade in his blue scrubs for green Army fatigues.
Now, approaching the end of his commitment with the Army Reserve, he is being called a hero for his service, which included two tours in Iraq as an internist and critical care doctor.
But eight years ago, his decision caught even those closest to him by surprise. His family thought he was heedlessly putting his life at risk. Friends and colleagues wondered if he was having a midlife crisis.
What would cause a doctor, with a prestigious and lucrative practice, a family man with deep roots in his community, to willingly turn his life upside down and throw himself into the most dangerous place on earth?
The decision brought a feeling of release from an old burden: Grodin was finally answering a calling avoided for decades. The only thing he wasn't certain of was how the Army would react.
"I wasn't sure they would take a 52-year-old guy," he said. "And I wasn't in the best shape."
To understand Jerry Grodin's calling, you have to know where he and his family come from.
His grandfather, David Kaplan, was born in Poland. He studied to become a rabbi. But he repeatedly got in trouble for reading U.S. history instead of doing his lessons. He'd read the Federalist Papers and other books by American political thinkers, hiding them inside his Talmud, a collection of texts on Jewish law.
Kaplan arrived in El Paso in the 1930s after fleeing Poland to escape the Holocaust. Turned away from Ellis Island because of immigration quotas, he came ashore at Veracruz, Mexico, made his way to Juarez and crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso.
During World War II, Grodin's grandfather took in Jewish soldiers from nearby Fort Bliss, offering home-cooked meals. "They called it Kaplan's USO," Grodin said.
Grodin's father, from Brooklyn, N.Y., met his mother, one of Kaplan's daughters, over one such meal. Irwin Grodin fought in World War II, flying a B-29 bomber on missions over Guam.
Jerry was born in El Paso in 1949, the oldest of six children. After synagogue, Jerry often walked home with his grandfather, listening to his stories. The old man would talk about how he felt the day he crossed the Santa Fe Bridge from Mexico into downtown El Paso to become a U.S. resident. "He'd say that to everybody else, the streets of El Paso may be just dust and mud. But to him, they were streets of gold!"
Grodin still treasures a book that his father, who died in April, gave him — "Brave Men," by legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle. "That book molded me. We'd look at photos of my dad during the war, shirtless, standing by his plane. Brave Men was my Dad," Grodin said.
Grodin said he's always "felt a debt of obligation to repay this country for keeping our family from being made into soap by the Nazis." And he felt that military service was the definitive way to repay that debt.
His first chance to serve was during the Vietnam War. He was in medical school, however, and a high lottery number in the draft allowed him to finish his studies. "I never felt well about that," he said.
His second chance came during the first Gulf War in late 1990. Again, Grodin thought about enlisting. But his children were too young.
That was that. Until Sept. 11, 2001.
Time to choose
Grodin's second daughter, Shoshana, was a senior at New York University and lived three blocks from the World Trade Center. After the second plane struck the Twin Towers, the Grodins could not get through to her. Anxious hours passed until Shoshana called. She had escaped by foot across the Brooklyn Bridge.
The next day, just weeks after celebrating his birthday, Grodin called a recruiter who told him to report to the Federal Building in downtown Dallas.
Grodin showed up at the appointed hour, 5 a.m., waiting in line with kids more than half his age to undergo a battery of tests and physical exams. At the registration desk, he recalled, a sergeant asked: "Are you here about your son?"
"No," Grodin said, flustered. "I'm here to serve my country."
For several weeks, he didn't tell anyone about his visit to the Army office. He knew his wife, Julee, would be angry, and he didn't want to tell her until he was certain the Army would take him.
When he finally broke the news, Julee let him have it.
"I was not happy," she said on a recent Sunday afternoon at the Grodins' home in North Dallas. "I was in shock and devastated and, 'How dare you do something like this big without consulting me? This is a family thing, and for you to do this without, you know, talking to the family about it.' I was very angry and resentful. It took a while to get over that."
Others were mystified. "I'm sure some people thought, 'Is he crazy? What the heck is he doing?' " said Dr. John Schumacher, a founding partner with Grodin of Cardiology Consultants of Texas. "I'm sure people were going, 'My God, what's he thinking?' "
Schumacher, however, saw something in the impulsive move by his longtime associate that made sense.
"Jerry has always been a very passionate man and always very patriotic and very committed to his Jewish faith," he said. "It isn't surprising to me that he would run out and do this."
Grodin didn't see his act as impulsive, but a long time developing.
