Rick Jervis, Chicago Tribune: Lt. Col. Damon Arnold’s hands spin magic in this northern Iraqi city.
They unlock backs twisted from carrying too much gear and body armor. They ease stomach pains and knotted necks. Sometimes they even chase away the nightmares.
As medical director of the first aid station at Camp Freedom, headquarters for the 7,500 American troops in northern Iraq, Arnold leads a team of seven medics who treat the usual cases of dehydration, diarrhea, rashes and allergies. They also treat the wounds of soldiers returning from battle.
But his specialty has turned increasingly toward curing common combat ailments, such as hurt backs and combat fatigue, through a medley of deep-tissue massage therapy, acupressure, acupuncture, Eastern philosophy and meditation. A medical director at Mercy Hospital and Medical Center in Chicago, Arnold picked up the alternative techniques during a two-year course at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy.
Now the methods are reaping impressive results, he said, on patients ranging from infantry soldiers to civilians to Iraqi prisoners of war. Arnold has made believers out of skeptics and has become known as an unconventional doctor in an unconventional war.
“Skin is the window to the soul,” said Arnold, 47, an Illinois Army National Guardsman working with the Army’s 118th Medical Brigade attached to the 3rd Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, also known as the Stryker Brigade.
“We concentrate so much on the longevity of life, keeping people alive, and not the quality of that life,” he said.
Holistic medicine has enjoyed a steady rise in popularity in the U.S. A recent study commissioned by the National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that 36 percent of adults nationwide use some sort of “complementary and alternative medicine.” That number jumps to 62 percent when prayer is included.
But the holistic approach is still relatively unused in the U.S. military, Arnold said. He said that when he volunteered to come to Iraq in February, he wanted to try his alternative techniques on soldiers.
His first chance arrived shortly after he did in June, when a soldier visited him complaining of sharp pain in his lower back. He was an infantry soldier and had spent months jumping in and out of Strykers, the Army’s new assault vehicle, loaded with gear and body armor.
Arnold said he performed shiatsu massage techniques, working pressure points from the upper to the lower spine. The next day, the soldier told him the pain was gone, said Arnold.
“He started ringing the bell,” Arnold said. “Then everyone started coming in.”
His next patient, also an infantry soldier, had abdominal pain for three years and nothing helped, Arnold said. Arnold said he applied a deep-tissue massage, coaxing a tightened groin muscle to relax. Five days later, the soldier reported no more pain, Arnold said.
Soon he was seeing more soldiers, civilians and POWs and had to put aside two days a week for massages and other alternative treatments.
Arnold said he also has treated soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder with massages, acupuncture and tips on meditation.
Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., Arnold graduated with a degree in chemistry at Howard University in Washington before studying medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago. While in medical school, he signed up for the Illinois National Guard to help pay his tuition, he said.
Also during medical school, Arnold said he started taking tae kwon do classes to relieve the stress of his studies. That training led him to Eastern philosophy and practice such as Zen Buddhism and meditation. The more he studied, the more his interest grew, he said.
He did his residency at Cook County Hospital and then got a master’s degree in public health at UIC. He was studying for his law degree at DePaul University, to learn more about occupational medicine and rights issues, when the first Gulf War broke out.
When he returned, he started working at Mercy Hospital and is now the director of physicians for MercyWorks, the hospital’s occupational health center. Shortly after joining Mercy, Arnold signed up for courses at the Chicago School of Massage Therapy.
In February, two months after getting a radical prostatectomy to eradicate a small tumor in his prostate, Arnold heard the Army was looking for physicians to be deployed to Iraq. He talked his doctor into signing off on his health and signed his deployment papers by March. He arrived in Mosul in June for a tour that ends in October.
“I felt like I should go,” said Arnold, who lives in Hyde Park, Ill., with his wife, Sharon Johnson-Arnold. “I didn’t want these young people coming over here with no one here for them.”
Recently, Arnold launched an hour-long show on the local Army radio station. Half the broadcast discusses theories and benefits of meditation while the other half guides soldiers through a meditation session to soothing New Age music.
Arnold said he hopes the military follows his lead and embraces alternative medicine.
He said he realizes that could take a while, though, given most of the medical community’s reluctance to accept holistic techniques.
“I could see a place for dogma. You want to have a certain sense of security,” he said. “But you still have to remain open as a scientist to new phenomena and alternate explanations for the unexplainable.”