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‘Education is a currency for survival’: Jon Kerstetter on politics, war and recovery


Iowa City Book Festival Presents: Jon Kerstetter

Prairie Lights — Saturday, Oct. 13 at 1 p.m.

In July of 2003, Jon Kerstetter, a U.S. Army National Guard combat physician, found himself in a rather bizarre situation. Despite a lack of training or certification in forensic pathology, Kerstetter was commanded to identify the dead bodies of both Uday and Qusay Hussein. U.S. Army Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez, Commander of Coalition Ground Forces in Iraq, ordered Kerstetter to find a way to verify the deceased’s identities in order to aid in the war effort. During their father’s reign, the notoriously hedonistic sons of Saddam Hussein were renowned for their violent, erratic behavior which often resulted in the suffering and/or death of Iraqi citizens. There was hope that Iraqis would cooperate with the U.S. war effort so long as the U.S. could guarantee no reprisals from Saddam’s family. Formally identifying the Hussein brothers’ bodies became a critical task to winning Iraqi hearts and minds.

Though Kerstetter was not legally qualified to make the identification himself, he quickly found a team of experienced pathologists who could do the job. Shortly after assembling in Baghdad the team positively identified both of the Hussein brothers and, on July 22, 2003, General Sanchez announced their deaths to the world. In overseeing the operation, Kerstetter had crossed over from his traditional role saving lives and into the morbid world of forensic pathology. Though the operation was a success, for Kerstetter, the transition, crossing between roles as a lifesaver and coroner was not easy.

This crossing was not Kerstetter’s first, nor would it be his last. Kerstetter’s new book, Crossings: A Doctor-Soldier’s Story, chronicles many of these major life transitions. From his impoverished childhood on the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin reservation to his adult life as a doctor, a soldier, a stroke survivor and now a published author, Kerstetter has lived a lot of stories. Little Village recently sat down with him to discuss his new book, his amazing life and his plan to help other veterans come to terms with their own harsh crossings.

For those who haven’t read your book, can you define what a crossing is and why you chose Crossings as the book’s title?

Growing up on a Native American reservation in Oneida, Wisconsin, you have a lot of barriers, traps if you will, getting off the reservation. You’re not going to be educated, you’re certainly not going to be a doctor. You might end up a soldier but you’re not going to do these other things … My mom decided to leave the reservation — not to abandon the culture but as a way of preserving the culture. For her, it was all about survival … [Years] later, she said to me: “If we’d stayed there you would have been dead or drunk by the time you were 20.” She ended up having to make a literal crossing of geography [from Wisconsin to Utah]. She had to make another crossing when I went to college — crossing that boundary of education … When coming up with a title for the book it was challenge because we had a kid-becoming-a-doctor story, a doctor becoming a soldier story, a soldier losing his career and now we have this rebuilding story … One of the first publishers even said: “There are four memoirs here!”

The beauty of it was taking readers on that crossing journey, from the time I was a little kid mowing that lawn on Oneida to the time I lose my career, recuperate and the book is published. Those crossings are pivotal points in my life, and yet every person who reads this book identifies with the crossings. Because every single person alive goes through these crossing episodes whether it’s losing an arm in a car accident, losing a child, losing a job, getting divorced or losing our mind — veterans come home and lose their mind because of PTSD. That’s why the book is so important and why the number one comment I get from veterans who read it is that it’s not a war book, it’s a healing book.

Was there a lot of culture shock for you, as a child, moving from the Oneida reservation in Wisconsin to Utah? How did your perspective change from looking out at the rest of the world from the reservation and, later, looking back at the reservation from the outside world?

My mom got a job as a scrub lady at the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. She was at the bottom of the barrel [socially] and she was losing touch with her Oneida roots while her children were gaining traction with the counterculture. We were brown-skinned kids in a white-skinned world … There was an oddball rule that [children of] employees of the school did not attend the Indian School, they went to school in town. It was a blessing in disguise because you got reading, writing, math, biology, chemistry — none of which they had at Intermountain. We wrote essays, read Shakespeare, while Native kids at the Indian school were getting [classes in] wiring assistant, carpentry assistant …

In the town we were social; some of us went out for football. The younger teachers coming off college were less interested in the color of your skin than the content of your head. We were exposed to world culture, literature, art, music — I was in the band. By this time I was in love with medicine. I loved science. I had more rocks and bugs than anyone in my class. My mom saved to buy me a microscope. I’d prick my own finger and look at the red blood cells. One of the teachers, Mr. Bennett, asked me what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to be a doctor. He said I needed to go to college and that was a surprise to me — I’d thought you could just “be” a doctor.

Jon Kerstetter reads at Prairie Lights as part of the Iowa City Book Festival.

What is your relationship to your heritage? Do you struggle to struggle to stay connected to your Oneida roots? How do you react to the perception that native peoples are only a part of our American past but not our present?

My sister married a Navajo man; she got her LPN degree and the moved back to the reservation and raised kids. When people asked me in college if I was leaving my culture I’d disagree. It’s not like I can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, take my brown skin off and become someone else for the day. I carry my culture with me; I carry the smell of my grandfather, the looks of my ancestors, and some pieces of their language but most importantly I carry a sensitivity about native culture. That said, every native person who decides they are going to become educated crosses a barrier. There are no medical schools on the Oneida Reservation. There’s the Navajo Community College but I am not aware of any other tribes that have their own medical school or law school or engineering program.

