Laguna Hills mayor honored for his service in the Army at age 59

Because both his grandfathers, his father and his son Kevin (right) all had served their country, Dole Gilbert (left) had always felt guilty he had not done the same. Until he decided to enlist in the U.S. Army at age 59. This undated photo shows father and son in Afghanistan.
(Photo courtesy of Dole Gilbert)

By all measures, Dore Gilbert was living a blessed life in 2010.

Gilbert, a dermatologist, owned a successful practice in Newport Beach and treated patients at Hoag Hospital.

He and his wife, Gloria, married 26 years at the time, had raised five children, including a son who was serving in the Marines.

Gilbert had served his community as a longtime member of the Saddleback Valley Unified School District’s board of education.

Still, there was a void.

“I never served my country, and it just ate away at me,” Gilbert said. “I just had this sense of guilt my whole adult life.”

Both of Gilbert’s grandfathers served in World War I, and his father was a tail gunner on a B-17 during WWII.

So at age 59, Gilbert joined the United States Army.

He completed basic training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas and then volunteered for deployment to Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2011.

Lt. Colonel Gilbert spent four months as a brigade surgeon at Camp Phoenix in Afghanistan, in charge of healthcare at 10 area bases and 10,000 soldiers.

“You have people coming and going all the time, every day,” Gilbert said. “I really had to make sure we always had the proper assets at every base to take care of wounded soldiers.”

By his second day in Afghanistan, Gilbert was pulling shrapnel from a wounded soldier.

One of his first duties was arraigning for training of medical staff and organizing a blood drive after learning of a blood shortage at the base medical clinic.

Camp Phoenix was generally safe from attack, but there was an ever-present threat, Gilbert said, enough of one for capture-kill teams to be stationed there.

Nearing the end of his deployment, Gilbert was invited to visit two other bases with a psychology team but turned down the offer because he was readying the base for his replacement.

The following day, Gilbert learned that the vehicle he would have been traveling in was blown up by a Taliban suicide car bomber driving a van filled with explosives.

All 14 team members were killed.

“One of the soldiers was a fellow lieutenant colonel who I had lunch with the day before,” Gilbert wrote in a blog post.

He was aghast by the living conditions in Kabul, where there was no running water and no schools, and by the treatment of women in burkas as “second class citizens.”

“It was like I landed on the moon,” he said. “We would build bathrooms for them and [install] air conditioning and within six months, everything would be destroyed. It was like building a sandcastle at low tide. The tide is going to come in and sweep it away.”

About a month before his deployment ended, Gilbert experienced what he calls “the best day of my life.”

By coincidence, his son Kevin was also nearing the end of his combat mission in the Sangin River Valley, later described in a 2016 Washington Post article as “one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan for U.S. and British troops.”

His son was traveling to Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan, so Gilbert, with help from soldiers at Camp Phoenix, arranged for an armored movement team to take him to a base near the Kabul International Airport.

Two airplane trips later, Gilbert surprised his son at Camp Leatherneck

“It’s not that often that a father can visit his son in a combat zone 9,600 miles from home,” Gilbert wrote in a blog, chronicling his deployment. “I was so satisfied that my son was healthy and we got to spend a day together.”

Gilbert and his son reunited six weeks later, when they were both back home.

Gilbert returned to his practice, served in the Army Reserves and resumed his service to the community by winning a seat on the Laguna Hills City Council in 2012 and getting reelected in 2016. Gilbert is currently the mayor.

Gilbert is among a dozen retired or active duty military personnel slated to be honored at the Hoag Classic Golf Tournament on Saturday, as part of its Military Appreciation Day.

“Dr. Dore Gilbert is an accomplished Hoag physician and since he served our country in such a courageous manner, he is a perfect addition to our Military Appreciation Day honorees,” said Jeff Purser, executive director of Hoag Charity Sports.

Gilbert said he took a financial hit while serving in the Army, but the cost doesn’t come close the satisfaction of serving his country.

“It was absolutely worth it to me,” he said. “I don’t have any guilt feelings anymore.”

Lou Ponsi is a contributor to Times Community News.