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Dr. David Mathias portrayed in NatGeo’s ‘The Long Road Home’

David Mathias in the army in Iraq

Nov. 3, 2017

When David Mathias was persuaded by high school teachers to pursue a career in medicine, he could never have envisioned the events that led him to become a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician and then have a newspaper reporter sit in his home, interviewing him and his wife about an upcoming television series in which a professional actor portrays him.

Of course, manning a battalion aid station on a day known as "Black Sunday" – the Siege of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, – was pretty surreal, too. On that day, April 4, 2004, Dr. Mathias was a U.S. Army captain stationed there when Iraqi insurgents launched a surprise attack on U.S. soldiers on patrol in the city. Eight soldiers were killed and 51 more were wounded.

The events of that day and its aftermath were chronicled in the New York Times bestseller, "The Long Road Home: A Story of War and Family," by Martha Raddatz. Raddatz is an ABC News Chief Global Affairs Correspondent who also reports for ABC's World News Tonight with David Muir, Nightline and other network broadcasts. That book was the basis for National Geographic Channel's eight-part miniseries, "The Long Road Home," which premieres at 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 7.

"I'm excited to see it, yet I know it will be hard with the flood of emotions and memories that will come with it," Dr. Mathias said.

The series' character, Capt. Mathias, portrayed by actor Roby Attal, appears in three episodes.

A means to pay the bills

As the son of missionaries, this Nekoosa native had a worldly view of life after having lived in Belgium.

Dr. Matthias earned his medical degree at University of Michigan Medical School with a specialty in pediatrics. Knowing the crushing financial burden of medical school, he joined the U.S. Army and completed his pediatrics residency at Madigan Army Medical Center. He knew his Army scholarship and commission required him to be on active duty for seven years. It was during his Army-based medical residency when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.

"I knew life was about to change in a big way," Dr. Mathias said.

By fall 2002, he knew he'd be in Iraq. He was assigned to a Patriot missile unit at Fort Bliss, Texas; later was assigned to the First Calvary Division at Fort Hood, Texas; and underwent mock field hospital training in California's Mojave Desert. In late March 2004, he arrived in Iraq where he was preparing to be the lone doctor, with assistance from two physician assistants and 40 medics to serve more than 400 troops.

His first few days in Iraq gave him a sense of optimism as the local Shia welcomed the U.S. troops.

"I went there with huge ideas of helping rebuild the community and take care of all the kids to make it a better place," Dr. Mathias said. "We thought we could make a difference."

Black Sunday

On April 4, 2004, the First Calvary Division officially replaced another unit in Sadr City, complete with a formal ceremony. It seemed to be otherwise a routine day as there had been no fighting in the area for months. Everything changed that evening.

Armed militiamen ambushed a 1st Cavalry Division patrol. Casualties were quickly coming to the aid station which was little more than a concrete block building.

"I had never seen a gunshot wound in my life, now I had three of them," Dr. Mathias said. He relied on his training as the chaos ensued.

Over the next three hours, nearly 60 wounded soldiers came through his aid station, including the eight fatalities. They operated by headlamps as night fell. Dr. Mathias and his staff were fortunate since doctors, physician assistants and medics from the battalion his unit was replacing hadn't left yet and were able to help treat the injured.

That was the deadliest day of fighting in Sadr City, but it was by no means the end. Dr. Mathias was in combat the next 89 days as shooting and mortar shelling continued near the aid station. During his year-long deployment, more than 1,110 mortar shells fell inside the camp causing 60 casualties, including three fatalities.

"We had boredom interspersed with moments of sheer terror," he recalled.

Making sense of it all

His war experience wasn't all just waiting for the next mortar shell and casualties coming in needing treatment. Dr. Mathias visited local hospitals, provided neonatal medical equipment and taught local health care workers neonatal resuscitation.

"It was a very fulfilling experience," he said. "I'm proud to tell my kids that I answered the call and served."

Dr. Mathias and his wife, Rhonda, had their first child prior to his tour in Iraq. Now they are a family of eight. His war experience is one that, like most war veterans, is a never-ending process to understand, contextualize and accept. He has a greater understanding for why veterans gather, who have a need for being together with others who understand what they experienced.

He relies on the strength of his family and his faith in his search for answers to questions related to his military service. A verse from the book of Romans provides reassurance –"God works all things together for the good of those who love Him."

No doubt this will provide comfort as he sees a part of his life unfold once again.

Marshfield Clinic Health System (MCHS) oversees Marshfield Clinic and other subsidiaries, including Security Health Plan of Wisconsin, Inc., MCIS, Inc., Marshfield Clinic Health System Foundation, Marshfield Medical Center in Marshfield, Flambeau Hospital in Park Falls and Lakeview Medical Center in Rice Lake. Marshfield Clinic, with more than 50 locations in Wisconsin, serves patients through accessible, high quality health care, research and education; with more than 700 physician specialists in 86 specialties and subspecialties and more than 6,500 employees. MCHS is overseen by a Board of Directors with 13 independent members and 11 physicians who comprise the Marshfield Clinic Board.

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