Just as Pyle's "Brave Men" had influenced him, Grodin had been inspired as an adult by Theodore Roosevelt, often re-reading the famous speech called "The Man in the Arena." He memorized the quote in which Roosevelt describes a man "whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly … who spends himself in a worthy cause" and who, "if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly."
Another favorite quote was one attributed to Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish leader who lived around the time of Christ: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?"
In the aftermath of 9/11, Grodin said, "I was very aware that I was at a crossroads, that if I was going to do this, I had to do it now. There was no question there was a national emergency. I knew in terms of my age that I was pushing the envelope (and) that they might not even take me. And I knew that if not now, then when?"
He was commissioned a major on Dec. 23, 2001, and assigned to the 807th Medical Brigade, in Seagoville, southeast of Dallas. By the time he was activated, the war on terror had shifted to Iraq, mired in a bloody insurgency.
Operating under fire
In early 2004, Grodin deployed to Kuwait and then transferred to the 67th Combat Support Hospital at Forward Operating Base Diamondback in Mosul, Iraq. That spring saw a violent uprising among the Iraqi Shiite population.
His first night in camp, Grodin awoke to explosions and a loud voice over the base intercom shouting: "Bunkers! Bunkers! Bunkers!"
In the dark, as he staggered into the concrete bunker, he stubbed his foot and fell. "Who's that?" someone asked, shining a flashlight and revealing a shelter crammed with nurses and doctors. "Oh, that's the new guy, Major Grodin," someone answered. He realized with a jolt that he was the only one stripped down to his skivvies.
The heaviest action came the nights of April 8 and 9, 2004. A stream of casualties came into the hospital. Because of nearby sniper fire, the medical staff was in "full battle rattle," wearing body armor and helmets and carrying weapons.
Grodin triaged the wounded and provided post-operative care. He worked 48 hours straight. Most of the casualties were American soldiers, but the medical staff also treated Iraqi locals and enemy combatants.
"You're talking about combat trauma, which is primarily high-velocity projectiles, gunshot wounds, very destructive," Grodin said. "You're talking about blast injuries from mortars and rockets. You're talking about burns."
In one case, his cardiology training helped saved a life. A special forces soldier had been shot through the back and the bullet had deflated his lung. What the medical staff didn't know was that the bullet had also nicked his heart.
Noticing the soldier's bulging neck veins, Grodin realized the sac around the heart was filling with fluid — squeezing the heart and causing pressure to back up into his jugular veins. He quickly drained fluid in the sac, lowering the blood pressure, and sent the soldier into the operating room. He survived his wounds.
"It was a good thing he had a cardiologist working in the ER that day," Grodin said.
After Grodin returned from his first deployment, his wife noticed a difference. "He had a hard time relating to the simple, everyday things, like going to a movie, going to lunch, going out to dinner, the things I was used to doing," she said.
Grodin said it was hard to leave the war behind at first. After treating soldiers with gaping chest wounds, routine tasks like tracking his patients' cholesterol levels seemed almost superfluous. "It's very hard when you leave your men and women behind in your units and you know they're still doing all that."
In 2006, he spent four months at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where he cared for U.S. soldiers evacuated from Iraq. Most recently he went to Tikrit, Iraq, on another 120-day deployment that ended last month and revealed a relatively more peaceful Iraq than the one he saw in 2004.
While in Germany, he went to see the Nazi concentration camp in Mauthausen, Austria.
"I wanted to go to say the Kaddish," the Jewish prayer for the dead, and mourn those who had died in the old rock quarry, he said. In a quiet show of defiance, he wore his tallis, a Jewish prayer shawl, over his Army uniform.
"I wanted everyone there to know that I was a Jewish G.I."
Now 59 and a lieutenant colonel, Grodin's commitment to the Army Reserve ends in December. He said he will resign his commission in keeping with his wife's wishes. The couple recently celebrated their 34th anniversary at a favorite Greek restaurant. Julee Grodin said she loves her husband even more than when she married him, "because I know him so much better."
Looking back, he regrets the hardship his decision caused his wife and his medical partners, who had to cover for his patients as well as his night and weekend rotations. But if he hadn't acted when he did, he would have felt a deep void an emptiness potentially leading to disappointment and unhappiness, he said.
The experience hasn't changed him so much as enlarged his life, he said. It gave him a chance to meet other reservists, "civilian soldiers" like himself, who in the middle of comfortable lives left careers and families to serve their country.
"I've been made a better man by the people I served with. I've been imbued by their patriotism, selflessness and courage," he said.
"I will be sad when my eight years are up."
Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.