A Letter From Our Veteran, John D. Sonnenberg, MD

Dr. Sonnenberg is inspiring to our staff and others in many ways. Today we are proud to honor him as a veteran and highlight his service to our country. Read below to learn more about life for Dr. Sonnenberg as a practicing physician with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Our forward surgical team, the 909th, was initially mobilized in September, 2002.  We were one of the first reserve units to be deployed to Afghanistan in Operation Enduring Freedom.  We were co-located with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  We were tasked with establishing a forward operating base (FOB) in the eastern-most section of Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.  Our engineers essentially transformed an almond grove into a forward, fortified, frontier station dubbed Fort Salerno.  Our mission was to clear eastern Afghanistan from Taliban insurgency.  The 909th FAST team was the medical asset for the 504th.


We enjoyed the afghan fall, winter and spring.  We were shot at, endured rocket attacks, but were able to perform our mission in tents with dirt floors.  Regardless, we were the most sophisticated medical facility in all of eastern Afghanistan.  Not only did we treat injured soldiers, but we also served as a medical resource to the local population.  One must remember that the territory was still littered with Russian mines from that occupation in the 1980’s.   I swear, I put more external fixators on femurs of local youngsters than on our troops.  


As an example, an Afghan general brought his 5-year-old daughter to us with a malunion of a supracondylar elbow fracture.  She had severely limited motion with pain.  I performed a supracondylar corrective osteotomy with pin fixation (re-broke and straightened the elbow).  Six weeks later she was moving her now-straightened elbow normally without pain.  


Early in 2003, command of the FOB was transferred to NATO and the Italian Army replaced the 504th at Fort Salerno.  These were members of Task Force Nibbio of the Monte Cervini Paracadutisti regiment.  We, again, served as medical assets for over 600 Italian soldiers.  I was tasked with learning as much Italian as possible in order to interface with our Brothers-in Arms.


We appreciated our Italian compatriots for their commitment but largely because they brought a full-service kitchen to our FOB.  Previously we were existing on MREs and Ramen noodles.  Pasta at every meal including meatballs with wonderful marinara sauces was certainly a welcome change.  And their officers established the Nibbio Nest, a type of officers club including a satellite up-link where we could watch Italian TV through the RAI network.  Nibbio, by the way, is a smallish, falcon-like bird of prey, translated as kite from the Italian. We first learned of the invasion of Iraq via Italian TV, not through U.S. Army channels.  So my Italian studies eventually served me well. 


As our deployment was coming to an end, our departure date kept getting postponed because of the lack of air assets to fly us back to Baghram air base and then eventually to North Carolina.  It seems the war in Iraq was occupying all of the available transport aircraft.  Therefore, by April, 2003, the 909th forward surgical team became the longest continuously serving unit of the United States Army in a combat zone.  


When our C-130 finally arrived and our replacement unit was briefed on their responsibilities, we were finally able to load our equipment and personnel into the waiting aircraft for the first stage in our long journey home.  At that very moment, a 9-Line message arrived signifying a mass casualty event and the imminent arrival of BlackHawks transporting injured soldiers to our medical facility.  These were friends and brothers from the 504th who we had trained with, served with and shared our lives.  Without hesitation our entire 20-man team exited the aircraft and took our positions alongside our replacement unit in order to have adequate medical manpower to deal with this mass casualty situation. 


We spent hours in the operating room saving lives, but losing a few, repairing limbs (my job), and patching up these brave, but injured and scared American soldiers, most of whom were younger than our own children back home. The supply of whole blood depleted quickly.  At one point, as I came out of the surgical tent with my Italian assistant surgeon, Massimo, he pointed out the que of Italian volunteers, two abreast, stretching for tens of meters, all lined up to donate blood for their American brothers.  With a tear rolling into my surgical mask, I turned back to by business in the surgical tent.  


We eventually made it home.


My story is but one of thousands, each highly personal and precious.  My heart goes out to the families of our soldiers who did not make it home, or to those who made it home less than whole. many soldiers with whom I was personally well acquainted.  Let Veterans Day be our opportunity to remember their sacrifice and to offer our Thanks.  Proud to be an American Soldier.”


John D. Sonnenberg LTC USAR.909th FST, Afghanistan 2002-2003544th CSH, Iraq 2005-2006