Dr. Thomas Gross ’69: A Life of Service

Each year, Taft invites a Morning Meeting speaker to campus to deliver a Veterans’ Day talk. This year, members of the Taft community were honored to hear from Thomas W. Gross '69 (Col., USAF, ret.).

Each year, Taft invites a Morning Meeting speaker to campus to deliver a Veterans’ Day talk. This year, members of the Taft community were honored to hear from Thomas W. Gross '69 (Col., USAF, ret.).

“I did not leave Taft intending to go into the military,” Dr. Gross explained. “It was 1969, and 500 American males, mostly teenagers, were dying in Vietnam every week…Several years later, I was not drafted, after bouncing through a few jobs, a severe economic recession left me with few options, one of which was a few years of military service.”

Dr. Gross enlisted with the United States Coast Guard, where he completed four years of active duty. With help from the GI Bill, he went on to college, then medical school.

“In my practice and in the middle of my career, I realized that I was missing something,” said Dr. Gross. “I realized that in my warm, well-lit emergency department, I was receiving the injured patients that came by helicopter—the very same type of patients that I, myself, used to deliver. But I had nothing at stake; I was risking nothing, and I was being well compensated for my time. So I joined a reserve helicopter rescue squadron of the California National Guard, a part-time job, which did not interrupt my medical career, but actually complemented it. It took me back into the field, on a part-time basis, back into the darkness, into the mud and the rain, to offshore helicopter rescues, to Katrina, to Ukraine and to Iraq.”

It is impossible, Dr. Gross said, to effectively convey the true nightmare of war. Instead, he chose to talk about what it is like for soldiers to come home. What makes a good soldier in the field may become symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) when deployment ends, said Dr. Gross—not as memories of past horrific events, but the anxiety that accompanies one’s anticipation of future events.

“Once at home, hypervigilance became paranoia; sleeping lightly became insomnia; I woke up in a cold sweat not to a car backfiring but to the sound of a cat’s footfall on a carpeted staircase or the whisper of a lace curtain dancing on the evening breeze in front of an open window. If we did have nightmares we were sent to a military hospital for evaluation. I lied and said no. I didn’t want to go to a hospital. I wanted to go home… When I got home, I discovered why combat veterans do not talk about their experience. I discovered why my father would never answer my questions about his service. The reason is that people really didn’t want to know what I did over there. Their questions were innocent enough at first, but then carried a tone of accusation, asking “How could you do that?’”

But what he did was, in many ways, extraordinary. In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Dr. Gross and a squadron of 13 first built, then ran a tent hospital—a trauma center with emergency and operating rooms, an intensive care unit, and radiology and laboratory facilities. Within a day of completion, the field hospital was fully staffed with an impressive team of specialist from around the country.

“We had C-130 cargo aircraft from the Air National Guard of every state in our union, bringing in supplies and personnel, and carrying away the injured for definitive care,” Dr. Gross recalled. “As we wheeled the patients to the awaiting aircraft, the patients and their family members paid me themselves, with a thank you and a handshake. At Katrina, I witnessed the most catastrophic poverty, in our own country, the richest country on the planet, and our own citizens whose daily distress we endorse with our silence and complacency.”

Referencing Holocaust survivor and psychiatrist Dr. Viktor Frankl’s therapeutic approach that leads patients to discover a “higher meaning” in life outside of themselves and a means of resolving anxiety and other mental health problems, Dr. Gross asked, “What is this ‘higher calling’?”

“The answer is encoded even in the Taft School motto. I am not talking just about military service, but service to your community, however you define it, be it your family, local community, perhaps a congregation, your country or even humanity at large,” said Dr. Gross. “I can tell you that devoting some portion of your life to in service to something greater than yourself will bring a satisfaction and peace of mind which you might not expect. When I was being hoisted into a mountain canyon to care for a hiker who was having a seizure, when I was scuba diving into an overturned fishing boat to search for survivors trapped inside, when I was in a helicopter flying through a desert thunderstorm, caring for a soldier who had been shot through the hip, there was no anxiety, because in those moments I was most fully and completely alive, in the present. I think now the pundits call it mindfulness, but mindfulness is not a new concept, it is older than the Upanishads, and as old as the Himalayas. It is life in the present, where there is no anxiety, no depression and no fear, because you are giving yourself fully and completely to someone else’s welfare, and not as a mere observer like an embedded journalist who can come and go at will, but as a full participant with your own dog in the fight.

“I ask that you keep an open mind to the possibilities that will arise in your path, think about using some of your life to give back, not necessarily in a military uniform, but in a way of your own choosing.”

Dr. Gross recently retired from the New Hampshire Air National Guard with 22 years of military service, which included 58 combat missions as a helicopter crewman and physician with the 129th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Having authored a weekly medical column for five years for the Marin (CA) independent journal, in 2005 he received the Marin Co. Medical Society's award for medical columnist of the year. He has contributed articles to various aviation trade journals, The New York Times and the Proceedings of the US Naval Institute. In addition to completing his MFA at UNH, in his retirement he has also worked part time as a boat captain for the UNH Shoals Marine Laboratory, a float plane pilot in Maine, a firefighter for the New Castle (NH) Volunteer Fire Department, and a physician in Dover, NH. 

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