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Interview with Rupa Dainer [2/28/2018]

Monica Mohindra:

Hi, this is Monica Mohindra with the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, and today I have the deep pleasure of interviewing Rupa Dainer. It is February 28th, 2018, we are in the alcoves overlooking the Main Reading Room of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Rupa, thank you so much for joining us today, we’re very excited about this.

Rupa Dainer:

Thank you.

Monica Mohindra:

Could you tell me about where you were born?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh, I’d love to. I was born right here in Washington, D.C. - I was born in Georgetown University Hospital. My mom tells the story that they flew over here from Nigeria just to have me, because she wanted me to be a citizen. They didn’t have a lot, I don’t think they had any insurance, but apparently it was free if you let a medical student deliver you. So I got to be delivered by medical students. [laughs] Which apparently went fine, and two weeks later I went home to Nigeria, which is where we lived until we came here for school in kindergarten.

Monica Mohindra:

Wow. So could you tell me a little bit about your parents, and what they did, and Nigeria?

Rupa Dainer:

My dad was a harbormaster in Lagos, Nigeria, and I don’t have a ton of information about what that means, but basically he controlled import-export--or what came in to the harbor. And those were the times when there was a lot of back and forth going on - if you wanted to bring your ship in, and you didn’t want to pay a tariff, or you wanted to bring some goods in that maybe weren’t as straightforward as some of the other goods, you needed to talk to the harbormaster, so my dad was really in the center of that. And he tells his own stories, which I probably shouldn’t really repeat. [laughs] But--and I don’t know how many of them are actually true--but I’m sure he thinks they’re all true. So that’s why we were in Nigeria, before that he was in the navy of India, he went to the Indian Naval Academy. My mom and him met at these docks in southern Indian, that my mom’s dad built. So my mom’s dad was a general in the British Army, which was a big deal because Britain colonized India at that time, most Indians were in the Indian Army, but he was in the British Army, and he was a general. He’s building these docks--he’s an engineer--and my mom and my dad met there. And eventually--she was sixteen--they ran away and got married at a bus stop, I think it was--bus station. So that she could have a house while he went off on some Navy thing - and apparently if you were married you got the money for the house. My grandparents were super mad - they were Christian, he was Hindu, so they were marrying outside their religion, in India in those days it was a really bad idea. But things came around before I was born, and now they’re in Nigeria. We lived in a hotel in Nigeria, I think that the government paid for it, or some such thing - in the Holiday Inn, we lived there for four years I think. Then there were multiple coups going on at the time, over those years, and it finally became impossible to really live there. My father had sisters here in D.C., who were both physicians here, so they were able to bring us over. And of course, me and my brother were citizens - I think they call it "anchor babies?" [laughs] It turns out I must be an anchor baby, so we were able to come over here and live, and go to school. My father was certain Bethesda was going to be a really up-and-coming town--it was a really small town back then--so that’s where we settled.

Monica Mohindra:

Do you have memories of Nigeria?

Rupa Dainer:

I do. I remember the hotel - I remember the elevators, I’d go up and down the elevators for fun. We had been there so long--I was little, maybe two or three years old, three-four probably--and the people who worked in the hotel knew us, so they didn’t mind. And I remember the lizards, me and my brother would chase them with bats - of course we couldn’t catch the lizards because we were toddlers. [laughs] I remember it being sunny, I remember loving our car--apparently we had a basic car, but I loved it! [laughs] There’s a lot of pictures my parents have from those times that can help jog my memory. I remember my birthday cake - I had a guitar birthday cake, which I thought was the greatest thing in the world because I loved guitars--for apparently five minutes--because I can’t remember loving guitars ever again after that.

Monica Mohindra:

Neat. So you have a brother, do you have any other siblings - could you tell me about them?

Rupa Dainer:

Just a younger brother - he is two and a half years younger than me, he lives in Chicago, and he is a consultant. So very un-Indian of him - he didn’t do doctor, lawyer, whatever, he worked for Accenture, Price Waterhouse Cooper. He does designing, retail, and--I’d have to see if I understand this too--but kind of the flow from when you manufacture a product to when you put a product out on the line, and their marketing. So he’s done work for Chanel, and for Stitch Fix, and things like that.

Monica Mohindra:

How did your family feel when you decided to go into service?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh, wow, my dad was thrilled. I mean I’m sure he would have liked it better if it was the Indian Navy, but it was the American Navy, so that was fine. My mom was mortified, she was like "don’t join the Navy! Those uniforms look terrible!" [laughs] Some parents worry about you going to war, my mom worried about how I looked. My dad, of course, was just thrilled. That speaks volumes, because he just had no issue with me being a girl or a boy - he didn’t care. He just assumed immediately that I would be an admiral. [laughs] I guess I just agreed - I didn’t know that that was a big deal, when you join you don’t realize these things.

Monica Mohindra:

And your brother, did he have any feelings about you joining?

Rupa Dainer:

Not that I know of. He was a pretty severe asthmatic growing up, and I don’t think he ever felt like he could even try, so he never even brought it up as a thing. He was always pretty supportive of any type of career choice I’ve ever made.

Monica Mohindra:

Could you share a little bit--it doesn’t have to be exhaustive--about what schooling was like for you - primary, secondary, I hear that you came back when you were about five? So it might be interesting to know a little bit about what that was like, to come from Nigeria and start school here, through secondary school, and then a little bit about college.

Rupa Dainer:

I think there’s two ways to look at that - one is how I remember feeling, and how I look back on it. Going into kindergarten, I started a little bit late--I don’t remember exactly, it must’ve been a month or two late. And I remember being so shocked by how you called your teacher by their name, it was "Mrs. Walleigh" - that was my kindergarten teacher. But in Nigeria, I was in Montessori school, you called your teacher "Teacher." And it was extremely respectful - there was this huge divide, and I to this day still have a tremendous respect for my teachers that I think was instilled in me when I was a little, little child. Even when they’re kind of a little bit not great teachers, I still can’t help it. [laughs] Every morning we sang these songs by the piano that I didn’t understand - it was like "Yankee Doodle" and-- you know. Now of course I know all the songs and they make complete sense to me, and I’m super patriotic, but at the time I’m like "why does everyone know these songs, and I don’t know them?" [laughs] And we did the Pledge of Allegiance every day, and I’m like "why are we talking to a flag?" But now I get it - it was very unusual for me at the beginning. Everything we learned--because I had been in school, and I think in those days preschool wasn’t the same as it is today, kids come in knowing how to read already. But back in those days it was a little less common, so I felt like maybe they weren’t working very hard. They were just learning letters, and I could already read. So it was a little bit of a rocky transition, I guess - looking at it this way. Looking at it this direction, I’m like "why didn’t I just play? It was a good idea to just play back then." [laughs] I was very caught between two worlds - my parents were giving me hand-me-down clothes, and trying to make me American, but they were Indian. My mom spent a lot of time overseas in London - so still a little bit European. I never really fit in, and I didn’t know how to fit in. And my dad was having trouble being here I think, and he was very stressed about it, and his stress manifested in a lot of negative ways too, so that made growing up a little bit harder. But when I look back on it this direction - my kids go to the same elementary school I went to, because it’s such a great place. It’s so supportive, the teachers are incredible - they have classes of 30 kids, and yet every child gets individual attention. My kids got individual attention when they had strengths or weaknesses - they were just lavished attention by their teachers, and that to me is amazing. And then through high school, same kind of thing, we grew up in this place--I say "we" because we went to school together, you and I did. [gestures to Monica Mohindra] And I didn’t know that I was of a different skin color, I also didn’t know I was a girl - I just assumed that I was the product of whatever merit I could produce at that moment. And the better I could be-- you were just accepted for that. So I think we grew up in a bubble - a really special bubble that I hope my kids get too. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Would you mind sharing what elementary school--what the names of the schools were?

Rupa Dainer:

Sure, I went to Bannockburn Elementary School, and Thomas W. Pyle Middle School, and Walt Whitman High School, which I still think is just the greatest school on the planet. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

And then what college, did you go right away to college?

Rupa Dainer:

Mm-hm. So that’s the funny part - college is where the story gets--for me--interesting. Of course my whole story is probably interesting to me. But I thought you were supposed to go to an Ivy League school, because you went to Whitman. But I didn’t do very well on my SATs--in comparison--I think I got like a 1400 or like a 1420 or something like that, which I think is actually a pretty good score. But if you talked to our classmates, it’s not a very good score, and I thought I wasn’t going to get in to college. That was in fact--I’m almost sure--and I think my guidance counselor might have said something to that effect. [laughs] So I felt lucky that I was going to the University of Rochester, and they have--I was playing music at the time, I had started the French horn in junior high and I was really--it just took off, I ended up playing it really well. And I thought I could play some French horn at Eastman School of Music--now they might not let me in the door, but they might let me play in a satellite group or something. [laughs] And I’d go, and I was going to be a doctor. And in May of my senior year, I was answering phones in the band room - I was really connected with the marching band, I did a lot with the music department. So I’m answering the telephone, and Catholic University was calling to let area high schools know that they were open for auditions for the next year for their orchestra. So I was like "oh okay, well I’ll schedule an audition for a French horn." I wasn’t going to go there, I just wanted to play - it’s good to have experience in playing. So I went in May, auditioned for the year after - I wasn’t going to go, I was going to Rochester, already paid for it. And they accept me that day at the audition. I said "well I can’t really come here, because I didn’t actually apply. And also, I’m going to a different school, but thank you!" They walked me right to the registrar’s office, and they literally--that day, that morning--wrote up scholarships for me to the point where it was free. So I felt compelled to tell my parents that, [laughs] because we were paying for half of Rochester, and they would save a lot of money. So that’s where I went to school, and that’s why I had to be a music major, because almost all of the scholarships were for the School of Music. But I was still going to be a doctor - don’t worry. [laughs] That’s what I told my mother. Until I went through my rebellious phase the first year of college, where I told her I was going to be a music teacher. And "she lost her mind!" and she thought "her daughter has lost her way, college is horrible!" [laughs] And then I came around, and I went to medical school after that.

Monica Mohindra:

Did you--before you--I’m going to get back to medical school. Before you joined the service, did you have any work, or jobs, before you joined the military?

Rupa Dainer:

Yeah, I worked in a dermatologist’s office in high school - filing. I thought that would be a good way to get volunteer work in, although it wasn’t really volunteer work, but still. And then I got bored of that, and I quit. [laughs] Then I worked in a bakery, and I ate a lot of really, really good junk food, and then I left that - that was right here in Bethesda. And then I worked at Sam Goody, because I really liked music, so why not get CDs, you know? So I got to stand around and give people my opinion on classical music. I was the only person who knew any classical music--everyone else knew all the cool stuff--so they would always put me in that section. And I worked at Carimar - I don’t know if you remember that place, but it’s like Claire’s, where they can get little earrings and things like that. I became a certified ear piercing specialist - I was very proud of that. [laughs] That was all high school - I delivered newspapers for a brief period of time, did a lot of babysitting, those were all my jobs. Oh, and I--my favorite job, to me it was more like a "thing," not really a job--but I taught ballroom dance, and I did that through college for four or five years. Because I really wanted to dance, and my mom wouldn’t pay for it - my parents don’t think that--Indian parents I guess--they just don’t think that that’s okay, you should be studying. And I didn’t have any of my own money, and ballroom dance lessons are really expensive. At that time there were the yellow pages, so I’d flip through the yellow pages and I called every single dance studio in the area that I could think of, that I could drive to. And I asked them if they would teach me how to dance if I did some work for them - like a barter. All of them said no, except for one, and he said "I’m busy right now, call me back in three months." So I called him back in three months, and he goes "just come in." So I came in, and he looked at me and he said "your hair is terrible, it’s too frizzy. And you don’t dress nice, and you need to put on some lipstick. Come back after you’ve done that." So I did, I don’t even know why I listened to him, but he was just sort of a flame-y, gay kind of dude--not that that’s a bad thing, but at that time it was very out there. And I came back, cut my hair, had my mom straighten it, [laughs] and then put on some nice piece of clothing that she finally bought me or whatever. And I went in there, and he said "okay." He taught me how to dance, and I taught dance lessons. He’d teach me something, then an hour later I’d teach it to someone else. That built on itself, to the point where I knew enough that I didn’t need that anymore. And he’s still to this day one of my closest friends - a mentor, and the greatest guy in the world. That taught me a lot about interacting with people, and I love dancing still. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

I don’t want to take us off of our path, but I have to ask - why ballroom dancing?

Rupa Dainer:

Well, it was my freshman year in college, and I think that when you’re a freshman you have angst. Because I was depressed--I wasn’t actually depressed, that’s an unfair thing to say about people who actually have mental illness--but I felt "depressed" because I was in college. One of my friends said "come on, let’s go out" - he was my first gay friend. And he said "let’s go out!" And I’m like "okay--." So he took me out, and we were out in the Bethesda Metro, and they were doing those bands that they used to have every Thursday, Friday evening or something. And a ballroom dance company had come out and done a little show. I’d always had this sort of Cinderella fantasy anyway - I had always wanted to be a princess, and wear princess dresses. There was this woman in a princess dress, dancing in the middle of the Metro - I’m like "I want to do that!" That’s when I found out how much it cost, and I’m like "oh well, that’s not going to happen obviously." So that’s why ballroom dancing. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Neat. I want to talk a little bit--obviously we’re here to talk about your service--so I’d like to talk about that a little bit. Could you share a little bit about when and why--what your entree to service was? I’m interested particularly in what it felt like, also, to join and what that experience was for you.

