Confronting scenes were unfolding as many Australian troops arrived in East Timor for the INTERFET deployment. Destruction across the capital Dili saw bodies strewn in the streets and buildings burn. While many remember an explosion of sights, smells and sounds, Professor Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld (Rtd.) took much of it in his stride.

Professor Rosenfeld, a practising medical specialist in Melbourne, enlisted with the Army Reserve in 1984. He was promoted to Major General, Australian Defence Force and was Surgeon General ADF (Reserves) from 2009 to 2011. He is considered one of Australia’s most senior and experienced military surgeons and an international expert on military neurosurgery.

Working as a consultant surgeon to INTERFET, this was Professor Rosenfeld’s fourth deployment.

"I joined the ADF to serve my country and when called upon to serve, I had no hesitation but to agree to deploy. I just felt very excited to be going. Of course, there is always danger with going into a conflict zone and you’re putting your life at risk when you go, but I’m prepared to do that."

Professor Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld

Since the early 1980s, Professor Rosenfeld has volunteered his services in several developing countries and as a result, had become attuned to the unique needs of Pacific Nations. What he saw upon his arrival in Dili in January 2000 was no surprise.

“To come into East Timor and find abject poverty, a lot of malnutrition, tropical diseases just as I would find in Papua New Guinea, with the added element of the military conflict and the war wounds and trauma that was going on from the fighting.”

What he could see was a place and its people in a very desperate situation. It was a bleak scene, with infrastructure destroyed, buildings razed and chaos in the streets. But with an outlook like Professor Rosenfeld’s, the glass is rarely ever half-empty.

"The hospital was placed in the old museum of Dili because that was a fixed structure and that was converted into wards. It’s always good to have a fixed structure because you can set it up the way you want to and you’ve got a roof over your head, and it can be an airconditioned space. Of course, there were tents set up as well for triage and emergency care and even the operating theatres were partly in tents as well."

Professor Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld

With little time to settle into what would be his new home for the next month, Professor Rosenfeld got to work. On call around the clock, he looked after military personnel and the local population’s diverse health needs. Sometimes, he would visit villages in the mountains to deliver remote health care, including administering antibiotics and vaccinations.

Mostly though, he was based at the hospital. An average day – if there was one – would start with ward rounds and patient reviews. Nobody knew how the rest of the day would unfold. Emergency cases ranged from draining abscesses to orthopaedic surgery, stitching up machete wounds and repairing gunshot wounds.

“It wasn’t just nine-to-five, it was full-on 24 hours a day non-stop. Obviously, we’d get sleep when we could, but it was very busy. All these deployments are very busy and very demanding on your mental health and physical health because you’re on duty and on edge all the time.”

Even during his rare down time, the threat was always present. Despite living and working in a fenced compound which was guarded, Professor Rosenfeld remembers being armed all the time.

"We were all carrying our weapons outside and inside the base. We had to do PT (physical training) with our weapons. The PT was a circuit. The running circuit was around the edge of the compound and we used to run around with our weapons in the tropical heat. It was a good way of staying fit."

Professor Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld

And just like the searing, muggy heat that hung over him, the threat of contracting dengue and malaria hung over him too.

“Mosquitos would attack you as soon as you got out of bed. Just swarms of mosquitos everywhere. It was unbelievable.”

No day would ever start without leaving the relative safety of his netted stretcher lathered with insect repellent. “We were taking, of course, malaria prophylaxis. The only way you can prevent getting dengue fever is to stop mosquitos biting you. We didn’t expose our skin, our arms and legs, especially during dusk which is one of the risk periods for getting stung.”

No matter how accustomed Professor Rosenfeld was to these conditions, he clearly never lost his empathy.

"Just being there and seeing the level of destruction, human misery and poverty and violence that goes on in a war-torn country. My heart goes out to the innocent victims who are suffering."

Professor Major General Jeffrey Rosenfeld

He adds that he always aimed to counterbalance the negative. A unique bond of camaraderie and mateship formed from working and living with the same people day in, day out, under challenging circumstances. Professor Rosenfeld describes the deployment as an exhilarating experience.

“The very positive element of being on deployment is that you really do feel part of family. You know that everyone is looking after you, your welfare. Everyone has got everyone’s back and everyone has everyone else’s welfare at heart. We’re all trying to look after and protect each other.”

There is no doubt that Professor Rosenfeld thrives on adrenalin and the reward of providing life-saving medical care to injured soldiers and civilians, having described it as “probably one of the most powerful experiences for me in medicine and in my life.”

Professor Rosenfeld returned to Australia in February 2000 with a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“You’re there in the sense of a bigger mission restoring peace and well-being to that very troubled nation. So, you feel part of an important national mission.”

And with that deployment over for Professor Rosenfeld, he got on with his work as a neurosurgeon in Melbourne, until his next call up at the end of 2001, when he returned to East Timor as a consultant surgeon to UNTAET [United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor].