Meeting Sister Deirdre Byrne: Something out of the Ordinary


By Robbin Laird

I have met a wide range of people throughout my travels during my lifetime and have learned a great deal from individuals in politics, academia, the military, governments, and journalism. And through my friendship with Ed Timperlake, I have certainly met folks I would not have otherwise met.

So when Ed suggested that he had recently met a Catholic nun who had served as an Army doctor in Afghanistan, I of course had to follow up with him and to meet with her. But I did not know what to expect, especially as a life-time Protestant headed for a meeting in a convent.

As we drove through Washington DC to reach the convent of Little Workers of the Sacred Hearts, I was open to a new experience but not at all certain how to approach the meeting and encouraged Ed to lead the conversation.

Our time at the convent was special. I am used to dealing with persons focused on power and policy – this was not Sister Byrne’s perspective at all. It was about helping those in need and in distress, but she did so from a vantage point that was more like Hawkeye Pierce than what I imagined a nun would be like.

What we experienced was a woman who has experienced an odyssey for her life, not a simple professional progression. She focused on how she has been guided by God in making her choices in life and I very much respect that but also think that she was challenging God to create those options as well.

Her story is a fascinating one. She is one of eight children born into a McLean Virginia family. McLean is like the bullpen of power in DC politics. Her odyssey has taken her in many parts of the world serving the disadvantaged and helping soldiers in combat zones as an Army doctor. Her global knowledge has been gained through ways in which the typical inside the beltway straphanger would never know and it provides an important corrective to the narrative.

She entered the Army as a way to pay for her medical studies but also to serve her country which she has done in many ways. She experienced in Sudan an evil regime repressing her people. Evil is a real force in our world, and is not just about geopolitics.

I will relate two aspects of what she told us which reflects her approach and her work.

The first involves September 11th and its aftermath. She arrived in New York City on September 10, 2001. When the attack on the twin towers occurred, as a doctor she was taken to Saint Lukes to help with casualties but when this need became less urgent than helping the firefighters at the Twin Towers, she went with other sisters to provide food and water to the firefighters on the scene.

She decided to help in the fight against global terrorism by serving as an Army surgeon in Afghanistan in a medical facility near the Pakistan border. There she provided medical support to those who needed it. She wanted to serve her country and God at the same time.

The second involved her medical work in Washington DC where she became involved in the medical treatment of Mother Theresa and of Cardinal Hickey, both famous persons. But in telling her association with them, her narrative was not the typical I-focused narrative one gets among the Washington elite, it was about what she learned from them.

In short, it was an experience I will always remember of one who serves but one who affects those around them while she does so. And something which you don’t have to be a Catholic to admire.