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Chris Santo (L) from the Hero Welcome committee thanks Ray Hatcher for his seven month service in Iraq. Approximately two dozen members of the Hero Welcome Committee escorted Ray Hatcher to a block party where friends and family gathered in his honor at Belgrade and Madison streets on Saturday. (Sarah Schu 07/23/11)

When Port Richmond resident Ray Hatcher joined the military he wasn’t so much looking for the chance to fight; he was hoping for the opportunity to heal.

After being overseas all year, the 26-year-old U.S. Navy hospital corpsman returned to Philadelphia last week.

“It’s really good to be home,” said Hatcher, during an interview held last Tuesday.

Since December, Hatcher had been working in the southern Marjah area of Afghanistan as a medic for the Marine Corps.

“The Marines don’t have their own medics,” explained Hatcher. “I was over there with an infantry unit.”

Discussing his experience, Hatcher said he was lucky in that most of the work he was doing wasn’t tending to wounded soldiers. Instead, he worked “on a daily basis” with Afghanis who needed medical treatment.

“We helped a lot of people with medical issues,” he said, declining to elaborate more than stating he treated “kids with cuts and things like that.”

But, upon joining the military, Hatcher wasn’t sure where he could apply his effort.

His mother, Mary Jane McIlhenny, also from Port Richmond, said that when her son suggested joining the military, she would only allow it if he learned a skill he could use for the rest of his life.

McIlhenny said her son instantly found medical services to be something he enjoyed. Initially, he was stationed in Japan, working in delivery rooms.

“When he wanted to join, I said, no, unless he picked up a skill that could help keep him employed in the future. When he went to Japan, he was delivering babies, and he was really excited about that,” she said.

While stationed in Japan, Hatcher said he was used to modern conveniences.

But, upon entering Afghanistan, he moved to a base that was initially without running water. Nonetheless, he enjoyed the experience.

ldquo;Oh, I had a lot more freedom [in Japan],” continued the young medic. “You could go to the movies and everything. But, there, you had to just watch whatever was on TV on the base.”

Yet, he wanted to be assigned to an active war zone because he was interested in learning how the military operated within an ongoing conflict.

“I wanted to do the other side of it,” he replied, when asked why he wanted to work in Afghanistan. “I wanted to experience it for myself.”

Often, in the past few months, when he was working with soldiers, he was helping to ease issues of trauma.

In that time, Hatcher saw the landscape altered by the positive influence of the American military.

“I made a lot of good friends. It was a good experience,” he said.

Thanks to efforts of the military, schools and hospitals were built in the region and, in his experience, the locals seemed to really appreciate the work the soldiers were doing on a day-to-day basis.

“We got schools up and running … the whole place changed,” he said.

In fact, the base had no running water when he arrived, but by the time he left they had Internet access that allowed him to communicate with family at home.

That was important, his mother said, because they have a big family — Hatcher has four brothers and two sisters.

“It was great to be able to stay in touch,” she said. “And, we are all really excited to have him back, especially the younger ones.”

Now that he’s returned to Philadelphia, Hatcher is looking to go back to school for a degree in nursing.

But, Hatcher said his time overseas was an experience he will carry with him for years to come.

“[Being in Afghanistan] really makes you appreciate the little things. It makes you really glad to be home,” he said with a laugh.

Acknowledging the work the military continues to provide to Afghanistan, Hatcher said he saw the region improve in his time there.

“I really think it was a better place when we left,” he said.

Reporter Hayden Mitman can be reached at 215–354–3124 or hmitman@bsmphilly.com

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