CAMP PENDLETON — The Navy was never where Cmdr. Bill Krissoff thought he’d be. Not at 18, and certainly not at 60. But, in fall 2007 he shuttered his orthopedic practice in a mountain resort town near Reno, Nev., and donned the uniform he stills wears today.
It wasn’t that life in Truckee, Calif., was bad. For an avid outdoorsman, it was the perfect spot for Krissoff and his wife Christine to raise their two sons.
“We were close growing up,” said Austin Krissoff in an e-mail. “Dad, Nate and I took frequent summer trips together. We established a pretty fun trio for doing ‘man things’ — powder skiing, whitewater kayaking and traveling.”
No, life in Truckee was good. Until Dec. 9, 2006 — the day his youngest son Nathan, a Marine first lieutenant, was killed in action near Fallujah, Iraq. The 25-year-old was the counterintelligence officer for 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion.
Call to service
Krissoff said the events of 9/11 deeply affected both of his sons and they both responded to the call to service. Nate, who majored in international relations at Williams College, joined the Marines in 2004.
“He joined because he deeply believed in the importance of service and for citizens of this generation to do their part,” Austin said of his brother. “He was not content to sit inside the Beltway at a think tank and write about foreign policy without having actively participated in its execution.”
Austin followed his brother, joining the Marine Corps in 2006 after he graduated college. He was at officer candidate school about to graduate when he got the news about his brother.
Their service was an inspiration to Krissoff. After his son’s death he started to prefer the company of people who understood the sacrifice and valor that comes with serving. “There’s almost a chasm of those people who serve or who have families who are in the service and those who are not,” he said. He thought about joining himself.
That idea solidified when Nate’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Bill Seely, spent a few days in town visiting families who had lost Marines. Seely talked about the battalion surgeon who took care of his Marines forward. Such a role was appealing to Krissoff.
Joining the Navy wasn’t a decision made lightly. He talked it over with his wife, Christine, and Austin. He sought the advice and support from friends too.
“The friends that we had were very encouraging … I only had one doc that I knew fairly well in Reno that told me I was crazy. And he had been in the Navy, so maybe he knew something I didn’t,” Krissoff said.
Once Krissoff decided to join, he faced another challenge: his age.
Although the Navy desired his professional skills, and he was physically fit, the recruiter wasn’t sure he could get a waiver to join someone nearly 15 years past the cut off age.
The breakthrough came when former President George W. Bush, who often met with families of the fallen, was in Reno in 2007. There Krissoff asked the president directly for the wavier. It was only a matter of days after that Krissoff had the paperwork he needed.
Krissoff didn’t join the Navy for closure. “Closure” is a term he takes exception to — a word people who’ve never experienced loss use, he said. For him, being a Navy doctor meant a chance to help a group of people he has endless respect for stay in the fight.
“It’s their strength of character, courage, their unit cohesion, their bravery, their skills and their dedication that are unimaginable to people who do not know about our military,” he said.
Just over a year after receiving his commission, Krissoff deployed to Iraq. His son Austin was also in theater. “I felt like in my mind, we were finishing what Nate started up,” he said.
“This was a non-kinetic and different mission than when Nate was there in 2006, but it was important in order to strengthen the security gains made during the (Anbar) awakening and the surge,” Austin said. “I vividly remember turning off the lights and closing the door to my office, which I thought was symbolic of concluding years of rotations of Marines whom had bled and sweat to make our eventual departure possible.”
The Navy’s orthopedic specialty leader wanted to ease Krissoff’s into a world radically different than Truckee, something Krissoff says was a good call. “The average orthopedist that goes to Iraq or Afghanistan is going to feel really out of their element.” Even though the conflict in Iraq was winding down, his deployment prepared Krissoff for the much more volatile Afghanistan.
After experiencing deployment from both sides — home and away — Krissoff said deployments are harder on the families to a certain extent. “The deployed person is working. They’re focused. But the family has a lot of emptiness in those evening times.”
Austin agreed. “It was difficult for my mom because dad and I were gone at the same time. I didn’t appreciate how hard this was, to be at home, until dad departed for Afghanistan in 2010.”
Almost immediately after returning from Iraq, the opportunity to deploy to Afghanistan arose. Although the timing wasn’t ideal, Krissoff volunteered to go.
Never to be duplicated
Krisoff’s deployment to Afghanistan started at Camp Bastion, a major base in southern Afghanistan for the Brits and Marines.
Blast injuries, especially from improvised explosive devices were the main injuries Krissoff saw. Second were gunshot wounds, and then third was “everything under the sun.”
Whatever the injury, Krissoff and his team provided the best care they could. He says it was a new experience being a part of a multi-national team but “the busier we got, the better we functioned.”
During the second half of his deployment, Krissoff served in western Helmand province at Forward Operating Base Delaram Two as part of a shock trauma platoon and forward resuscitative surgical team.
Even though the team was very mobile — everything they needed could be crammed into a conex box – Krissoff said they had ER capability supported by several general surgeons and ER doctors.
The forward location revealed to Krissoff the lack of medical care available to the population in Afghanistan. People would show up at the front gate with injuries from car wrecks, bus wrecks, bomb blasts, or snake bites, he said, because there just wasn’t any place else to go. His team took care of them all.
There were times the person they were treating was likely the enemy – stories sometimes didn’t match injuries. “It’s difficult. [But] you do what you need to do. That’s part of our job, and we give the best care to our enemies. That’s what we do. We do not prioritize, and we do not hold back on the care,” said Krissoff.
Despite the challenging conditions and situations, Krissoff said he was fortunate for the opportunity to deploy.
“Afghanistan, as I told my surgical team as we left Bastion, was never to be duplicated,” Krissoff said. “It was probably the most rewarding time of my orthopedic career, and it was horrific, intense, and challenging – all at the same time. The blast injuries sustained from IEDs during dismounted foot patrols were clearly the most devastating injuries we cared for.”
The road ahead
Krissoff is now at Naval Hospital Camp Pendleton treating patients, mostly Marines, doing what he did forward: getting them back to duty.
He recently received a promotion to commander at a ceremony in the Pentagon. Maj. Gen. Larry Nicholson, who was Nate’s regimental colonel in Fallujah, presided over the ceremony. Christine and Austin pinned on the rank. Friends, family, and some of those whom he deployed with were there too.
Krissoff says that his time in the military is probably winding down, but he’d still like to do some short terms deployments as a reservist – maybe to Africa, Ukraine or on the Navy’s hospital ship USNS Mercy. He’d also like to continue doing orthopedic evaluations for reservists returning from deployments – something he enjoys.
Although the death of his son changed the course of his life, Krissoff says what came out of it was an unexpected opportunity.
“I’m just a doc that was fortunate to be able to use my surgical skills in a deployed setting to care for injured Marines, sailors and soldiers,” said Krissoff. “I’ll be sad when I’ll hang up the uniform, I’m sure.”