81-Year-Old Veteran Answers Army's Call for Retired Medical Professionals to Help With Coronavirus Outbreak

Newsweek's "Heroes of the Pandemic" series features everyday heroes showing service, sacrifice or kindness in the time of COVID-19.

When the Army asked retirees to return to active duty to help with the coronavirus response effort, Colonel Arthur Wittich, an 81-year-old doctor, answered the call.

"I'm ready to do whatever is necessary, that's just the way I am," Wittich told Newsweek. "It's not that I'm careless or foolish, but if I can do what's necessary to help a situation, I'm ready to do it even if there's danger involved."

America's dealing with the largest outbreak of the new coronavirus worldwide, and more than 466,000 people have tested positive. The massive outbreak has required a massive response, and to fill potential personnel shortages, the Army reached out to more than 800,000 retired soldiers, asking if they would be willing to return to active duty.

When the email came, Wittich typed out a quick response and hit Send: "Willing to serve if needed, licensed in two states, steady hands and ready to operate and perform patient care, fit to fight."

arthur wittich army veteran volunteers coronavirus effort
Dr. Arthur Wittich served in the Army for 44 years before retiring at 77. He's offered to come back to active duty if the Army needs him for the coronavirus response effort. U.S. Army

Wittich spent 44 years in the Army, but his military career began in the Navy. A bit uncertain about his path in life, he enlisted after graduation on the advice of his father, a Navy officer. He loved his time as a hospital corpsman, but after six years of service, he decided to go to college, then medical school. Life brought him back to the military after graduation, but this time he chose the Army.

"I really think it was the best decision I could have done," Wittich said. "I was never out for money or anything. I was out to be a good doctor, that's what I wanted to do."

He's been deployed to Central America, Africa and the Middle East, including a 2008 deployment to Iraq when he was about 70. He's jumped out of airplanes, served as a flight surgeon, gone into war zones and carried weapons. And he volunteered to do it all.

As an obstetrician, he's probably been involved with 7,000 or 8,000 deliveries, and it wasn't until he reached 77 that Wittich decided to retire from the Army after 44 years of service.

"That's unheard-of," Wittich responded when asked if people often have 50-year military careers. A person can serve in the Army for a maximum of 30 years, but at times the military will make an exception, as it did for Wittich.

Leaving the Army wasn't the end of his medical career, though. In the four years since, he's gone on medical missions to Peru, Honduras and the Philippines twice. Not everyone is interested in doing "bush medicine," where you have to get by with the bare necessities and forgo fully modernized equipment. But for this 81-year-old, it's what he lives for.

"I think it's a willingness to help humanity. It's amazing what you see when you get away from our borders," Wittich said, talking about what draws him to medical challenges. "You see stuff you'll never see in our country and see stuff that most doctors never see anymore. I think maybe that's one reason I liked the military so much. You never know what you're getting into."

The challenges facing health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic aren't exactly the same ones Wittich faces on his medical missions. But running on only a few hours of sleep and the emotional toll the job can take is something he's acutely aware of.

At least 16,686 people in the U.S. have died from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. Each death isn't just a statistic but a "face," as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo puts it, and every loss of life affects the people who tried to save that person.

"I haven't lost that many patients, but when you lose a patient it bothers you," Wittich said. "It bothers you a lot, and I can't think of any that I lost because of negligence, but sometimes you get in a situation where there's not much you can do about it. But you do what you can."

Death is also something that Wittich is intimately aware of on a personal level. While stationed in Europe, he and his wife lost their youngest son, the "worst thing" to ever happen in their lives, he said. Years later, guiding people through tough situations helps him grieve the loss of his own son.

arthur wittich army coronavirus response
Seven soldiers pose with Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Infantry Division Surgeon Colonel Arthur Wittich, right, at Contingency Operating Base Speicher in Iraq on July 28, 2008. Major Enrique Vasquez/U.S. Army

"When I see some catastrophe, I think about what we went through, and I try to make it as easy as I can for other people," he said.

More than 62,000 health care workers have signed up for a reserve medical force in New York, and thousands of veterans have expressed interest in returning to active duty. Wittich is relatively confident that he won't be brought back, as more recent retirees will likely be selected first. Technically, though, he meets the qualification requirement because he has been retired for less than five years.

But volunteering made his son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter proud. And as for his wife? She wasn't surprised because "she knows I'm like that."

"I've always been willing to step up to the plate and do what was necessary," he said.

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