Rupa Dainer:

Well, same thing - forward and backward, right? I think sometimes we enter into something, and then we grow in that role, and that’s definitely what happened to me. Because oftentimes how I walk into a situation is not the most deep, or amazing way to do it. I met a boy in college, who I was all in love with after meeting him for about ten seconds. And I was certain that I was going to marry him--in fact I did marry him, we were married for fourteen years, and now we’re divorced--all good. But at the time, I was certain he was Prince Charming and "I want to marry him." And he was in medical school, at a school I had never heard of, even though we grew up right here in Bethesda - at the Uniformed Services University School of the Health Sciences. So I’m questioning him - "what do you do? You’re in medical school and the military?" He says "yeah." I’m like "I’m going to medical school." And he told me that apparently all girls say that to him - what kind of pickup line is that? Girls don’t say that! [laughs] Girls don’t just say "yes, I’m going to medical school" to impress you. But I didn’t really think of it that way, I just thought he was so smart and amazing. And so I said "I’ll go to your medical school. That’s fine." I’m in college - I’m a junior in college and I haven’t taken the MCATs yet, "but I will, and as soon as I take the MCATs I’ll go to your medical school. Does that mean I have to join the military?" And he said "yeah." "Okay." And then if that’s what it takes--I didn’t even understand what that meant, I didn’t understand what the payback or the commitment would be. I was very focused on the fact that I might have to do push-ups - I was like "how do you do push-ups? I can’t even do one push-up! I have to do a lot of push-ups - you’re going to have to teach me so that I can do these push-ups, so that I can go to your school, because we’re going to get married." [laughs] So it’s awful, it’s ridiculous to think that that’s how it all started, but there you go. They do have to do push-ups, and you do it a lot of times. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

So you took the MCATs, and you got into one medical school there--

Rupa Dainer:

Mm-hm. I applied to one medical school.

Monica Mohindra:

That one.

Rupa Dainer:

That one. [laughs] Because that’s where I was going. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

And at some point, you had to sign on the dotted line. How long after you graduated from college was that? Was that right away?

Rupa Dainer:

Right away. I think it was easier for me to trust this process because the man I’m in love with is already there. "And he’s okay, nothing’s wrong with him, so this is going to be okay." So I graduate from college, I think it’s May of ’98, and then in June I got sworn in, commissioned as an officer. Now it’s very different than going through the Naval Academy, or going through ROTC or anything like that, where there’s quite a bit of run-up in college - lots of physical activity and all this stuff. I literally walked into the medical school where they have the two flags, one of his friends - Rob Liotta, swore me in. And that’s it, I’m now a Naval officer. And then you go to camp--I called it "camp"--it’s not camp, it’s Officer Indoctrination School in Rhode Island. [laughs] I was a little nervous, because first of all I grew up in Bethesda, a little bit privileged--a lot privileged compared to many people. My parents felt strongly that I needed to study, so I didn’t really do a lot of chores, so I didn’t know how to clean anything. So I was really concerned that I’m going to have to like clean the floors, which I did have to do, and people were laughing at me - they were like "you don’t even know how to clean a floor?" I’m like "no, but I’ll do it with you." [laughs] So I went there, I learned all about the Navy - it’s mostly classwork for officers who are commissioned that way. I learned about ships, and weapons, and how the military was structured, and then we did physical fitness every day. I was also worried about that because I was very physically unfit. But we did soccer--we did play soccer, which was good because I didn’t have to do a lot of running because I wasn’t a very good soccer player anyway, and everyone wanted to win, so I would just kind of stay off to the side. So generally it wasn’t--it wasn’t what it was going to be--it was a very gentle introduction into what blossomed into a career. And at that time there was a rule--and I think there still is rules like this--where you have to run a certain amount, one point five miles, at that time that’s what it was in the Navy, in a certain number of minutes. And then for my age range, just to barely pass it was like fifteen minutes and something--almost sixteen minutes. I couldn’t do it--can you imagine? But every time that test would come around, I would just make it under, with seconds to spare. And that was the lead-up, that was almost all of my military career until I deployed in 2009 - that was a real turning point in the military. Because I had joined the military before medical school, so I spent the next four years like any medical student, there’s almost no difference. There’s extra classes that you take in the military medical school that do try to prepare you for what you might see in the future. You take military medicine classes, some extra tropical medicine classes that you wouldn’t necessarily take at a regular medical school - learning about illnesses that you’d see around the world versus just here. There’s some summer experiences that you do with the military, and I could tell you about those, that was really cool. But it’s just like going to school. And going to school at Walt Whitman, you’re good at going to school - I could go to school with the best of them. [laughs] And then you spent the two years--the last two years of medical school in the old systems--in the hospitals doing rotations - perfect, no problem. And then you’re a resident - and intern residency is the same in the military as anywhere else. You go to the hospital every day, clinics, whatever. So my first nine years in the military--maybe a little bit longer than that--I just put on a uniform every day. It didn’t feel a whole lot different than being a civilian, except there were more rules, and I thrive in structure. It wasn’t until I finished my training that things changed really quickly.

Monica Mohindra:

I want to circle back to that, but I don’t want to lose hearing a little bit more about Rhode Island. I’m really curious about whether--you’ve described a really interesting trajectory where it was a more structured civilian lifestyle. But in Rhode Island, you learned about weapons, and you learned about ships. Did you have any personal experience? Were you trained on any particular kind of equipment at that point?

Rupa Dainer:

You know, that’s a great question - you’re starting to jog some memories. We did a couple of little exercises, one called a "buttercup trainer." A buttercup trainer is like a fake ship, it’s a deck of a ship, and then you go into the bottom of the ship where they flood it. And the ship "sinks" - you’re not actually sinking, but they flood the interior of it, and you have to do certain things to fix the sinking ship. So maybe there’s holes that need to be plugged, or a door that needs to be shored up - they call it "K" shoring--different things like that. I can only remember a couple of things, it was a long time ago, it was in 1998. But I remember being--there was not that many girls - there was maybe ten or fifteen percent women. We were small compared to the guys, and those little holes you’d go into in a ship are really tiny--and I never deployed on a ship, I’ve only ever deployed with the Marines. I thought I wanted to be on a ship - I’m in the Navy. They would make me go first, and I’m like "why would you make me go first? It’s scary, and loud, and dark down there, and you’re a man!" [laughs] "So be one, and go first!" Instead, they sent us down, which I thought was really funny. But once they saw that I didn’t die going into the little hole, and the other girls followed me, the guys came down. And they immediately had an advantage, because they were so tall. I had to swim, because the water had risen so high, and I couldn’t touch the ground anymore, but they could stand. So I was diving under the water, trying to find the holes to plug, and they were just kind of reaching down [makes downward reaching motion] in the water and plugging holes. [laughs] But it was quite an experience to "save the ship" - that was cool. We didn’t do any weapons training at that time, although I did later in medical school. We didn’t really see much of anything else, now that I think about it. There was a lot of bonding, learning how to march, learning how to put our uniforms on, learning who to salute. It was about six weeks, I think - so it wasn’t long.

Monica Mohindra:

And the bonding - that’s so interesting that you say that. Was this a group of people that you would be serving with in the future, are these people that circled back in your career?

Rupa Dainer:

Some of them, yeah. There was a bunch of people from multiple parts of the military, but none of them were from the fighting military - so none of them from the line. Everybody was from the Chaplain Corps, or Medical Service Corps - which were like the admin support folks, Medical Corps, Dental Corps, that kind of thing. I did, over my career, see some of those people again. But it was sort of teaching you how you bond in the military, almost like a mandatory fun type of thing - like "you will bond with these people." And it’s interesting because you don’t always do that in high school, right? You might bond with a few people, but then there’s some people you automatically won’t bond with. In the military it seems like that’s really not the default - the default is "you will all bond, whether you like it or not." And it’s a good skill to learn, it’s an amazing skill to learn - that you can meet people from all kinds of different backgrounds, with all kinds of different interests, and all kinds of different opinions, and still be friends with them, even if you may not have been in the past.

Monica Mohindra:

That’s really fascinating to hear. I’m wondering - you said there were only a few women? And you specifically mentioned background, and so at this school--which was your real introduction in Rhode Island to what was to become your future--were there any things that stuck out to you about how you were treated? Or things that you noticed, that sprung from either your background or your gender?

Rupa Dainer:

That’s something I learned looking back - I was very much more entitled than I thought I was. I definitely was very spoiled, and I don’t think that went over well. [laughs] I also wanted to be an individual and unique, and that didn’t go over well either. I suppose that’s obvious to people who are in the military, but remember I didn’t think this through - I just joined for this guy. So it didn’t occur to me that that was really going to happen to me. But the military sure does make you feel very uniform after a while. I remember feeling like for the first time it didn’t matter how good you were at something, it only mattered who they chose, and who they picked to do certain things. I think it was quite a negative experience in that sense. And I remember thinking that if you weren’t kind of--couldn’t "play with the boys"--you weren’t going to be accepted. And there was a particular girl who--we became great friends--but man she could hang with the guys. She could run faster than most of them, she was a great athlete, and she was just "cool," and accepted. And I had zero athletic ability - I was barely passing my physical fitness tests. It didn’t occur to me to hang out with men versus women - I didn’t think that mattered. It was a really difficult time for me socially, I didn’t get along with many of them, although I did get along with some. But I learned so much from that experience - like my way of looking at the world was a little too narrow, I needed to open that up some more and see that just behaving a certain way or being able to get along with certain groups of people doesn’t mean you’ve sold out, or aren’t being yourself. It just means that you can see things in more than one way. That wasn’t a big--there wasn’t a whole lot of gender inequality that I could tell at that time--it just felt very male-dominated.

Monica Mohindra:

Percentage-wise, you would say?

Rupa Dainer:

Maybe twenty percent, at the most.

Monica Mohindra:

And did you find that you’ve developed any friendships there that you hung on to later?

Rupa Dainer:

With the exception of this girl, no. In fact, we weren’t really friendly then, back then I was kind of surprised by her, like "how do you act like that?" And she and I ended up going to medical school together, and we became study partners - best friends, really.

Monica Mohindra:

Neat. So I think you’ve already covered why it was you chose the Navy - it was really to follow this particular path. Was there a particular way, like when you went to go be sworn in, was there any kind of--I’m imagining it was like a two-mile drive, but was there any kind of a send-off from your family to mark the occasion? Was there something particular to that day that you remember?

Rupa Dainer:

No, it was so bland. The whole thing--entering into this huge thing--was so bland, you wouldn’t have even noticed that you were doing something important. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

That’s amazing. Do you have a most vivid memory from your time in medical school? Anything that when you think back, that’s the one that pops into your mind?

Rupa Dainer:

Medical school is a very intense time, so there’s lots of memories. But a military one, for instance - we got to do a summer experience every--you have to do a summer experience. There are folks who have been in the military before, who go to the military medical school--they transfer from some other part of the military, they were maybe pilots or something like that--they don’t have to do a summer experience. The people who went to the Naval Academy or West Point, they don’t have to do one. But those of us who were civilians before, we have to do something outside of medicine in the military, to understand this military we joined. And I wanted to do something super cool, because I’m just a hard-charger. So me and Nici--Nici is the girl who I became really good friends with--we decided we were going to go and we were going to be embedded with the SEALs. And how you could do that at that time, we didn’t really know, because they don’t let women in. Nowadays, things are opened up a lot, since the women in combat and all that stuff. Back then, zero women - not allowed. You weren’t allowed to see anything, be a part of anything, so we figured we would get through that. [laughs] So we called the medical department that was attached to Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL - BUDS, SEALs, that’s their training program. We said "hey, can we--"--we’re not allowed to be attached to medical in our summer experience, you have to be in the line. But the only way to get into the SEALs is to be attached to medical. So we got a waiver from the school, telling them our plan - they thought that was brilliant. And the medical school is a very liberal place in the military, it’s funny. They said "sure, go ahead, do it." So we called up the medical department, looking up their number, and we said "hey, can we come out? We’ll work in your clinic, but we want to see, and be a part of SEAL training." And I think they just laughed at us - because it’s all guys, they have to be guys. And we went out there, and we figured once we got out there we could nose our way into whatever we wanted. Because we were hard workers, and people never turn away a hard worker, right? So we get there, and that’s exactly what happened - not only were we hard workers, we were novelties. I think they liked the idea of girls being there, and girls that were there in a sanctioned manner. Because we were in the Medical Corps, so we weren’t threatening to them in any way, or imposing upon them. And yet, they could mess around with us. So we did things like "drown-proofing"--I don’t know how you drown-proof yourself--but this is what you do, you get your arms and legs tied up, and they throw you in a pool, and they say "don’t drown!" [laughs] And you learn how to like kick yourself up to the top. We learned how to rappel out of things, like helicopters, and buildings. And then the SEALs taught me how to shoot, so I learned how to shoot a "nine mil" and a rifle from Navy SEALs, which I thought was awesome, and we spent lots of time out on the range shooting. And then "hell week" - we spent time doing that week as part of the medical group, treating the people who came in with hypothermia, and multiple other injuries, and deciding whether or not they were going to continue. And learning the mental strength and grit that these folks have to find within themselves and then show others that they can have. And what it means to recycle somebody, what it means to say "sorry, you’re too far injured, you cannot continue with this program anymore, you need to start again," and how that impacts their lives. So that was really cool. Jesse Ventura actually closed out "hell week" the week that we were there, Marcus Luttrell was in the class. Marcus Luttrell, you might not recognize that name, but Black Hawk Down--am I getting this right? Lone Survivor, excuse me--Lone Survivor is the book that he wrote about the Medal of Honor winners who died. And he was in that class - we didn’t know anything about it, I only realized it when I saw in his book what class of BUDS that he was in, and I thought "I was--I followed a class like that." I went back, and I have pictures of him, and I couldn’t believe it. So I think that was probably one of my best experiences.

Monica Mohindra:

So the way you framed learning how to shoot, it sounds like you asked them that for fun.

Rupa Dainer:

Yeah.

Monica Mohindra:

So that was what you did in recreational time during your summer experience?

Rupa Dainer:

[laughs] I think that, unfortunately, I thought the entire military was fun. It was a little bit like going to summer camp - I’m like "oh my God, if I say I want to do this, they’ll let me try it." I didn’t really realize--until I was deployed--how deadly serious all of this stuff is. Because it just seemed like a big lark. And maybe, to be fair to me, looking back on it, maybe they treated me that way, too. Maybe I was just a little bit of a lark, because they didn’t take me that seriously. And when I got to Afghanistan, the only time--the moment they took me seriously, I remember the Marines--was when I saved one of their lives. When it was absolutely clear that it was me, and not some medic, and not some other person - that was a definite turning point in their relationship. So potentially my view of it was because they viewed me the same way, I don’t know.

Monica Mohindra:

It sounds like your experience was very much up until deployment, and after deployment. Two very different experiences.

Rupa Dainer:

Absolutely.

Monica Mohindra:

I want to explore, if you don’t mind, a little bit more about before deployment. Was there a particular--it sounds like you really let the experience be your instructor, and I know that you’re very respectful of instructors and teachers--but is there one particular instructor that looms in your memory, or that you have particular feelings about?

Rupa Dainer:

Just for the whole time before deployment?

Monica Mohindra:

Mm-hm.

Rupa Dainer:

I had so many teachers, and I really have been blessed my whole life with amazing teachers. I mean who would have known how many great teachers I’ve had? In the military, do you mean, or even before that?

Monica Mohindra:

Medical school, or military.

Rupa Dainer:

That’s a tough one. I will say, there’s probably one person who made a huge difference in my life, and she doesn’t even know it. It’s Angie Lazarus - she was my program director when I was an intern. So, again, it’s still very hierarchical, and that dovetails really well with the--civilian hierarchy, it’s pretty hierarchical in medicine too. You have internship year, then residency, then fellowship - three different types of training. Nowadays, we call them all residents, or whatever. But my internship year was in internal medicine, and since I was a little kid, that’s all I really knew about doctors - I didn’t really understand surgeons, but I knew doctors. I was going to be an internist, I was going to do the coolest thing in internal medicine, which is ICU - I was going to be an intensive care doctor, because that’s cool and hard. And I did really well as an intern, she was my program director, she’s Indian, too. It all seemed completely normal to me, but looking back that’s actually quite remarkable. She was a captain in the Navy, and running this whole huge department at Naval Medical Center Bethesda, which is the biggest Navy referral center in the world, and now the biggest military referral center in the world. And she was running this program, and I’m her "star student," right? I’m "intern of the year," and they love me, and I’m so excited, because I’m going to be an internal medicine intern. And halfway through, I don’t understand what’s happening, but I hate it. Like not just a little bit, I think this is the biggest mistake I’ve ever made in my life. Not the military so much, but medicine. I thought "what did I do? I’m so stuck." And what am I? Twenty-six, twenty-five, something like that? And my life is over, because I picked the worst career I could possibly pick for myself. And I sat down with her, and I talked to her. She didn’t know what to do to help me, and she wasn’t quite sure, but I told her "listen, I’m going to be an anesthesiologist, and here’s why - I’m obligated to the military, I can’t leave, I’m stuck. If I get out of the Medical Corps, they’re going to stick me on some like military thing, I can’t do anything in the military, this is crazy talk!" [laughs] But anesthesiologists - they’re not like "real doctors." [shakes head] This is what I thought. And in fact, it’s as far away from medicine as I could possibly get, I’m just going to go do that. "I’ll just ride out my time, and I can grit my teeth, and I’m going to go find my passion, which is probably music!" [laughs] And thank goodness for her perspective and her mentorship, because she wrote me these beautiful letters of recommendation, which saved me from having a big break in my training. She took me into anesthesia residency, and counseled me the whole time, just constantly showing me the good things about what I had, and helping me find what I liked about medicine. And it turned out not only is anesthesiology incredibly medical--it’s not at all far from being a doctor--it suits me perfectly. It’s the best career I could have picked. And it was really her support, and love, and encouragement, and the fact that she wanted me to do what she was doing, and was able to take my clear discomfort and redirect it in a really positive way - she means a lot to me.

Monica Mohindra:

What a wonderful image of a mentor, that’s really fantastic. You mentioned that she’s also of Indian heritage, and I’m wondering if in your experience in Rhode Island, in your experience at medical school, did you run across other people of different heritages - Indian, and other Asian heritages, or did you find yourself singular?

Rupa Dainer:

You know, it didn’t seem a whole lot different to high school. [laughs] We had a pretty worldly high school here in Bethesda, because of the World Bank, and IMF, and stuff, but it was pretty predominantly, traditionally white, or whatever--Caucasian. And there was some Asian folks, maybe from China, or Korea, or Japan, or other smaller Asian countries. So there was a few people like that, probably predominantly Filipino in the military. And then occasionally you would have somebody from one country or another, but I have been so trained to not even notice it, that I didn’t even really notice it. There was only a few moments that I ever noticed I was from somewhere else, or I was a girl - until, really, I was freed from medical school and I was in the military proper, when I started to notice I was different. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Was there a difference--so deployment was 2009--when did you get out of medical school?

Rupa Dainer:

2002.

Monica Mohindra:

2002, so that timeframe between medical school, 2002 to 2009 - was there a big difference in your lifestyle, or in your relationship to the military at that point?

Rupa Dainer:

Yeah, so at that point - between 2002 and 2009, I was almost entirely in training. From 2002 to 2006, I was a resident in anesthesia, so internal medicine-anesthesia. From 2006 to 2008, I actually practiced as an anesthesiologist - not in training at all. And I can tell you why - basically I wanted to be a pediatric anesthesiologist, and the military wasn’t training folks at that time. And then when they did, they took someone more senior than me, because that was kind of the hierarchy of it, and my turn came around in 2008. So I had two years of practicing before I went back to training for a year. And at that time, that’s when I ran into probably all of my major difficulties. I have grown up speaking my mind, I have never thought that that was wrong or bad - no one has ever made me feel bad about it. My parents sure didn’t, my school never did, my classmates never did. Not to say that I had this perfect, rosy growing-up or anything like that, but the thing that they never made me feel bad about was speaking my mind. Monica, you may not remember our English class - Katherine Eagleton? You know, she was a really powerful English teacher. We’d sit in this circle, and people would throw out their ideas - the only thing you couldn’t do was interrupt. But God forbid you try to shoot someone else’s idea down for not being good enough - you could argue with it, but you couldn’t judge it. And that was--that was the background--and going into the military, if I had an idea like that, they could shoot you down pretty quickly. And in fact, from 2002 to 2008, I was taught very quickly how little my opinion really mattered. And it didn’t make it easier that I was young, and the people who did not like my opinion were older, or more senior. Also that I was a woman, challenging men routinely, not only was I in the military but I was in surgery, in anesthesia - all places that are very, very male-dominated. And I wasn’t in the club - I didn’t realize that it was because I didn’t look like them. But you kind of started to see it little by little - when I talked to some of the people who were African American, they would bring it up. And I thought "this is new to me!" Just because I didn’t see it, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there, but I learned it as people started pointing it out to me. And so I think that was sort of a low point, and that things were getting lower and lower. I’m not used to being low, I’m used to being quite happy, and working hard, and being successful. And professionally, I was successful - so it was this dichotomy of them accepting me for what I could do in the operating room, and what I knew - and then just who I was. So who I was wasn’t okay, but what I could do was okay. And that was just--it was a difficult time. And of course, nothing really stopped me at that point. I realized quickly that I wasn’t going to get anywhere in my department - the only way to be successful was to move outside that. So I managed to get on the board of directors at the Accreditation College of Graduate Medical Education, which basically runs all the residencies and fellowships across the whole country - military, civilian, or whatever. At that time, they were just limiting doctors’ working hours--or residents’ working hours--to eighty hours a week. Big change - I mean, we were working a hundred ten, a hundred twenty-plus hours a week, and now these people are telling you "eighty." It was super unpopular, and I was advocating for this. [laughs] Along with--I was part of this task force to help write it, and accept it, and all this sort of thing. So I was definitely a focus of anger in my residency program at this point. I had moved away from Angie Lazarus’ encouraging bubble, and now I’m over in the anesthesia side of it. It just was pretty tough, you know? I’ve never really been shut up, even with all of that - which is why I love that whole--the persistence in the campaign that went on--that "don’t tell me to be quiet, don’t tell me to sit down, I never have." But only because I really believed it was right, and I was always willing to listen to another point of view. But I don’t think that any of what I look like, or where I came from, helped the situation - never mind that I spoke my mind. Then I became a mom! [laughs] And I was sat down by my residency program director at that time--we had three of them actually--but one of them told me that no one who had been pregnant had ever passed their boards. And all I could think of was like "have you met me?" That was one thing I thought, then the other thing I thought was "maybe he’s right." Because I’m so used to being deferential to someone who’s in that position of teaching - he’s the residency program director, he’s like the teaching director. So even though I don’t really like you, and I don’t like what you’re saying, I kind of respect you automatically, I can’t help it. But that can’t be true - it can’t be true about me, you know? I study, I learned. Obviously I did not fail my boards, at all, not even close. But I think being a mom was not looked upon favorably. I found out later--both from the department head, and from the residency program director at that time--both thought that I would be a terrible team player because I was pregnant, and because I was going to take some time off after the baby was born. Six weeks was all I took - I’d had a C-section, so you had to take a few weeks off anyway. So it was pretty uphill. Part of the way you cope with that is not really accepting that it’s uphill - just pretending like everything’s fine. Because that’s all you’ve got, that’s your situation, you can’t get out of it. So-- did I answer your question? [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Absolutely, absolutely - and you gave me more questions. Which is - I think you have two daughters?

Rupa Dainer:

Yeah.

Monica Mohindra:

So did your first experience, and facing your uphill with a smile - how did that impact your second experience of being pregnant? And were you still in that environment, or was it a different environment you were in?

Rupa Dainer:

By the time I had my second daughter I was not in training anymore, I was an attending physician. So it was a little bit better, in that I had fewer people angry at me, and no one telling me that I wasn’t going to pass something - because I had already finished passing my boards, and I was board-certified. Instead, I was told--this still makes me mad when I tell this story, like super mad, not even a little bit mad. I was told by one of the attendings--older dude, a civilian working as a contractor--that I was getting pregnant just to avoid deployment. I yelled at him, in the middle--super unprofessional--but I yelled at him, and I told him what I thought of him in front of a lot people. Which is not--it makes you feel good at the time--but it’s not a way to generate any kind of support from other people, and it’s certainly not a way to move your cause forward. But I was very insulted, and his--it couldn’t possibly be true, I owed so much time to the military, I owed seven additional years--that there was no way to avoid deployment, I would’ve had to have like eight kids, or some enormous number of children, to actually get pregnant to avoid deployment. But it was so insulting that a woman would purposefully get pregnant--maybe even have an abortion--just to get out of being deployed. Does it happen? Sure. But do guys shoot themselves in the hand to get out of deployment? Absolutely they do. So he was just insulting me on so many levels. And he himself hadn’t deployed, nor had he--I don’t think he had even been in the military, if he had it was for a very short time many, many years ago. So it was very negative. But the culture didn’t shut him up, people didn’t--the department head didn’t say "that’s not okay." They took me aside, "hey, don’t get offended, he’s just a jerk." I’m like, "well, how do you deal with that? How do you as a leader of this department make me feel like a valued member of the team?" I didn’t say any of that, because that’s so eloquent, and that’s now - back then I just yelled. [laughs] I was like "he’s a jerk!" And then it was "don’t get so hysterical." And the worst part about it was that I was being hysterical, but I feel like I had a reason. [laughs] So it was easier and harder. My second child was healthier than my first child. So my first child, Phoebe, was in the NICU for three days - totally fine now, but it was just a rocky--everything was rocky around her. The second, Aurora, it was just a little easier, plus she slept better, and she ate better. She’s not my favorite, and neither is Phoebe, so if they watch this, [points finger at camera] neither one of you are my favorite. [laughs] But it was definitely a different experience. But then, I realized I had two children to deal with if I ever got deployed, which is exactly what happened, and they were two and four at the time.

Monica Mohindra:

I feel like there’s been this big buildup to talking about deployment, and I don’t want to keep teasing anyone who may be listening to this, or to tease you.

Rupa Dainer:

Oh no, that’s okay. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

I think you’ve talked a little bit about that hardest part of adapting to this military lifestyle - moving from medical school into your residency, and into this position where you’re practicing. But is there anything more you could say about--I’m particularly curious, and I don’t want to get too personal--but it occurs to me you’re describing coping with these unique situations, based on being a woman, based on being a mom, based on being outspoken. And your husband also went to this medical school, and so I’m wondering--again, not wanting to get too personal--but in married life, in family life, is there an intersection between the hardest part of adjusting to a military lifestyle, and what was going on subsequently at home at the same time?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh yeah, definitely. Things were not going well, right? [laughs] I don’t think either one of us really wanted to face how poorly things were going - I would say two or three days after the wedding. [laughs] It was pretty close to that. You kind of think "oh we’re married, everything’s going to be fine." Well, I feel like to some degree I have two sides to me all the time - I have the social side, or the relationship side, that I was sort of failing at from the time I can recall, really, all the way through college, and high school, and medical school, whatever. And then I have the academic side of me, which has always been very successful. So here I am in medical school with this guy who’s two years ahead of me, who takes a two-year sort of "break"--not really--to get his PhD. So we end up graduating in the same class, instead of him graduating ahead of me. When I met him--and I still to this day think he’s very smart--I remember thinking he’s very smart. But he must have thought something else about me, I think that at the time he was like "you’re going to see I’m not that smart." And I said "well how I could I possibly, I’m so in love with you, I think everything about you is amazing, including how smart you are. I’m never not going to think you’re smart." Well I graduated third in my class in medical school, and he did not. And then I went and got into the honors society, and he did not. And then I was the intern of the year, and he was not. And then there were all these different committees that I ended up progressing through the ranks, and ended up becoming nationally recognized, which he was not. And he would say and do two different things - he would say he was very supportive, and that he was so proud of his wife. But the way he behaved--he behaved sort of jealous of it, instead of being excited that we were doing this as a team. And oftentimes I would ask him for his advice, or how to do things, or just some reassurance as to why I got something - and we all sometimes feel like "why did they pick me? They could have picked this other person, and that other person is way more amazing than me." Or "I must have fooled them," or something like that. And he would make really crappy comments, things like "you know, they just think you’re pretty," or "you’re just lucky you studied the right things," or different things like that. Which seemed so normal, and so innocuous at the time that I just agreed. First of all, I respected his judgment, so if he thought that then so did I, you know? I don’t blame him for it, but I know that our little dance that we did was super toxic. [laughs] It didn’t really help. And now you add "well we’re going to have a baby, because we’re going to make things better, or jell our family." It’s just more stress! I’m working all the time - at that point eighty-plus hours a week. He’s working a lot less, he’s in a clinic setting at this point, basically. And then we have a second baby, and now we’ve got two kids, and we’re juggling having a nanny, and trying to figure out daycare, and who takes off work when one of the kids are sick, when we have really inflexible jobs. Although at that point his was more flexible than mine. So yeah, we just--things got worse and worse, and I dealt with it by eating a lot of ice cream, put on a lot of weight. And things are just very stressful, we didn’t get along well, and things--it wasn’t good. It felt like it was fine, because "everything’s always fine!" But it wasn’t fine, you know? And then I go to fellowship, that’s in 2008. I go back to training, at a place I love - at Children’s Hospital in D.C., which I loved it as a resident, and I loved it as a fellow. I sort of work for them now too, and I love, love, love that part of my job. But it was exhausting. It was tons of hours, really, really sick kids, and coming home to two more kids, and my husband, who--we didn’t get along well at all. And the day that was over, he was starting his residency. Or--was that when he started residency? I have to think about the timeline. The day I finished residency, he started his residency. So every time we seemed to have a break, and we could kind of calm down, something else ramped up in one of the other parts of our lives. We never really had a stress-free time, so we definitely had things working against us. As soon as I finished fellowship, I thought we’d have a break then, too, and then I got told I was leaving in a couple months. So it just never really ended for us.

Monica Mohindra:

I think it’s so hard to be in the same field as your family members and your significant others, and I can only imagine that the culture sort of echoed and reverberated within the family structure. So, now after this big lead-up, I’d love to talk about deployment - I have a bunch of questions I’d like to start with. Where were you when you heard you had to deploy? And if you could share a little bit about that experience.

Rupa Dainer:

I remember that crystal clear. I had gone to pick up my kids from daycare, and they went to this super-cool daycare - it’s still over here in Bethesda, it’s called Children in the Shoe, it’s the best place on the planet, my kids to this day talk about it an love it. And I’m in the parking lot parking the car, and my phone rings and I see that it’s my department that I’m about to start with. I answer the phone, and it’s my department head - she is a woman, really cool, and she’s like "I have some great news for you!" She’s a very positive person, even when she’s telling you something really not positive. And she tells me I’m deploying to Afghanistan! I have fifty thousand emotions at the exact same time. Like "wait, there’s no water there, because aren’t I in the Navy?" And she goes "you’re going with the Marines!" I cannot even explain to you how intensely horrified I was at that moment, like "no way!" First of all, I hate bugs - every single kind of every single kind of bug, and I’m pretty sure there’s huge, huge insects in Afghanistan. That’s the first thing I think? And then the next was "but I can’t deploy with Marines, they’re scary and huge, and I am neither one of those things." [laughs] Nothing that I thought was in any way rational or remotely smart, it was just horrible, the whole thing was horrible. And then I’m like "I gotta call Hugh"--that’s my husband--"I gotta call him, he will fix this, he will calm me down, I’m going to call him." So I call him up, and I tell him "oh my God, I’m getting deployed." And he’s like "I’m in a meeting, I can’t talk to you right now. You’re in the military, what did you expect?" and hung up the phone. I’m in the parking lot, and I just start sobbing in front of people, which I never do. [laughs] I didn’t know what to do, and I had to go get my kids, because the stupid daycare’s about to close, like I had no--I had no ground to stand on at that moment. And I think that it was--it was a moment where I knew "I can’t be married to this man. How could he leave me? This is the most important moment of my life, and he just hung up the phone." So I got my shit together [laughs], and I went inside, and I’m like "don’t cry. Your kids will freak out." And I picked them up, and I took them home, and we had the bigger conversation later that evening - not really about him hanging up on me, mostly about "what are we going to do, with me gone?"

Monica Mohindra:

Yeah, would you like to share a little about how you structured that logistically? Did he take on more duties with the kids, or how did that work?

Rupa Dainer:

So he had just started residency, so a very difficult time for him - because your life is not your own. So he couldn’t really--wow, I’m defending him--so he couldn’t really do more than he would have done. But I was a resident before that, right? And I was doing everything, pretty much. So we got a nanny for the morning, who would bring the kids to school, she came from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. We had a nanny in the evening, who came from 5:30 to 8:30 - did the dinner, laundry, put the kids to bed, baths, everything like that. And all day long there was daycare, the only thing he needed to do was pick them up from daycare. My parents and I were going through a rough patch at that point, so we weren’t talking a lot--I think at all at that point. So I didn’t actually tell them I went to Afghanistan, the way they found out was pretty funny. But we lived across the street from them, we had bought a house across the street. We had assumed that they could come over and help on days when maybe the kids were sick, or whatever. I did offer to my husband at that point to patch things up with my parents, because if I said I was sorry everything would evaporate. But he said "no, no, no"--he would handle it. I had a great network of mom friends from the preschool, and they were awesome. They all signed up on this "helping hands" kind of website, where they would take the kids on the weekend, bring food for the kids, take them for playdates, all this kind of thing. The preschool themselves constantly were gathering art stuff that the kids would make, and put it together in these massive packages, and then FedEx it to me in Afghanistan. And one time they sent me cookies--that was super gross when they finally got to me. [laughs] It was all kinds of fun stuff, they would tape videos for me--that’s when I first joined Facebook, I didn’t even really know about Facebook at that time. They would post videos on Facebook for me, so if I could ever get on the Internet, I could maybe see pictures of the kids and stuff like that--or videos of the kids. So I think we had a pretty great network actually, people took great care. I didn’t know what we were preparing for, I didn’t know "what does it mean to your kids that you’re gone for nine months?" What does it mean to a dad to be gone for nine months? I don’t know if at that time people really cared as much, as it meant for a mom to be gone for nine months. I don’t think my kids cared all that much, I think kids are like dogs when they are that age. You’re gone for five minutes, and they’re like "where have you gone? You’re never coming back!" So to them five minutes, or five days, or five years - I’m not sure it means that much of a difference to them. It means a lot to us, you know? So I--do you have any more questions before I keep going? Because I keep talking! [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Keep going.

Rupa Dainer:

I had prepared, I decided that they needed to--I read them stories every night, so I needed to read them a story every night. So I read them a whole bunch of stories - that’s when I met up with Debbie--Debbie saw my story, she wrote this story for the Bethesda magazine. She was like "I make videos, I’ll help you make DVDs," so we had story time. I realized I was going to be gone for every major holiday, so I made a message for the kids for every holiday - Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Mother’s Day, and New Year’s, and St. Patrick’s Day--even though that’s not a major holiday [laughs]--but I was like "every holiday!" And "good morning" - I said "good morning" to them every day, I said "good night" to them every night. I had a "good night" message, a "good morning" message, I talked to each one of the kids, told them things that I wanted to say, or whatever. They called it the "Mommy show," and they would play it every single day they watched it when I was gone. And then they liked their blankets, so I made them blankets on Snapfish, or Shutterfly, or something, where I had pictures of me and that child. So a Phoebe blanket, and an Aurora blanket for each of them. And then I realized that kids are too concrete at that age--two and four--so I made this big canvas with a calendar, a huge nine-month calendar. I wasn’t sure when I was going to come home exactly, so they could cross off each day that I was gone, to visually see where I’ve been and when I’m coming home. I tacked on an extra couple months just in case. Every day they would get a Hershey Kiss for crossing off that, and there were princesses all over it--it was a huge canvas, and I sat there--I think I stayed up all night long making it. My husband was like "why are you obsessing over this stuff?" I’m like, "because it just matters. I don’t know why I’m obsessing--because I have nothing else to give them." And that was it - I remember the night before I left, because at that point they were still so small I could rock them to sleep sometimes. Sometimes I’d be like, "go to sleep!" And then sometimes I’d be like, "I love you." [makes cradling motion, laughs] It just depended on how I was feeling at that moment. [laughs] And so I remember putting Phoebe to bed, and then Aurora - I sat there in the rocking chair, and I just rocked well after she fell asleep, and I put her down. I remember thinking "this is the last time I’m going to see you for a long time." Oh, I’m going to cry too!

Monica Mohindra:

Can we keep going?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh yeah.

Monica Mohindra:

I’m so impressed with your forethought of what you did for them, and I’m wondering if you were able to find any ounce of energy to think about what to do for you while you were deployed?

Rupa Dainer:

[laughs] That’s a great question, I don’t think I remember thinking about that at all. You know, we did go to REI, which is a really, really great store, and I remember thinking "I’m going to get all this gear." I actually have a picture of it--I can show you later--of all the stuff I left with. Because I’d thought "well, I don’t know if we’re going to be able to shop or anything like that." So I brought shampoo--that was a really bad idea to deploy with shampoo, because it was very heavy, and you have to carry all your stuff everywhere you go--drag it across gravel. And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to drag a suitcase across gravel--first of all, why are you taking a suitcase to war? Okay, you should probably just take the backpacks that they issue you, but I decided that I needed this massive Blackhawk bag worth of stuff, so I carried all of that. And I’m like "it’s going to be dirty there, I’m sure of it." I didn’t know anything. So I got this Pelican case--you know Pelican cases? I’m like "I’m going to put all my very sensitive electronics in there." [laughs] Like my high-speed laptop, I’ll put it in there, because I didn’t want it to get dirty or broken. And military people are--this is my opinion, I did not know at the time--people are very--they could care less, they’re going to throw things around, because they’re Marines, because they’re big and strong. So I didn’t want them to break my laptop, so I put it in this Pelican case. [laughs] And so this picture of me on the grinder--they call it the grinder, it’s a big asphalt, flat place--preparing to go and get on the plane. It’s like me and fifty bags, and people are like "wow." There’s only one other person who brought more stuff than me, and that was the plastic surgeon, and he is way more of a girl than I ever have been. [laughs] And I’m like "what is all your crap? And why are you making fun of me?" [laughs] But all I really did was get stuff, gear to make sure like I had something warm to sleep in - I underestimated how cold it was going to be, but luckily I still had a better sleeping bag than the one they issued us. And then there was just stuff I knew from medical school - they’d give us stuff like canteens, just gross stuff that someone else used, that you’re not totally sure what’s in it. So I just bought my own of that stuff, and that’s again a privilege that I was able to do that, we had the money to do that, whereas a lot of people who deploy, they just get the standard-issue gear and hope that it works well for them.

Monica Mohindra:

So you went with the Marines, and you went on the plane, and you knew you were going to be gone for nine months. Were you going with people that you knew, or were you attached to a completely different unit? Could you explain a little bit about that?

Rupa Dainer:

Sure. The military goes through cycles of what they think is important, and how the war should be waged. And this particular cycle was called "global sourcing," which meant "we aren’t going to make everyone from one unit go, how silly is that? That means you deplete one area, and you have to backfill those people with reservists. You’re going to empty out Bethesda Naval Hospital, and put in all people who don’t know anything about it? Let’s not do that. You know what? We’re going to take the anesthesiologist from Bethesda Naval, and the plastic surgeon from Portsmouth, and the general surgeon from Camp Pendleton. So we’re taking the little pegs, and we’re going to put them in the holes, fill up the little grooves we need to have filled up, and we’re going to take them from around the globe, so global sourcing." That’s very interesting, and very smart-sounding, so we all went, we were all globally sourced to Camp Pendleton, and none of us knew each other. Maybe like one or two people had seen each other before, but you have this massive group of people, and for all intents and purposes we were strangers. We spent a couple of weeks at Pendleton, getting some basic information. Some things that I had kind of seen in medical school, so it wasn’t super new to me - about how to put up a tent--a big tent, not a small tent. How to unpack these boxes that were going to be standard issue given to us with medical gear. What kind of gear we would have. What the people who were there right now were sending back information-wise - in other words, what kind of injuries are they seeing? What kind of potential places we were going to go to. Now we don’t know where we’re going - it could be in the mountains, it could be in the desert, we weren’t a hundred percent sure. And I don’t think it was because of any kind of information security, I don’t think they even really quite knew where they wanted us eventually. By the time we actually got there, what would the ground be like? Where would they really want us? I don’t think anyone really had the answer. It seemed to change even while we were there. So we kind of got to know each other, again it sort of seemed a little bit like a game, but we weren’t really--it wasn’t an actual game, we were actually going to Afghanistan. But what was it like? Really, nobody knew what it was like. I was already mortified that I was on a Marine Corps base. These places don’t have elevators, so I had to carry my luggage--all of it--upstairs. Now I’m already mortified, so I was having a hard time even missing home, because I was so mortified by the situation that I was in. And these barracks had barely any windows, it looked like I was in prison. I had no idea that that was actually the height of luxury, I was in the best place I was going to be. The cool part about all of this, looking back on it, was that everyone else was as stunned as I was when we finally got there. So all of the people posturing, with all their "I’m so tough, and I’ve been there, and I’ve done that, and this is not my first deployment" were equally stunned when they hit the ground. Not only were my folks--the medical folks--stunned, the Marines were too. So we got into situations where literally all of us were like "what the fuck." [laughs] I mean nobody came out of there going "okay yeah, this is great. I knew what to expect." So that made me feel much better. [laughs] Because I was kind of blaming it on the fact that I was this entitled girl who was a little overweight. [laughs] You know? A lot overweight. Also couldn’t run. So there we are, and we took a lot of pictures - we were messing around, and having a lot of fun. And then they said "okay, it’s time to go!" The day and time came for us to go on the plane, and we get on a regular plane to leave the country. You don’t get on some kind of weird like "military plane" - it’s all very regular, up until you hit Germany. [laughs] Things get very irregular after that. You get onto this other plane--it’s also very large, but it’s not very comfortable. And then you get on another plane in Kyrgyzstan--there’s different ways of getting into the country, I’m sure it’s different now than it was back then, but we entered through Manas, Kyrgyzstan, which is an Air Force base there. And when I hit the ground in Manas, I’m like "well, I thought it couldn’t get worse, but it is currently worse." And the only saving grace is that this is an Air Force base, and they give you Milky Way bars here, because they have actual chocolate--this is good! [laughs] But it was still all this gravel and--but there were sidewalks, and there were some actual roads. And you didn’t really live in a tent there - the transient people--they called us transients because we were going in and out of country--lived in these big dome-shaped, temporary-ish structures where you had bunk beds and stuff like that. And the rumor going around was that there were bed bugs, so be really careful. [shrugs] I don’t think I ever noticed that, but all of the women were in one big temporary. And there were a lot of women--comparatively, I had never seen quite that number of military women in one spot. But that was because we were transients going through from multiple different units and things like that. The men had this whole acreage of area, and then we had this massive tent. Still, it was a lot of women. We left from Manas, and we flew into country from there. And that was when things got really bad, because now we’re all like ready for war, and it was super dark, and everyone was telling us that we were going to get shot at when we landed. We didn’t actually get shot at when we landed, that particular time, but it was definitely scary. And no one told us what was going to happen, so we all land, and we’re like "what now? First of all, where’s the fighting? Is it really close to where we are now in this exact second?" [laughs] Obviously it wasn’t, but that’s how little information you have--all of us, we had no idea what was going on. We get out of the plane, and this is when I saw the men starting to cry, which made me feel much better. Because we walked out of the plane into a sandstorm, that was the first thing that happened--we got hit in the face, no cover or nothing, with just sand coming at you. I have this great video of the sandstorm, and it blacking out everything that you can see, and then you being able to see again. Then we took a little bus ride - one of those third world country buses, do you know what I’m talking about? That have all the coloring and writing on the side, and you’re a hundred percent sure it’s going to break any minute. And we’re all on that bus--and these are some massive dudes--I’m like "I think this bus is overweight, because this is not okay." [laughs] And we’re going, and I see dudes leaning over, crying, and I’m like "huh." Because I feel like that, but I’m not crying in public. That’s what I’m thinking. Stupid. [shakes head] So we get there, and we see our tents, and we move into our tents. And they start to pick us off - over the next week or so they basically take whole groups of this group that came in, and subdivide us as we’re going to different places. My group goes to the very southern part of Helmand Province in the Desert of Death, which is just all sand, I’ve never seen anything like it. You know in Aladdin, how they have those big sand dunes that they’re crossing? That’s what it looks like. And when you step in the sand, it puffs up like baby powder, it’s the softest, lightest sand. It would be pretty if there were, for instance, ocean right next to it, but there is no ocean, there’s just sand. And it just gets on everything, like your whole body, face, everything, is covered in this fine layer of sand - for the entire nine months. You have a brief moment of cleanliness when you take a thirty-second Navy shower, and you’re clean for like ten seconds, then you walk out of the shower and you’re dirty again. [snaps fingers] It’s just--it’s a huge phase shift of reality--like this is normal, and that’s just Tattooine--it’s crazy. And again, I thought I was the only one, but you talk to the Marines that were out there--the guys who do this for a living--and it was just as shocking to them. So I feel better about that. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

It must have been--I’m wondering about that experience of feeling dirty the minute you get out of the shower, and how that affected your feeling about practicing medicine, which must happen?

Rupa Dainer:

[laughs] We were all a little bit like "what do you do now?" All we had all ever known--the surgeons, myself - there were two surgeons, and an anesthesiologist for each little pod that we had, we had three pods at that point. And we were all like "um, this is really dirty." And there’s no recourse - there’s nothing to do to make it un-dirty, there’s no way to cover something up, and there’s no real sterility of anything. You try to kind of clean--put the tent up, and close the doors and make it less dirty--but there’s no way to make it un-dirty. And that was really amazing, because I had been taking care of people coming back from war at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospital--same place now--since the war started in 2001. And we had always kind of bad-mouthed them a little bit, "why are these guys getting so many infections? What are they doing in-country?" And we all looked around at each other and were like "oh, this is what’s happening." First of all, these guys are getting blown up or shot at, but oftentimes blown up. This big bomb goes off, and drives dirt into their wound - it’s a huge, fast trauma. And then all this nasty dirt is embedded in the person. And their first stop, their damage-control/resuscitation--that was us--we stop them from dying, and then move them to someplace cleaner. We can’t clean them up anymore either, so the first time they really get clean is probably not really until they get back to Germany. Really clean anyway, they actually get cleaned when they come to the United States. But yeah, you have to shift your mind, and accept what you’ve got.

Monica Mohindra:

It makes me wonder, too, if you get to stay in your role very cleanly. It sounds like you’re not just an anesthesiologist, but--or are you? Are you able to just do your job?

Rupa Dainer:

There’s some times when you have to just do your job, and you must do it because no one else can. And we never lost anyone, so I never had to step into anyone else’s roles, but there were times when you had to do more than one thing, just because other people were busy. But in fact the beauty of a situation like that is how clear-cut the rules are, and how perfectly everyone fits into it. We may or may not have gotten along, but when a trauma or crisis was occurring, everyone just clicked right in and did their job, and it was possibly the best moments of my life, and my medical career. It was definitely those moments, because it was so perfect, and everything jelled so perfectly.

Monica Mohindra:

You alluded earlier to a real clear-cut line between before deployment and after deployment, and you talked about that in reference to your experience as a woman, and in reference to your experience as a doctor. And I’d like to shift into talking a little bit about that. Can you tell me first, though, were you assigned to a particular unit of Marines, or is this situation you were in kind of a triage for lots of different units?

Rupa Dainer:

Sure. We were assigned to CLB-15 - Combat Logistics Battalion 15, and the reason we were assigned to them is because there are no women in the Marine Corps [combat arms units], and the Marine Corps has no medical capabilities. So medical is always assigned to a Logistics Battalion, Logistics Battalion are not fighting--they’re not infantry. So if there are women there, and they happen to be around places where there’s fighting [shrugs] then that’s fine because they’re not "in combat" and they’re not in the infantry - this is the old style, obviously. So medical, we were attached to the battalion. This battalion was chopped off and sent to where the fighting was, where 1/7 [1st Battalion, 7th Marines] and 1/3 [1st Battalion, 3rd Marines] were fighting. There was multiple--I say all these numbers, and they’re meaningless, it literally took me three weeks of studying this stuff to figure out what all this stuff meant. The Marines have all these very specific divisions, and they’re numbered, and you say these numbers and they’re very meaningful. So when I see a Marine I’m like "I deployed with 1/7!" I don’t say CLB-15 because they don’t understand that, so 1/7 and they’re like "oh 1/7!" or "I know guys from 3/7!" Then I can have a conversation. So that’s how we got there, and when we got there those people who were in these various Marine Corps battalions were fighting in certain circles around those--they’re called "areas of operations." And anyone who was within a ten-minute helicopter ride of where our tent was, we would get them as a patient. So it didn’t have to be a Marine from 1/7 necessarily, but wherever their operations took them, if they were close to us. And we only took patients who were severely injured, anyone who was at least a little bit less injured and could get back to a better facility with more resources, they would take them there. Our role was a hundred percent damage-control/resuscitation, in other words you were so close to death we were doing whatever we could to stop you. Like a water main break, or like that "buttercup trainer" - "how many holes could I plug to get you someplace better where you could really get treated?" So that was kind of fun for us, it was definitely like "MASH" [laughs]. You know, Karen said she was a Dustoff pilot, Karen is one of the people in charge of this project [Karen Lloyd was Veterans History Project director at time of interview]. Dustoff pilots are those pilots who go in and scoop up these incredibly injured people from sometimes in the middle of firefights. I think technically they’re not supposed to go in the middle of a firefight, but they do - man they just land those planes in the middle of bullets whizzing, scoop up injured people who would never survive if it wasn’t for their incredible bravery, and bring them to us. So it’s pretty cool.

Monica Mohindra:

You did this nice foreshadowing about how your--there was a huge pivot in your thinking, and in your experience, and in your viewpoint when we get to Afghanistan. So I’d like to pick up--you just left us with talking about operationally what that meant. And I’d like to slide into trying to find a way for you to segue into talking about your reflections as you had them at that time, okay?

Rupa Dainer:

Sure, sure.

Monica Mohindra:

I’m really curious about--it sounds like the pace is very intense and couldn’t be more critical, in terms of life-saving. And I’m wondering about the pacing and your opportunity for reflection and what your personal experience was during all of this.

Rupa Dainer:

Absolutely. I mean, deployment was for me a huge turning point in my entire life. So there’s a lot of stuff I could talk about with that. There are times when you’re deployed, at least from the medical side of things--and probably also from the line, but I can’t speak for them--is that there are time of total silence, when nothing’s happening at all, where you’re waiting for whatever is going to happen. And part of why it was silent for us is because we only had to take care of the very, very sick. It might be less silent for someone who was taking care of the mildly injured, because that was constantly happening. Whereas for us, we had spikes, very significant spikes, and it really was like the TV show, like "MASH." There’d be nothing to do, and everyone would be kind of joking around, and trying to figure out how to fill their hours of time that may or may never end. And then intense crisis. So we all tried to figure out what to do with our time. At first, I wasn’t really doing any reflecting, because it was just new. And I really was just figuring out how to cope. I had really never been camping before, I don’t like the outside--this is at that time, I’m different now--but I don’t like being outside, I like air conditioning, it’s extremely hot, the interiors of the tents reached 130 degrees constantly. The air conditioners were run off generators that would break almost all the time, so even when it cooled the tent down you’re still at a hundred plus degrees. And I’m just in this very, very horrible environment where just to get anywhere you have to walk nearly a mile, and I’m in terrible shape so I’m not doing so great. So coping on a day-to-day basis was sort of 24 hours a day what I had to deal with. And because we had so much time, people would say "hey listen, why don’t we just go for a run?" And I’m like "well I can go for a walk, but I can’t go for a run." We were all trying to acclimatize to the heat, and then also we weren’t really at much altitude but it was different than home. So I tried to spend as much time as I could in the operating room, in that little operating tent--there was no room--because it was comfortable and familiar, and if I could spend some time cleaning it up and organizing it, then at least I knew what was going on there, because I could do my work. And I found myself waiting for those moments where we had a patient, because I could just do that job. We can talk about the medical side of it, which is super fascinating and very cool, but the part that was personally so intense for me was meeting the Marines. We’d go around, me and some of the other people in my little group, and just meet the people on the base, "what do you do? Do you stay on the base all the time? Do you go off the base? You’re a pilot, this is where you fly to and come back to us. You’re an infantry person, this is where you go off to and come back to us. You drive the MRAPs or whatever, you drive this vehicle"--just figuring out what they did, and where our place was in all of this. I volunteered to attend the intelligence meetings in the evening, just to see what was--to be the medical liaison that goes back with whatever information they wanted. And I was the highest-ranking woman on base, at that point I was a lieutenant commander so I could do those kinds of things. And in the Marine Corps an O-4 is pretty high-ranking in that situation. So I just tried to meet people, and of course I was a novelty because I was one of very, very few women. At that point there was more than six women, but it was very, very few women. You could hear my voice and I would stand out among--not just seeing me, but just listening to me--you could hear me from almost a mile away practically, comparatively. They called me "Squeaker" because my voice was so high in comparison - that’s how intense the difference is when you have that many men and that few women. But the sergeant major at that time--was he a sergeant major? I forget exactly his rank at that point--but he was a very high-ranking enlisted folk. Really good guy, kind of looked at me--and he had seen me resuscitate one of his Marines a few days before, and before that he really paid no attention to me. But after I saved this guy’s life--along with the surgeons--he decided that I was important and I needed to stay alive. I was in really bad shape, I was going to kill myself - by being so physically unfit, in an environment where if you were not physically fit you will not survive, really. So he took it upon himself to teach me how to run, and then also he wanted to teach me how to fight. I thought it was the most ridiculous thing, like "why am I going to fight somebody?" [laughs] "Oh that’s right, you’re at war, at a base that could be overrun." So he taught me Marine Corps Martial Arts, he was an instructor--a high-level black belt instructor--so we had a little class of a few of us, two or three of us, and we learned how to box, we learned hand-to-hand combat, we learned how to disarm someone with a knife or some type of weapon like a gun. He taught me how to run, he taught me how to weightlift--not just me, but me and a group of people, two or three of us who showed interest. He said if we kept coming he would keep teaching us, so we kept coming, and the only time I didn’t come was if we had patients. And he knew if we had patients because he was in the leadership group, so the little radios that would go off to call the patients in, he would know that I was working on a patient. And all the patients were his men, in some way, shape, or form they were underneath him because he was so high-ranking. So "no excuses" - I showed up, I worked out twice a day, I lost thirty pounds, I started running, and I was a good runner. I dropped my one-mile time from like fifteen minutes to eight. [laughs] I got stronger and stronger, and that made me feel really empowered. He taught me what Marines all probably learn - that you earn what you get in life. You would I think I would already know that, because I earned academically. But physically, and socially, and emotionally, I never had to earn anything, or I never really learned how to earn it. And he taught me how to do that, and it was really amazing - it was a gift, I’ll never ever lose my eternal appreciation for that. I tried to stay in touch with my family, it was very difficult because there was a timeframe difference. We’re many hours--I guess it’s ahead? [laughs] And the children are small, so they have very rigid bedtimes, not because you want them to be, but they just have to be, they need their routines. So if I could get to the phone--we didn’t really have much, we had these phones and very rudimentary internet that we had to stand in pretty long lines for, like forty-five minutes worth of lines. And the Marine Corps does not let officers cut in front of enlisted, if anything you wait for those young boys to call home and stuff like that, and I absolutely did that. But that means I’m walking down to these internet tents at like two or three in the morning--I couldn’t go alone, it was too unsafe to go alone because they were Afghan soldiers on base, and you’ve probably heard some of the stories of Afghan soldiers killing US soldiers and stuff like that. Especially for the few women who were on base, so I had to get someone to come with me, sit in line, try to Skype with my family. That was cut off even further because Marines are very strict about something called "River City"--at that time they were, I’m sure they still are. But that means if a Marine dies, the information going out of the base is cut off, and only information can flow in - we’re the city the river flows into. Because they want the Marine’s family to be the first people to find out, they don’t want anybody to say anything at any moment to leak--they really truly believe that the family is the most important. So we were cut off all the time, and we stayed in "River City" until the family was notified, and that could be a day, it could be ten days, you never know how long it takes. So I had a really hard time doing that. What I would do to reflect and keep in touch is I would get on my computer and write letters offline, the best I could. I put them on a USB drive so that the few minutes I would get on the computer I would just stick it in there, upload the letters, and email them so that they would have them. Now the unfortunate thing--I so regret this to this day--is that these are all reasonably uncensored, I wrote everything down, but some things I deleted because I didn’t want my husband to know them. Some of the thoughts, or feelings, or experiences. Some of them were perfectly fine, they weren’t necessarily--they were just so personal to me I didn’t want anyone else to see them, and I deleted them and I still regret that. Because it’s hard to remember all that stuff. But a lot of other folks there did some very similar things where they wrote a lot - we wrote in journals and things like that. I took a lot of photos - nowadays with digital cameras you can take a lot more photos than you could in the past. I had a little iPhone at that point and I took tons of pictures, and we all shared those with each other, so I have all of my pictures and I have my shipmates’ pictures, which is really great. I think that’s how we reflected. Every Saturday night I used to go back behind the generators--there was this pool of generators--and that’s when I would let myself cry a little bit, I let myself be upset. Because they can’t hear you crying behind a generator, it’s too loud and no one ever goes back there anyway. So that was a moment I’d let myself let my guard down, because most of the time you just couldn’t do that. Some people did, but I don’t think they coped very well, you know? You really can’t give yourself that time in the middle of it. But I’m glad I didn’t, because I grew more than I ever would have. Now I really like going outside. So all of that stuff turned into a person who runs ultra-marathons and spends literally all day in the woods running fifty-mile races. Now I powerlift, and I’m pretty strong - I win a lot of competitions in my old-person age group. I do stuff that I would never have done before. When people have a talk about guns in schools, or whatever, I can speak intelligently about it, having fired weapons, and I understand what it’s like to try to disarm somebody, or not disarm them, or whatever. It’s a totally different perspective that I love that I can give my children. I love that I have two girls whose mother wears combat boots. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

