Q and A

Joseph Caravalho, Jr.

“No shorts and t-shirts here.”

Talking story with the top U.S. medical officer in Iraq

Joseph Caravalho, Jr. / Ka-ne’ohe native Joseph Caravalho, Jr., is halfway around the world and one-third of the way through his second tour of duty in Iraq, where he is the multinational force’s top medical official. Brig. Gen. Caravalho is also cardiologist to David Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, and other senior military leaders. During a break from all that and while he wasn’t busy heading up a complete overhaul of the war-torn country’s healthcare system, the Saint Louis School alum found time to speak with Adrienne LaFrance via satellite link from Baghdad, where apparently it’s a little warm these days.

First of all, congratulations on earning your first star.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for me to continue to contribute in the army. I really enjoy being a soldier.”

So what is it like in Iraq, the day-to-day of living there?

“It’s very hot, that would be the first thing. It’s a very hot, arid area with a number of beautiful houses across the country, and very nice, cordial and polite people to work with.”

How hot is “very hot”?

“It’s well up into the 120s. Really very hot.”

And you have to wear uniforms with long pants and long sleeves every day, don’t you?

“Right. No shorts and t-shirts here.”

What’s something that might surprise people about Iraq–not necessarily within the context of war, but just the place itself? What surprised you most when you first arrived?

“How hot is was. Really. It’s so hot that a breeze is like a hairdryer blowing on you. But what else was surprising? There are a number of canals here. They have a great canal system that they use to move water from the Tigris River throughout the country, and lots of very large artificial lakes that make for a very attractive picture. Some times when I’m being driven around, I’ve noticed the very wide streets and it makes me think I’m in Kailua. I’ve thought of that a few times.”

What do you eat?

“We eat contractor-prepared food, so it’s all that wonderful standard, college-dorm type food. But when I eat with the Iraqis, we have lamb and grapes and a number of local foods that are delicious.”

What’s the biggest threat to our troops’ safety? We hear a lot about roadside bombs. What injuries occur most?

“Well I am the senior medical officer in Iraq, so I work on General Petraeus’ staff. I am more on the administrative side of things, I’m responsible for managing all of the healthcare that we provide to the troops, I also work with the Iraqi Ministry of Health to improve the healthcare system here.”

That’s quite a job. What’s your main area of focus for improving healthcare for Iraqis?

“We’re looking to help increase the number of physicians and nurses, building new hospitals and clinics, and restructuring the business practice of medicine throughout the country. Essentially, we’re trying to improve the accessibility and quality of healthcare throughout the country.”

What’s it like working with Gen. Petraeus?

“He is a super commander and leader. He is doing great things on behalf of the multinational force. Both he and Lt. Gen. Lloyd Austin are extremely intelligent and dynamic leaders.”

I realize you’re in cardiology, but talk to me about how advances in medical technology have improved treatment options for wounded troops? I understand that pretty amazing things are being done with prosthetics, etc.

“Yes, that’s true. We have a team of surgeons and surgical specialists who track all the numbers and data on those who sustain trauma here in Iraq. Through that and through great scientific research done at our centers, and with the help of great leaders, we’ve been able to change the way that trauma is managed throughout the country. We’re making improvements that have advanced the entire field.”

So back to roadside bombs for a moment; Are they the main threat to troops’ safety?

“Well let me just say this. There’s still danger. And there’s danger when traveling around. But the number of attacks have decreased [significantly] from what they were before. We are making significant headway and improvements just since we got here and started this tour. It’s very exciting to know we’re making these improvements, but it’s not irreversible. The progress is still fragile but it is very encouraging to see the number of attacks decrease.”

What do you miss most about Hawai’i?

“My family is still there. I miss them more than anything. Then there are the Ko’olaus and how green they are, and how blue the ocean is, I miss those things. I miss visiting with family, and just having get-togethers, that was always a fun thing. And I miss jogging through Ka-ne’ohe.”

Just in your opinion, how much longer do you think U.S. troops will stay in Iraq?

“The most important way to answer that is to say that we’ll leave when the conditions are right. We’re making headway. It’s fragile, you don’t want to do something prematurely and have the good people of Iraq lose ground. I trust our leadership will wait until Iraq is ready.”

You’re a local guy, Obama’s a local guy–Is he gonna get your vote?

“He didn’t go to Saint Louis [laughter]–he went to our arch-rival school. But I am very pleased to consider Obama a local.”

So you don’t want to tell me who you’re voting for?

“I actually haven’t decided. We have great candidates. And like a good voter, I am going to read up on them before I vote.”

Do you think that the American people have a valid understanding of the current situation in Iraq? What misconceptions would you like to clear up?

“Congressmen come through on a regular basis and, in my experience, they always leave here understanding that we’re making significant headway. It’s important that people back home know that the people of Iraq are very nice, loving people. What we’re doing here on behalf of the nation is a noble and honorable thing. This is the right thing to be doing.”

Anything else you want to add?

“Well, what I want to say is that I am very proud to be from Hawai’i. I am very proud to be an American. I am exceptionally proud of what our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines are doing here and I am very grateful to the good people in Hawai’i and across America for their support. In all of this, I am happiest with how proud my mom and dad in Ka-ne’ohe are with what I have done.”