Is getting an education equated with becoming “white?”

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Yes, in a lot of circles. But that’s the rub. How do you become a doctor without going to medical school? One of the reasons I love the sciences is because they are essentially, though not totally, colorblind. The anatomy course doesn’t care what color you are. If you learn it you open up a powerful wedge in terms of actually effecting the culture you came from. I talk to young Native Americans and tell them if they are going to survive this culture, as a whole, education is their sword. Even if you’re a farm kid from Iowa, if you don’t have an education you’re going to struggle. As much as that pulls me away from the core of native practice it allows me to effect native culture because, in the end, if we don’t survive we will be gone. Education is a currency for survival.

How has being a soldier shaped your politics? How did you react, as a healer who served in the conflict, to the revelation that the incursion into Iraq was based on false pretenses?

Those are tough questions because, as a Native American, my mother hated the government. She distrusted the government and thought the government was out to get her. She was afraid, especially at tax time, that she would make a mistake and be taken to prison for it. A lot of native peoples’ land was taken from them. The Winnebago Removal Act removed Indians from their land. Even some of the land given back to Native Americans was taken again through government means … I look at politics, and it’s a quagmire. It does nothing to save the plight, or increase the health, of the common citizen — and not just in America; this is a global problem. In Iraq if Saddam didn’t like you, and I had medical students verify this several time, you would be kicked out of medical school and maybe a member of your family would disappear. There is not a war that is fought that doesn’t involve politics. For guys like me, we don’t get to make those politics. I don’t get the debate the politics, I just have to go.

Can anybody in their right mind justify what is going on at the Veterans’ Administration? There seems to be no easy fix. Well, I’ve got lots of ideas about it and so do a lot of veterans. This year’s current budget for the VA is in excess of $180 billion. The discretionary aspect of that budget is in excess of $80 billion. There are very good things being done at the VA and part of my stroke recovery was one of those positive things. They took their time and I had a very good team of caretakers on both the mental health and cognitive recovery side. I was critical of the medical side of the house because they didn’t do the kinds of things I expected — not only as a patient but also as a doctor. It’s like a bifurcated system, one side does a very good job, the other side not so much. Why isn’t there a homeless veteran program at the VA? The bureaucratic answer is there’s no solution. The physician’s answer is let’s find a way to fix this and I don’t care how long it takes.

Can you talk about the crossing from life before your stroke to life afterward? What was the most challenging part of recovery?

I had been at the top of my game before the stroke. Then because of a few air bubbles it was all gone. The struggle was to admit it, own up to it, relinquish my license and begin a new career. I didn’t want my kids to see me as a damaged old man. The VA wanted me to go into an MFA writing program, but my reading comprehension, at the time, was in the 3rd percentile which is the reading level of the 4th grader. I used to go to the Iowa City public library and I’d move down the reading level until I got to Charlotte’s Web. I’d hide in the corner because I didn’t want anyone to see me reading kids’ books.

It took me three years to get back up to the 5th percentile — 5th percentile in an MFA program; that wasn’t going to happen. I lacked confidence and was scared to death. I could tell stories but they didn’t translate from my mind to my book. Words were missing or garbled. I didn’t know what they meant by narrative arc or theme. Reading assignments that took other students in my cohort eight hours would take me eight days, literally. I didn’t let them water it down but it was tough. Every week I wanted to quit. I wrote one essay during the two year period, called “Triage,” that was published in Best American Essays 2013. It’s a powerful piece, and I had an agent call me asking for more and I told him I had an outline for a book. Over two years of development I edited the book. I realized I needed to show the totality of what happened, the good and the bad. I need to talk about the parts that make you cry and the parts where people die.

So, in some ways, the stroke has led to more honesty?

Well, I think what it did was liberate me to think deeply about issues. Because I can’t think quickly I am forced to think deeply. In terms of art and writing it has allowed me to consider things in a way I’ve never thought of before. For example one day a dandelion seed landed on my hand and I wondered how much it weighed. I thought: “It was like the heft of a childhood memory,” and then I wondered how pain relates to dandelion seeds. Well, that day I was having a lot of pain in my arm. When the seed touched my skin, the feeling of the seed superseded my pain. I ended up writing that pain “sometimes is like a dandelion seed, other times it’s like a bolt of thunder.” The stroke allowed me to go deep, approach ideas from different angles and come out with a different perspective.

When I finally admitted that I was no longer able to be a doctor it was a release. I came to grips with the opportunity I now had to change people’s lives through writing. I can still influence the way they think about war, tragedy, loss, PTSD, the challenges of education, politics, stroke — and even though I can no longer be a doctor I can still make a difference.

You’re a published author, you’re recovering from your stroke. What is your next crossing?

I’m trying to find outlets to move back into the healing paradigm. I want people to read the book and understand that you can cross and you can heal but you’ve got to be willing to do the work. For young soldiers coming back, you’ve got to be willing to do the therapy. I want to put together a writing conference for veterans. We can explore the process of healing through writing. If I can find a way to promote healing through writing I will feel like I’ve really accomplished something.


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