For sure. Did you find--sometimes with these attachments, you sort of alluded to it--that women are kind of in the combat zone even if at the time they weren’t technically in combat. Did you find that you had to use any of these skills that your colleague was teaching you?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh no, I was very lucky - no I didn’t have to. The Medical Corps is very well protected by the Marines. They were always preparing me for the worst-case scenario, what would happen if they couldn’t protect me anymore. There were a couple of times where they tried to get--there was not that many women again, and we had to search some of the women who came in, who needed--some of the Afghan women who needed medical attention needed to be searched, and occasionally they would try to get us out to go do that--search them for bombs. I don’t know how to defuse a bomb! I don’t think I’m the best person--like "okay, that’s not clothes, that’s not good." [laughs] They didn’t want men to search them because they were Islamic and everything like that--that meant something in their culture. There were some of the nurses who did go out into the villages, and they needed a little more of that training. Oftentimes they didn’t come to the classes so they didn’t have the training, but they wouldn’t let me go out because I was a physician. In the military mindset--and it was very true--I was an expensive piece of equipment. It costs a lot of money and a lot of years to train me, so none of the physicians were allowed to go out to do some of those things in the field that the nurses were allowed to do. The one thing I did notice was that particular Marine--the sergeant major who spearheaded all of this--was very forward-thinking. He truly believed every person out there was important - man or woman, everybody could earn the right to be called a Marine. I’m not a Marine, I’m a Fleet Marine Force officer though, so I qualified as an FMF officer, which is all a Navy person could ever do in the Marine Corps. I passed their PT tests and everything like that, which are much tougher than the Navy’s. But his colleagues were not the same. There were plenty of times where--the only thing that protected me was him and my rank. They would very disparagingly speak about women--I mean, right to my face--you know, "with respect, ma’am." [laughs] And I’m thinking "the only reason why I’m allowed to play in your space right now is I save your life and you can see that, and this sergeant major is speaking up for me." It highlighted the importance of having men on your team. And it’s really to this day why I detest women-only groups. Women always say they want a safe space, and I appreciate that, but I truly believe that is not the way forward--the way forward is a diverse group of men and women together, because you must have men speaking up for women, too. And that’s what he did for me, he made it so that they accepted me. And now I’m friends with all those guys who used to say those negative things, they’ve kind of come around, you know? But it took a long time, and a lot of me proving myself to them.

Monica Mohindra:

It sounds like you had lots of cultures, you had to put to practice that whole notion of learning how to bond. What I’m hearing is that you had these very young male Marines, you had a nursing culture that was separate and set aside from yours with different extra tasks they got to do, and it sounds like you had exposure to Afghan people?

Rupa Dainer:

Mm-hmm.

Monica Mohindra:

And so you were working to save their lives as well, so exposure to them. I’m really curious about whether you had any experience there, looking somewhat like you could be of a background that’s related to Afghan background - did you have any experiences related to that?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh yeah. We took care of--they called them "local nationals" - they were locals, nationals to the country. Depending on the rules of engagement at that point in time, there would be some injured people who were from Afghanistan who we would take care of - injured children. And sometimes the Marines would--there was a "hearts and minds" campaign going on at that point--so sometimes they would bring people who were just sick for whatever reason, or injured for whatever reason, and bring them to us for us to take care of them in some manner. This was to show the villages that we were trustworthy. Now they didn’t do a really--Marines are not known for their medical knowledge, so they would bring us things that we couldn’t fix. I’d have to say "I can’t fix that, that woman needs dialysis." [laughs] Just stuff that--they were like "well, you’re the doctor, you can do it." And I’m like "I don’t think so." [laughs] Usually it was an elder male that would bring the other folks in - whether it was a guy, or a woman, or their child, the elder male would come in. So we had translators, who sometimes would translate for us, and sometimes they would try to block us from what it was they were really saying. [laughs] I think they were trying to spare us our feelings, or something. But a lot of times the older men would ask about me, they would want to know where I was from, why I was dressed like that. Well, I’m just in a United States Marine Corps uniform, that’s what I’m wearing. [laughs] And then the Afghan--we were training Afghan soldiers, so the Marine Corps was partnered with the Afghan National Army to train them--and they would be very forward. They looked upon me sometimes as an object, I had someone come up to me and actually grab my breast. I had two Marines right next to me, and this guy--as if I wasn’t even human, you might pick up an object like that, you might pick up a book--but he like grabbed my breast. I’m not even sure he was really trying to assault me necessarily, it was like a "what are you?" kind of thing. And then the two Marines made really short work of him, it wasn’t even a thing--he got in trouble and all this sort of thing--but it was strange. I think he just thought, looking at me was so different, some of the other women weren’t treated quite that way, necessarily, but they had their own very tough experiences. So I did have them say a few things. I’m going to just say one thing because I’m thinking of it now - we had these little shower tents, and we had an hour a day that the women could shower in, because the rest of the time the men needed it for showering, and there weren’t that many of us. And sometimes Afghan soldiers would come in and actually masturbate in the shower tents, knowing the women were there. So we had to have Marines guard it at some point, because it was crazy. So there was a lot of culturally--them seeing us, us seeing them, maybe part of it was also because I looked like them--but a lot of it was just having women around. We were fighting it enough with just our own soldiers, [laughs] never mind the Afghan ones.

Monica Mohindra:

Did you--it sounds like there was lots of opportunity to grow some associations and some friendships. This other culture you’re adapting to, the Marine culture - are there people that you’re still in touch with from that time?

Rupa Dainer:

Oh yeah. Many of them - some of my Medical Corps folks, and it’s usually through Facebook, because we’re all so far away from each other. But definitely a good group of Marines, one of them I play Scrabble with on my phone - you know "Words with Friends." And then a bunch of them on Facebook, we kind of keep in touch with each other - life milestones, things like that. Lots of encouragement from them when I do something physically-oriented. [laughs] And going through their milestones now, it’s been long enough that a few of them have retired from the military, and just to see their families, I’m very grateful to their families for letting me have that time with them. It is a special time, you can’t reproduce it, and it’s a relationship that no one else could ever have, just the folks who were there. I think it probably makes people feel a little bad with their close family, that there’s something they can’t share with them. But it doesn’t seem to matter how many stories you tell, or how much people want to hear, and how you listen, you just can’t get it and I don’t blame you. I wouldn’t have understood a bit of this, and it took me getting hit in the face by the entire situation to even come close. It’s like parenthood, you see your single friends, and they’re trying to understand you when you’re like "that’s why I have spit-up on my shirt." And they’re like "oh yeah--"--or you can’t do laundry, one of the two. And until they have a child, that phase-shift doesn’t happen. It’s the same way with deployment, until you’re out there. And even with deployment - I may not totally understand what a person in Vietnam went through, I can understand the themes of it, but not necessarily the specifics of it. And even with Afghanistan versus Iraq versus another country. But when you’re there with the same person, with the same experience, it’s very bonding, more so as time passes even.

Monica Mohindra:

What about some of the Afghan people that you served concurrently with - were there ever opportunities to bridge these pretty big gulfs?

Rupa Dainer:

Not for me so much - I didn’t really speak the language, the translators were really key, and also you really couldn’t trust them. I mean probably some you could, but you couldn’t tell the difference--there was no way to tell the difference. That would have been a huge security issue I think, so we weren’t really friends with any of them. You know what’s interesting though, is that I’ve taken care of some translators’ kids since I’ve been home--since I’ve been out of the military, actually. There’s some programs to bring translators over here, and give them citizenship or a path to it. And I always recognize them right away - they have a very specific way about them, and I’m like "were you a translator?" And they’ll say yes, and I’ll tell them where I deployed to, and that’s very helpful - there’s a sense of kinship right away with that. But really no other kind of relationship--for me anyway.

Monica Mohindra:

And again, I don’t want to be too prying, so you don’t have to answer, but I’m really curious - it’s such an emotional time, and there’s so much going on, and it’s so intense, and you briefly mentioned that you had a falling-out with your folks. And I’m wondering how that impacted what the structure was around that during your deployment? And anything you want to share about that.

Rupa Dainer:

Oh sure.

Monica Mohindra:

Were you in touch with them? That sort of thing.

Rupa Dainer:

Not at all. We had a very interesting deployment, and we were featured in a lot of things - the New York Times, Time magazine, Vogue magazine. We happened to have an amazing reporter - Lynsey Addario was embedded with the groups within our base, she’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer. And she’s the one who did the article in Vogue, and the article in Time. So she had this big spread in Time magazine - two-page picture, and there I am right in the center of this picture. And my mom’s sister in India opens up the magazine, sees me in it, calls my mother, says "oh, Rupa’s in Time magazine!" And my mom says "why, what is she doing?" She knows it’s something medically related. She goes "well, she’s here in Afghanistan, that’s what the picture is of." And my mom’s like "what do you mean? She’s not in Afghanistan, she’s across the street." And so through my husband, and email, I’m like "yeah no, I was deployed. I’m in Afghanistan." [laughs] And that was an incredible thing, because my father and my aunt--his sister, who’s an ER doctor--it was one of those few moments where even though we have often had a very bad relationship, where our relationship got better. Because they would write to me pretty routinely, and the letters my dad and my aunt wrote were really supportive, amazing letters that helped me get through a really tough time, too. My aunt would send cookies - and she sent the cookies way better than the preschool sent cookies. She wrapped them really carefully, I don’t know how she knew to do this, it must be some growing up in a Third World country thing, where they understand how FedEx is not the same around the world. [laughs] She wrapped them so tightly, and so perfectly in the saran wrap, and packed them so tightly into these little boxes, they came pristine! I mean, I have pictures of how they treat the mail - I don’t know how this occurred, how these cookies stayed so perfectly together. And they were the absolute rage, everyone loved them - they were like "your aunt sent boxes!" Because they would all come, and my cookies would be gone in ten seconds, everybody would eat the cookies. [laughs] So we had ate--our food was not very good, that was a huge thing for us. When I got home, my--the falling-out had been basically over my father drinking a lot when we were little, it was a pretty bad environment. My version of it is different than everyone else’s, I think that’s common in this kind of situation. Anyway, I was sort of fine with it, but I did say that if that anger, that yelling ever spilled over to my children I had a hard line, that was not going to happen. And for a couple years--four years--my parents treated my children like they were royalty. [laughs] There was literally not a moment in time where anyone raised their voice or did anything other than worship at the feet of their grandchildren. Until this one day, when my dad got really angry with me, and he did kind of scream--not at the kids, but at me in front of them--and it was terrifying, it looked terrifying to them. Much less so to me as an adult, but I scooped them and I said "we’re leaving, and we’re not coming back. And my kids will never hear these words, they’ll never see this situation - that is not part of their world, ever." So we stopped talking--or I stopped talking to them. And then there was the cycle - "I’m sorry, I’ll be better." "You know what, no. I can’t play your cycle. I played it with me, I’ll take it again, but I can’t let my kids be in the middle of it." So I left for Afghanistan. Sometime in the whole time of me being gone and coming back, my father has a life-threatening illness, and his aorta almost ruptures. He has this emergency surgery, he was in the ICU for a long time, he comes back and he quits drinking. He also quit smoking, which is kind of like--I mean he’s been doing this since he was like twelve years old. So now he’s sober and doesn’t smell bad. [laughs] And he’s not blowing smoke in our faces all the time. So we repaired our relationship, and I actually live with my parents right now while I’m having my house built, I’ve been living with them for eight months - me, the kids, everybody, and it’s okay. Things can grow and change over time, but that was a particularly rocky period.

Monica Mohindra:

Deployment was, I think, so much in layers, so intense for you - I think it is for many people. I’m also hearing how small the footprint of women was, you only had an hour to share, to figure out how to get all of you in the shower and out again under these somewhat trying circumstances of what the Afghan military was doing while you were there. But I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about how as a medical professional, and as a woman, what kinds of perspective, or vantage point that you had, of military sexual trauma. If that’s something that you would be willing to talk about?

Rupa Dainer:

I’m happy to. You know, I think the hard part is that I’m an anesthesiologist so to some degree I didn’t really get a chance to see it in country. You actually see military sexual trauma probably more here back home in the States, and you’re going to see that in the ER, the primary care people are going to see it more than me. But I’m part of the culture, so I definitely get to hear a lot about it. When we were out there, what none of us really liked was knowing that when the Afghan soldiers particularly, not necessarily the U.S. soldiers, would do something like grab my breast, or threaten some of the women who were there, the women Marines, particularly, were perfectly willing to fight back, versus a Medical Corps person. But they were told not to, because we were trying to be their friend, and we were all floored by that. What kind of leadership--I get you’re trying to walk a fine line between bringing this whole country and this whole culture into our fold and becoming allies--but just like I did with my parents, I truly believe there is a hard line. I believe that no matter what your culture is, no matter what your beliefs are, there are just some things you do not do to another human being. And when you do them, it’s not okay - it’s not because your religion says it’s okay. And that’s not a really popular thing to say, I think people--especially in the United States--try really hard to understand another culture, and I think that’s actually a strength. But any strength when taken to an extreme can become a weakness, and I believe that you can’t accept everything. Some things are not okay, let’s just say child rape - probably not okay, probably no culture thinks that’s okay, although some cultures don’t see it that way. So I didn’t really--none of us really appreciated how the women were faced with that situation. As far as U.S. military assault on other U.S. military, I never got to see that when I was out there, but again that wasn’t my role. No one came to speak to me about it, and then also in my role I would never have seen it, that would have gone to a different type of physician there far removed from where I was. More than that, though, you just see a lot of relationships - there’s relationships, you can’t stop relationships from happening. So people got kicked out of being in country for having sex with each other, you weren’t allowed to do that - women and men. I didn’t really hear too much about same-sex relationships when we were out there, although there was a clear undercurrent of homophobia at the time. Because there was this thing called "Man-love Thursday" or something like that, I remember thinking how silly it was. But the Afghan soldiers would wear a lot of eye makeup, and they seemed very effeminate to the Marines, and so they would sort of make fun of them. I don’t know if they were homosexual or not, and it really didn’t matter to me, but it seemed to be this big topic of conversation. Because these dudes had to be as macho as possible, and I feel like there was a lot of--it’s almost like as a culture we were just adolescent about how we handled sexuality. We couldn’t figure ourselves out, and there we were in this situation. My second base I ended up moving to there was only six women. And it was definitely more intense there, but no--nothing that I ever heard of. And I wish I had more to tell you about it, but it’s never really been a section I’ve been exposed to that much.

