North Dakota Army National Guard Col. Todd Schaffer has been practicing medicine for more than 25 years. He currently serves as State Surgeon for the North Dakota Army National Guard and, as a civilian, is the vice president of the clinic at Sanford Health in Bismarck.
Although wearing a uniform doesn’t run in his family, Dr. Schaffer knew at a young age that he wanted to serve his country.
“As I was graduating high school in 1991, that was right around the first Iraq War. It was the pride you felt in how the American military served in that conflict and I wanted to be part of that and do my part to serve my country,” he said.
Taking care of troops
During his freshman year at North Dakota State University, a month after the Gulf War ended, Dr. Schaffer would enlist in the National Guard.
While in the National Guard, he continued his education and graduated from medical school. In 2004, he volunteered to go to Iraq. This would be his first of four total tours overseas in the National Guard.
“When I was in my residency, I volunteered to go over in 2004,” Dr. Schaffer said. “So, I didn’t get the call but I felt that I wanted to be part of this and use my skills as a physician in order to go overseas and take care of the troops that are really doing the hard work.”
Packing his bags and putting on his boots didn’t come without challenges, especially for his family.
“Behind every soldier, is a great family,” Dr. Schaffer said. “I give them the most credit out of everything, because they’re the ones that supported me while I was gone and did all of the things that I would normally do.”
In 2006, Dr. Schaffer went back to Iraq, this time for an involuntary deployment.
“You’re always scared. I mean, anybody who says they aren’t scared is probably lying,” Dr. Schaffer said. “But, the great thing is I wasn’t the first doctor in North Dakota to go. So I had other physicians in my unit that I was able to have conversations with.”
Battalion surgeon to state surgeon
During both tours in Iraq, he served as a battalion surgeon, taking care of soldiers who required immediate medical attention. He had many heartwarming experiences in Iraq taking care of troops, but there’s also some not so perfect images that he still thinks about today.
“Soldiers being shot, hit with a mortar, burned beyond recognition; things that to this day you think about it and you just think about the horrors of what there is,” Dr. Schaffer said. “For as glorious as people say, ‘I volunteered for combat,’ ‘I volunteered to go to war,’ you still see the downsides of it.”
Dr. Schaffer completed a total of four tours, two in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. Each deployment got easier, but he always knew there was a risk each time he left his home soil.
“Some of the unknown was alleviated, but you still get a little nervous about the unknown,” Dr. Schaffer said. “You know, you go in there and there may be mortars or rockets coming in, you just never know. But when it’s your time, it’s your time. God’s the one who decides that and I don’t have much control over that.”
In 2013, Dr. Schaffer was named North Dakota Army National Guard State Surgeon. Since his final deployment in 2014, he has remained in the United States. He joined Sanford Health in 2015 as a walk-in physician in Bismarck. In 2019, he was named vice president of the clinic for Sanford Health in Bismarck. He says he’s grateful for the decades of service he’s been able to serve in the National Guard.
While he isn’t quite ready for retirement, he won’t be the final soldier in his family to join the military. His daughter and son-in-law are both active members of the North Dakota Army National Guard.
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