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DI physician answers call to serve
By Elizabeth Bush
Jan 23, 2013 - 8:49:56 AM

Daniel Island resident Dr. Julio Chalela enjoys a moment with his son, Nico, after returning home from a deployment to Kosovo on January 11. A neurologist at MUSC, Dr. Chalela also serves as a physician for the U.S. Army Reserves. His military duties have also taken him to Iraq, where he provided medical care for detainees being held by U.S. forces at Camp Cropper Prison in Baghdad.

There were times when mortar strikes would shake the building and an alarm would sound alerting of an attack. For Daniel Island resident Dr. Julio Chalela, those are the only moments he remembers fearing for his safety.
For a four month period in 2011, Chalela found himself in one of the most dangerous places in the world for an American – deep inside war-ravaged Iraq. More specifically, an Iraqi prison at Camp Cropper in Baghdad, where U.S. forces were holding a number of detainees, including Al Qaeda suspects. Chalela, a neurologist based at MUSC in Charleston, was deployed to the region as part of his service for the U.S. Army Reserves. He served as an OIC (Officer In Charge) and was tasked with providing medical care to prisoners. 
“It was a very, very unique experience,” said Chalela, who specializes in neurologic critical care and stroke. “I was caring for people that want to hurt us and were suspected of committing some very serious crimes.”
But Chalela separated any personal feelings he may have had regarding his patients and did what he was trained to do –provide the best medical care possible. 
“It was a challenge at times in that they didn’t speak any English,” he said. “…We had no privacy with them, because we could never be alone with the patient. It always had to be with MPs, because (the patients) could attack you if they had an opportunity.”
While on assignment for the military, Chalela serves as a general practitioner, treating any and all conditions that he is presented with. Iraq offered some intriguing cases, he said.
“It was an interesting experience dealing with different cultures, different languages, and different diseases that I had never seen…There were a lot of variables that we had to deal with…When we’re deployed, we’re all general doctors. You just gotta do what you’ve gotta do, because it’s only you…You learn to be resourceful and to step out of your comfort zone.”
Chalela knew what he would be up against as a member of the military and he was ready for the challenge. The busy associate professor at MUSC, who also directs the hospital’s Neurological Intensive Care Unit, ended up front and center in America’s war on terror for very personal reasons.  His journey can be traced back to the tragic events of September 11, 2001, when he was completing his fellowship training at Johns Hopkins University and working at the National Institutes of Health in Washington DC.  
“After 9/11, I was very moved and touched by what happened there and I felt it wasn’t right for me to sit at home and do nothing,” said Chalela, a native of Colombia, South America. “Other doctors were deploying and going overseas…and I decided that this country had given me a lot, much more than what I deserved or was entitled to, and that I should give back.”
So, in 2008, at age 43, he enlisted in the Reserves. Short on doctors, then and now, the military eagerly added Chalela to their rosters. He completed his basic training for the Army Medical Corps at Fort Sam Houston in Texas.  His deployment to Iraq was his first. Last September, he embarked on his second assignment – this time to a U.S. Army Hospital at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. Chalela spent almost four months there providing care for the South Carolina National Guard’s 218th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, as well as for NATO troops.
“Our job on the medical side was we were manning the hospital and taking care of the soldiers,” he added. “We also did a little bit of community outreach and taught at the local medical school.”
Being apart from his wife, Susan, and their 5th grade son, Nico, is the toughest part of any medical deployment, which typically lasts about 90 days, Chalela said. But the family tries to stay in touch daily through Skype video calls. When he returned to his Smythe Park home from Kosovo on January 11, he carried with him an extra item that made this homecoming even more special -- an Army Commendation Medal awarded for “exceptional service.”
In the citation for the award, given for his Kosovo mission, Chalela was praised for the “enormous amount of integrity, discipline, and professionalism” he employs in his daily tasks.  “His dedication to the mission played a key role in the development of the organization,” the award further stated, and “his motivation, dedication to duty, and selfless service are in keeping with the highest traditions of military service.”
Chalela also received medals for serving NATO troops and participating in the Kosovo campaign. While he downplays his accolades (something he says is an unwritten code among servicemembers) Susan was happy to vocalize her thoughts on his success.
"I am very proud of him for his values," said Susan. "I respect and honor his dedication to all, as first a husband and father, and also a doctor and soldier."
Now that Chalela is home, he is enjoying as much time as he can with his family, before duty calls again in August, when he will deploy to Afghanistan. Slipping easily back into his duties at MUSC, he notes the many commonalities in his dual careers.
“There are a lot of similarities between being a doctor and being in the military – structure, you work nights, you work shifts, the discipline, the hard work,” said Chalela, who credits MUSC for allowing him the time to serve his country. “…“I’m gonna stay in (the military) until they kick me out. Some of the doctors I’ve deployed with are in their 60s and they are still doing it. It’s a passion. So I’m going to do it until I am physically or mentally unable.”
As tough as service can be – averting mortar attacks or worse in the line of duty – the benefits for this dedicated soldier far outweigh the risks.
“I feel like I am a better man after being in the military,” he said. “…I’ve gotten way more than I have given…. There’s just a bond between soldiers that you don’t see out of the military…For them ‘country’ is first before anything else.”

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