Monica Mohindra:

And you were deployed just the once, or were you deployed multiple times?

Rupa Dainer:

Just to war the one time, and a second short deployment was--it’s called a MEDRETE, it’s M-E-D-R-E-T-E, "MEDRETE"--it’s so military. It’s like a way to keep your readiness up for deployment, and that was just to the Dominican Republic, where we did humanitarian work for that period of time. But after that, my name never came up again and I-- that was in 2013, and I got out in 2015, so that was it.

Monica Mohindra:

Well I want to circle back to MEDRETE and your time in the Dominican Republic before I leave Afghanistan. It sounds like what you did for recreation was get really, really amazingly physically fit, and that’s really impressive. Were there other things you did for recreation, was there any other opportunity for letting off some steam with friends?

Rupa Dainer:

We didn’t really have much to do, so we watched a lot of videos. We’d go for long, long walks and just chat. We would try to celebrate little things - somebody snuck in, I don’t know how they got a Santa costume in. And I don’t know how they got the Dustoff pilots to do this, but they let the surgeon--the plastic surgeon guy, he was kind of a portly dude--and he put on the Santa outfit, and he got in the helicopter, and they let him fly around the base in a circle, which I’m pretty sure was not okay. [laughs] And then he landed--it was just little fun things to make life--and then the Marines all came, they--and this was fake obviously--they put him under arrest and searched his bag, because he had a bag full of toys. It was just full of pencils, because we didn’t have any toys. [laughs] But it was just fun stuff like that. We did some dance lessons, I remember that. People wanted to learn how to dance, so we taught some dance lessons, and that was kind of fun. We decided we wanted to teach each other things--so all of us are from academic programs, so we just took turns giving academic lectures to each other about stuff that was only interesting to us. [laughs] I learned all about microsurgery, which I mean literally--so boring. But very interesting to listen to the plastic surgeon’s time, I listened to his talk that he would normally only give to other plastic surgeons. He listened to my talks on pediatric cardiac anesthesia. [laughs] It was just silly stuff like that. But we didn’t really have anything else to do. We would play a game called "hit the sticks" - we took a whole bunch of rocks and we would try to hit the stick with it. It was really far away, so it was hard to do. I mean, there wasn’t much to do. People would send us board games, sometimes we would play those. We did get CNN at the one tent, the chaplain had a TV so we could see CNN. And that was when Nidal Hassan shot up Fort Hood. Nidal Hassan and I were lab partners in medical school briefly. So I got to see someone who I had been friendly with on TV, and not for a good reason. But not a whole lot of games or game nights. We did have some barbecues, once in a while we’d collect a whole bunch of meat and make them. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Nidal Hassan, that must have been really shocking.

Rupa Dainer:

That was crazy.

Monica Mohindra:

Was it shocking?

Rupa Dainer:

So shocking! You know what I learned? I learned that I cannot predict when someone is going to be a mass shooter. I learned that you can’t predict when anyone is going to do anything out of the ordinary. I think that people beat themselves up, hoping and wondering if we can study and hope and talk and give enough mental health resources to figure out when someone is going to do something wrong. But I don’t think you can, I don’t think you can ever read somebody’s mind, if they don’t want you to. I remember saying goodbye to him, actually, in the hospital. That’s funny, I just remembered that now! We were at the cafeteria, and he was there, and I was like "hey Nidal, what’s up?" Because we went to medical school and we were interns together in the same year group, and he was a psych resident while I was an anesthesia resident. I was like "hey, I’m deploying you know"--while I’m at the hospital working, and I said "I’m deploying really shortly, in a month or so." And he said that he was working up for deployment - I remember him talking about maybe he was going to deploy, but it was much further out, and I had gotten a shorter notice deployment. So I said "okay, I’ll see you when I get back!" and that was it. And then I saw him on TV, and the TV was muted, because it was in the chaplain’s tent. You go to the chaplain’s tent when you want a little calmness, and you also want candy - the Red Cross, all their stuff goes to the chaplain’s tent. So if you need more deodorant or something like that, they usually have all of it, so we all hang out there. Oh! I forgot to tell you - I was a music major in college, and they told me that there was a chorus on base. I was like "I’ll sing in the chorus!" I’m not a great singer, but how bad can I be? We’re deployed. So I went out there, and it turned out it was for the services, and I’m not very religious but I didn’t tell them that, I just sang. I call them "God Songs," I sang all their God Songs, and I forced them to sing some hymns because that’s all I knew from being a classical music major. But anyway, there I was in the chaplain’s tent with the people I’m hanging out with because we’re singing. And there’s Nidal’s face, and I said "I know that guy! Turn that up." And then--the same thing, when you get this incredible news, it’s so shocking and weird, it takes a while to process it, you know? It took us all months, all of our classmates - we talked on Facebook and tried to figure it out. I mean he was a little bit of a weird dude, but come on, there’s a jump between being a weird dude and killing a whole bunch of people. I don’t know what to say about it, other than that it was another brush with infamy I suppose? [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

I am really impressed with your perspective that we never really know. And that gets me to thinking about coping, and you’ve spoken so eloquently about coping. So I want to get to this, I’d like to talk about some of the ways in which you coped, and some of the ways in which you reflected. Before we go there, I’d like to hear about a couple of things. One, is there anything that really stands out to you from your time in deployment that was--it sounds like you were with some pranksters.

Rupa Dainer:

Yeah. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

Is there any particular prank or any particular caper--similar to the one you told about Santa Claus--that sticks out to you?

Rupa Dainer:

I mean, it seemed like a big deal to us - when you tell the stories they don’t sound that amazing. But I remember the Marines were really particular about making sure people were accounted for, and stuff like that, so sometimes we would hide in the Conex boxes. Because Conex boxes are these big shipping containers, they’re these big metal shipping containers that you see on ships. And I don’t know why they were there, but there was this whole field of--we called them "dead Conex boxes"--and they were just sitting there, they didn’t seem to have any rhyme or reason how they were placed. And they probably didn’t, because some eighteen-year-old boy took them off a forklift and shoved them there, that’s a Marine right? So they do the weirdest things, because it’s just some adolescent kid doing something half the time. And so we would--in the night, when it was dark--we would run into the Conex boxes and hide in the maze of Conex boxes, and make noise and try to get people to chase us. I’m pretty sure we would have gotten in so much trouble if we were caught, but it was a lot of fun for us, when you have really nothing else to do. I think that was probably the biggest prank we ever played. I mean, the Santa thing was really cool. We did manage to make a ball drop for New Year’s Eve, which I thought was awesome. Somehow we got a whole bunch of Christmas lights, and someone climbed up on one of the tents and dropped the ball, and it opened up, which was kind of fun. I’m sure I remember more things that I wrote down, it’s just hard to remember everything that we did. People did nice things, too - I think that’s what I remember the most. I remember Mother’s Day, there was only like four mothers out there in the whole base that we could find. Even the bigger one where all the women were, and we had kind of been moving backwards to getting closer to civilization by then. And the guys in charge of the mess hall knew us, found the four of us, and made us little paper napkin flowers. There was nothing to make flowers out of, there’s no stuff, you know? And they made these beautiful flowers - I have this great little picture of me and the other women with our little flowers, while they’re playing "Happy Mother’s Day" to us. It was so, so sweet, you know? I don’t think they did anything for Father’s Day, and pretty much everyone out there is a dad, or like half of them anyway. But it was really sweet. I remember some of the medical stuff that was just goofy. Like one of the Marines who just really felt comfortable with me - he wanted to show me something. And I was like--you know how you get this feeling when you’re a mom, and you’re like "this is not--whatever it is you’re about to show me, I cannot keep a secret." [laughs] And he had shot himself through the hand--it was totally by accident--he was just cleaning his weapon and it discharged. Can you imagine shooting yourself by accident and then not wanting to get in any trouble, so you like quietly go find the doctor? [laughs] You guys are so funny! They have a lot of spirit, those Marines. I had another instance where we had a mass casualty come in--a bunch of people had come in hurt. And one of the gunnery sergeants--a mid-level, mid-to-high level enlisted Marine--had both his legs blown off, and he had tourniquets over his legs. And he was on a stretcher, and people were carrying him in, we were trying to figure out who needed to get taken care of first. He tried to sit up, and that’s not a good idea to sit up when you’ve lost that much blood, you’re going to pass out. So I had my hand on his head, and I said "Gunny, you’ve got to lay down." And again, not that many women are there, and I think he heard my voice. He turns and looks at me, and he’s like "how you doin’?" [laughs] And I’m like "so much better than you, like not even a little." [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

It’s amazing to hear the spirit of play in these really difficult situations, it’s probably really important. Do you remember where you were when you heard you got to come home? And what that process was like, about getting ready to come home?

Rupa Dainer:

Ah! You get to hear you’re coming home multiple times before they actually let you go home. So it became like this sick game of hearing that you were leaving, and then finding out that you weren’t, and then hearing that you were leaving, and finding out you weren’t. To the point where you’re like "I’m not going to believe you!" [laughs] "You may say I’m going home, but I want be here!" [laughs] Because you don’t want to be let down again and again, and each day you never knew what was going to happen. And I knew it depends on multiple things - they weren’t trying to do that, but it did happen like that. So the process of going home was just very, very long, and it takes weeks. Sometimes it takes other people longer, so we were lucky in some respects. But we dragged all our gear to the flight line, and dragged it all back. And then we tried to drag it one more time and the forklift poked through one of our Conex boxes because some kid didn’t drive it right, and destroyed our way to get back, so we had to wait again. And finally we take one of these Ospreys out, and I don’t know if you know what an Osprey is, but it’s one of those airplanes that go up like a helicopter and then fly like a plane. And these guys are hanging out the back with their weapons drawn because at that point the Afghans had ground-to-air short-range weapons, but anything high up in the air you couldn’t really get caught. But taking off and landing was dangerous, so they were hanging out of there trying to get us out of there. And then you come up on the Osprey, and there’s a second in time where you’re not going up or down--and you think "are we going to die?"--and the thing shoots forward. So we get out of country, and we’re--well we get out of that base, we’re still in Afghanistan--and you don’t really feel like you’re getting to leave, because of the stop-start, and the multiple bases that you get to until you hit Maine. There’s this place in Maine--in Bangor, Maine I think it is. You come home and--you never see Maine, you just see the airport. But oh my God, people were--including myself--just sat there on the ground and were like "we’re in the United States." It was the most beautiful moment - the Red Cross is there, the greeters. I have a video of the greeters, and it’s just the best feeling - you have internet, your phone finally works, you can call your family. I truly felt like I was home, that was the moment I was home. And then there’s more, you get back to California, they debrief you - I guess there had been some problems before our deployment so now they kept us there for a couple of weeks to cool us all off, I think, before we saw our families. And then we got to see our families at that point. And at that point, my husband was taking his boards for radiology, and so he really couldn’t leave--I mean he could have left, looking back on it I think I cut him a little more slack than maybe I should have. He maybe could have left, but he didn’t leave, and I maybe kind of helped him not leave. I said "you know what? You’ve got your test, just stay." So he came to see me right when he could finally leave, and he brought the kids. My younger daughter gets motion sick--she’s kind of grown out of it but at that time she would get motion sick--and he had called me in a panic, he had overdosed her on Benadryl or something. I don’t think she was going to die or anything, but she slept very well during the plane ride. She got up, they had come to see me, I meet them at the airport, and they both recognized me right away. My younger daughter runs at me, and looks at me, and she vomits all over me, like "blaaah!" [laughs] It was awesome! [laughs] They don’t have those things on Facebook videos of reunions, you know what I mean? [laughs] Anyway, that was the moment I saw my kids again. My older daughter was like "you don’t look like you." And I think that’s because I was fat, and now I’m skinny, I lost a whole bunch of weight. [laughs] But they were great, it was like no time had passed--at least the way they looked at me. I was shocked, I couldn’t tell the differences in their voices after a while - they had started to sound similar. Before I left, I could touch like one-eighth of an inch on one of the children and be like "that’s this child, that’s that child." I was so in touch with them, and now I couldn’t tell their voices apart, things are harder. But when I got home it was like "hey Mom"--or "Mommy"--it was "hey Mommy," it was like no time had passed at all.

Monica Mohindra:

So there wasn’t culture shock reuniting with them?

Rupa Dainer:

For me yes, for them no. [laughs] For me, not so much being a mom - I think you never stop, you know? And I say this in relation to what my ex had said - he would say to people, and what I had heard him say, was that I had a lot of transitioning back to being a mom. I think that was his perception of it. For instance, when I was pregnant, he would often forget I was pregnant. And I would come and he would see my stomach, and he was like "oh, you’re pregnant." And I don’t think he understood--I’m not going to generalize and say all men--but I don’t think he understood that as the kind of mother that I think I am, I never forget - never for a moment does it slip my mind that I’m a mother. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing, or where I’m doing it, I may be very annoyed at my children or very happy with them, but at all times that permeates who you are. So when I was gone for nine months, I was a mother kept from my children, but I was always still a mom. And when I got back, I was equally motherly. I had more trouble driving to the grocery store because there was so many cars, and I had trouble in the store when there was too many choices of stuff to pick from. I actually remember crying in the cereal aisle because he had sent me to the store, he had said "why don’t you go to the store, take a little break, and go to the grocery store." And I went there, he said "get cereal"--he didn’t say what kind of cereal to get, and there was like a million cereals. And remember nine months ago, I would’ve been like "oh, Life." [laughs] Or "Cheerios." But now I’m like "who has this much cereal?! This is too much stuff!" The chairs that we sat in were too comfortable, I was used to gravel or rock and maybe wood, but now it’s soft and it’s too--everything was too easy. Everyone is too--everyone was just too comfortable--life is not comfortable, it’s hard. "Why don’t you see that?" So I had that--I didn’t tell people that, I kept my mouth shut because I could tell that probably wasn’t normal. But even looking back at how I felt, I think it is a very valid perspective, it’s not necessarily--I like the comfort, I have a very nice house now--but it is true that life is very hard in many parts of the world, and we just don’t know how hard it is because we just never see it and never are used to it. So those are the things I struggled the most with. There was an intensity and a purpose that you have when you’re deployed that just melts away when you’re home, there’s much more choice as to what you’re going to do, how you’re going to do it. "You can do it your way, I’ll do it my way" you know? In the military, in that moment at war, it’s "everyone is doing this." [points hand] Because that is the goal. And working together is incredibly fulfilling, everyone feels good about it when the outcome is a life is saved. When you come home, there’s ten different directions to go, and it doesn’t feel as purposeful. You have to create the purpose again.

Monica Mohindra:

How did you feel then about hearing that you were going to the Dominican Republic?

Rupa Dainer:

That was only for a couple of weeks. My kids were so funny, they were like "oh that’s fourteen days Mommy. We’re used to two hundred and forty-four. It’s fine." [laughs] And that was a different deployment, you’re not at war. There’s some security issues just because it’s the Dominican at that point, but it was really a humanitarian issue designed to keep us ready. It was exciting for me - medically it was more challenging in fact, because you were held to a U.S. standard of medicine, but with Third World standard stuff. Whereas in Afghanistan, you were actually not really held to that same standard, you were held to a much different one. I wouldn’t call it lower - it is lower, but it is by necessity, there just wasn’t the ability to do the same things. I was actually more nervous about my job in the Dominican, and more worried about my life in Afghanistan. Dominican was great, we took care of mostly plastics-type stuff, like cleft lip, cleft palate, different bone deformities, things like that. And it was really, really cool because we had a reasonable shortage of medications - we had no blood, we couldn’t give blood. We had to figure out how to triage these kids - who kid get surgery, who couldn’t. It was incredibly impactful, there was some children who we had to turn away that it’s changed their whole lives, "I’m sorry that we have to turn this sweet, cute little baby away but--." One of the pediatric anesthesiologists, and the surgeon really wanted to take care of this kid and they handed me this adorable baby who was billed to me as almost a year old, but the baby was like this big. [gestures with hands to indicate size] And I don’t think that--because he’s not a pediatric surgeon--that didn’t really click with them, but they handed me this kind of floppy baby that was almost a year, and I’m like "this baby is sick." I don’t know what’s wrong with him yet, I have a list in my head of things that it could be, but we can’t do surgery on this baby. We can’t have a death, we can’t have a complication, those things cause international problems when we have a humanitarian outreach mission like that. And plus we could be hurting this child and we won’t know it. So there was some things like that, and there was other things where I got to hang out with the mom afterwards, and see how happy she was that we were able to help this child feed again. And of course, they don’t look great, so now they look normal, and they’re more accepted by their community. It’s pretty impressive, I was very happy to be a part of that.

Monica Mohindra:

Were you serving on a ship?

Rupa Dainer:

No, we just do that in a hospital. In a military hospital - Santo Domingo’s military hospital. It was a military partnership between the Dominican military and our military, so it was neat.

Monica Mohindra:

I was wondering if we could talk a little bit more about--so now you’ve been through your deployment in Afghanistan, you’ve done this readiness exercise, and you mentioned a few minutes ago that then very shortly after that you got out. Could you talk a little bit about getting out of service, and the choices that you made, or that were maybe made for you, and how that all worked out?

Rupa Dainer:

Sure. You know, when you get out of the military after serving so long, you definitely have to decide whether you want to do twenty years or not. I know they made a change with this new retirement system, but in the old retirement system either you did twenty years and you got retired, and you got your retirement benefits, and you got your healthcare for life and all of that, or you didn’t. It was all or nothing. So I had thirteen years of creditable service, my medical school time wouldn’t count until much later. After I had twenty years of creditable service, the twenty and forward would come into play, but right now I had thirteen creditable years, seventeen years actually serving. And I was trying to make this really tough decision - do I stay in, probably get deployed again, or don’t I? Now I’m divorced at this point and I share custody--50-50 custody of my kids. Now my kids are incredibly supportive kids, they’re awesome. Any time Mommy needs to do something to make Mommy better--or I think make Mommy famous, which is what I think they really want me to be, which is not happening--they are like "Go Mom, go!" They are not going to hold me back. That’s amazing, to have kids like that. So I wasn’t really worried about the deployment as much, I was more worried about if I get deployed, or if I get PCSed--moved permanently--what would happen to my custody of the children? And that came to a head, right when I was set to make my decision in fact. One of the people I had had a lot of conflict with as a resident, who really hated how outspoken I was, had waited a long time to be able to stick it to me, and he did. He gave me a choice of moving or not moving by getting out of the military. And if I had moved my ex-husband would have fought me for custody at that point, and I’d have lost the kids. Now it’s one thing to be deployed, it’s another thing to lose physical custody of your kids. My kids and I are really close, and I think that would have devastated them, so I got out. I was angry, because at that point I had gotten even further in my anesthesia career. Now I’m on the American Board of Anesthesiology, I’m kind of nationally known in my field, I’ve deployed a couple of times in the military, I was absolutely willing to deploy again, I’m an O-5 so I’m a Commander. In my opinion--I hold this opinion to this day--I’m everything the military should want to have. And I’m a vocal supporter of the military, I’m a female, and I’m not exactly Caucasian. You would think. Oh, and I had just been appointed by the Assistant Secretary of Education or Defense--I don’t know what it was because it was some other person under him--to some committee for the recruiting and retention of female physicians. [laughs] It was this ridiculous committee, but I had to resign from it because I’m resigning from the military, I’m not even retaining myself. [laughs] And I was angry about being forced--I felt I was being forced--to choose between my family and my job. And there’s all this controversy, in the papers you hear people talk about how the military is for people who can deploy, the military is for people who can move. And it’s a very rigid mentality, but the military has a very rigid mentality. But they’re not always rigid, and sometimes they’re very flexible. So I was thinking "this is one of those times where you could potentially be more flexible." But they were not, and the guy who made this choice was in a position that I couldn’t really assail, I couldn’t really get to him. And so I got out. And I was angry about being treated that way, I felt it was really the epitome, kind of the capstone, of being a woman in the military. But the job I got after that was so great, I’ve really had an amazing life since then so I’m kind of glad I got out. And in fact, I did see him about a year or two later, and I thanked him. Mostly because I just didn’t want to have the anger in my heart anymore, I just wanted to let it go. So even though I don’t really like him, I just said "thank you for helping push me in that direction, because I have had really good success since then." But a little part of me thinks about going back in the Reserves, just to kind of have a voice in the military again, but then the rest of me just says "I can do more good outside of it than I can in any longer." And I had a great run. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

It sounds like you’ve been really open to how your experiences in the military have shaped you as a person. I’m wondering if there are any other lessons--you’ve shared so many--but are there any other lessons that you feel like your experience in the military really gave you?

Rupa Dainer:

I think I learned a lot about how other people live. We’ve had--I’ve had, I say "we" because we grew up in the same place--a very sheltered existence. We’ve seen a lot of privilege, and we will often put our toe in the water of lack of privilege by volunteering somewhere, but it’s not the same as living it. And I think getting to see other people’s experiences and where they’ve come from, and how they have grown or changed, or what they’ve been able to do, I got that more from the military more than what I would have gotten even from being in medicine, surrounded by a whole bunch of other doctors. I was surrounded by doctors in the military too, but these are people who didn’t have it "handed to them." [makes air quote signs with hands] I say that in quotes because we all worked for it, but their parents couldn’t afford--maybe they were the first person to go to college, and then medical school. Or they were a pilot, or they were an infantry officer, or something else. To see all those different perspectives, and different ways of growing, I think that was very cool. How could it not be about me, though, right? Isn’t your whole life about you I think? I always sort of try to take other people’s lessons and try to learn, to see how I could be a better person, or see the world differently from that. So maybe in a way it all comes back to that. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

That’s interesting, I’m thinking about your legacy of service in your family. Your grandfather served for the British, your father served for the Indians, you served for the U.S. And I’m wondering - you mentioned earlier that you are very patriotic now, you understand why we talk to the flag. I’m wondering how that impact of service has affected your relationships to that legacy of service, and if there’s something to that common experience?

Rupa Dainer:

I think it definitely has, and it hasn’t as much as it should have. My grandfather passed away when my mother was seventeen, so I never met my grandfather. But he is like legend in my family, so I’ve heard a lot about him, looked at a lot of pictures, and that kind of thing. My father and I had a difficult relationship, and we never talked much about it. There’s only been maybe three times in my whole life where we’ve really been able to connect over it. One was at officer indoctrination school, where he wrote me a letter that helped me get through that period of time. One was when I was deployed, and one was when one of his shipmates passed away and I took him to the funeral, and we had a long talk in the car about what he went through. But that’s all, I think partly because we had such a bad relationship, that I haven’t explored it. I know I’m going to regret it, but I still can’t bring myself to fix it, because it’s that bad. [laughs] But at the same time, I like that question because I’m going to sit here and think about this for like the next five years. [laughs] And try to make that better.

Monica Mohindra:

Then another thought is your connection to India is via Nigeria, you never lived in India, am I right?

Rupa Dainer:

No, we visited it many times when I was younger. I went back and worked there for six weeks as a medical student, it was one of my medical school rotations. And I’ve visited brief periods--like a week, really brief periods--since then. But almost no connection at all, you know?

Monica Mohindra:

So there’s nothing about your service, and being able to relate to your dad’s sense of service that has you--I’m thinking that you have a unique perspective of being patriotic and aligned to the United States and having this military service--but also obviously having this patriotic dad who’s aligned to India. So I’m trying to--

Rupa Dainer:

Like pull them together?

Monica Mohindra:

Understand--

Rupa Dainer:

My dad is so interesting, if I could pull apart from the emotional tie we have, I can really appreciate some of the amazing things that he can do. For instance, he is super patriotic to India - super patriotic, I mean he is a naval academy dude, will not get an American citizenship. But he’s super proud of my patriotism to the United States. And so it’s almost like the theme of it, versus the specifics of it - like he doesn’t care who I’m patriotic to. [laughs] I went to the naval academy in India to visit, I saw his school. I see his name up on the wall, he’s won some awards and things like that. And it’s clear that people value his contribution, especially in regards to mine. I’ve had some groups that are Indian American type groups have me do various things, I might interview for an article or whatever. And a lot of it is "here is the daughter of a naval officer" and all of that stuff. And I think "yeah you’re right, I should probably learn more about that." [laughs] The barrier is so high, it’s such a tough childhood that there’s such a high barrier to that. But maybe as things get different and I grow older I can get better about that. But my father has been very supportive of my military career, and I think patriotism is important. And why, why do I think that? Because this country--this is going to sound so super brainwashed--but this is the only country in the world, including European countries, where you can truly be more than whatever you started as. There is nothing truly holding you back. People moan and complain about whether you’re a different race or a different gender or a different whatever status, but this is the only place in the world where you can start with nothing and become whatever you choose to be. And it’s one of the only places in the world--I think the only place in the world--that looks at its own mistakes so consistently. We’re constantly criticizing ourselves. That’s just not common. Other countries don’t look at themselves and go "oh, we made all these mistakes." Other countries don’t bash themselves. We do purposefully, to grow. What a beautiful thing, to be able to look at yourself and say "this is what I did wrong, and this is how I can be better." As a nation, to do that--I want no other place in the world for my children to grow up. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

As a mom, as a woman, as somebody who served in all the various capacities that you did, are there any groups--now that you’re out of the military--that you’ve found camaraderie with? Like VFW, American Legion, even IAVA, I’m just wondering if there are any?

Rupa Dainer:

So I actually did some work--or did some athletics--with Team Red, White, and Blue, that’s a group that connects veterans to their communities through athletics. And I did that because when that group first started, the person that started the group approached me through a friend and he needed more women and more--at that time I was running ultra-marathons, so ultra-athletes or whatever. And I wanted to connect with female veterans, and that never really ended up happening, but I ended up connecting with lots of people through that group. I’ve been members of various groups in the past, I find that it tends to be more unnatural than natural. That natural just tends to be whatever you’re living day to day versus where I try to reach out to. Team Red, White, and Blue has been great, and they do a lot of great work for veterans who have depression or mental health issues afterwards, because athletics are almost a magic pill. Getting into running or yoga or whatever really seems to help almost everyone’s mental state get better, so that’s been terrific. A lot of the groups I’m part of now are like physician moms groups and things like that. They sound great, I love them and I hate them. I love that there’s an amazing network of amazing moms, at the same time I wish it was moms and dads. [laughs] I really just don’t think we need to have a group with just women in it. Maybe one day, like a hundred years from now, when someone watches this tape, that will sound forward-thinking. [laughs]

Monica Mohindra:

I don’t know, I think it sounds forward-thinking. I have taken so much of your time, so I want to try and give you some last opportunities to say things that maybe I didn’t help steer you in that direction. First, I want to say thank you - thank you so much for sharing so generously today, and obviously with your service. Are there things that you wish you’ve had the opportunity to share before about either your service as a whole, your deployment specifically, anything I didn’t cover that you wish I had gone down?

Rupa Dainer:

I think for me it’s the next chapter. What I really love about what I’ve done before truly now is being able to have that for my children. My girls, their assumption--when they talk about school shooters--they’re like "my mom will keep us safe." That’s obviously patently ridiculous, I’m not going to keep them safe in a school shooting, but the idea that they have a strong mom, that they are strong women, that they are capable, that nothing can hold them back, is drilled into them by who they are and who they’ve come from. I love that that’s the environment that they’re growing up in. I’m engaged to a guy who truly believes that, too. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he definitely walks the walk. So everything that has come before, my service, the military, there have been bad things, but the thing it has given me is this rich background that’s allowed me to now be a better mom and hopefully a better wife. [laughs] And whatever happens next, I think I can attribute it back to everything that the military has given me.

Monica Mohindra:

Thank you.

Rupa Dainer:

You’re welcome.

Monica Mohindra:

Thanks so much, we really appreciate your time.

Rupa Dainer:

Thank you for having me here.

 
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  October 26, 2011
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