Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume 3, Number 37 October 19 - 25, 2003 Quezon City, Philippines
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every day brings news of another US death in Iraq, but we hear almost nothing of
the hundreds - maybe thousands - wounded by Saddam loyalists. In a rare visit to
an army hospital, Rory McCarthy glimpses the victims of a hidden war
The first they hear of Specialist Brian Wilhelm is an indecipherable crackle over the walkie-talkies. It is an early October afternoon and the Black Hawk pilots and paramedics of the 54th Medical Company, one of the US army's medevac units, are lounging in a small, chilled wooden hut. A camouflage net shades them from the relentless sun and the comforts of Gatorade and chocolate snacks tempt the young soldiers to forget for a moment the bloody trials of postwar Iraq. On a small television the medics are watching re-runs of Scrubs, an US sitcom about overworked junior doctors. The helicopter pilots, with a swagger all their own, are playing Black Hawk Down, a shoot 'em up computer game based on the infamous American military operation in Mogadishu a decade ago which left 18 of their comrades dead.
up," shouts the voice on the radio, calling the priority medevac team to
work. A convoy from the army's Eigth Infantry Regiment has come under attack yet
again just outside this base at Balad, in the heart of resistance country north
of Baghdad. A soldier is down, alive but badly wounded. A smoke flare marks the
exact spot by a pontoon over the Tigris river. It's a "hot LZ", says
the voice on the radio: the Iraqis are still shooting.
is the hidden story of America's military adventure in Iraq. From their heavily
barricaded offices in Baghdad, the US army's public relations operation did not
announce the attack last week on Wilhelm. It did not describe how the Black Hawk
pilots risked their lives to retrieve him and bring him to the emergency room of
the 21st Combat Support Hospital at Balad where some of the army's finest
nurses, medics and doctors saved his life. It did not describe the pain he is
suffering, the agony his family is going through or the fact that Spc Wilhelm
will never be a soldier again.
than 320 US troops have died since America invaded Iraq, but hundreds more have
been injured in the line of duty, many so seriously that they will be disabled
for life. This is the price the commander-in-chief, George Bush, asked of his
troops when, after the fall of Baghdad, he challenged Iraq's many resistance
fighters into battle. "Bring them on," Bush declared on July 2. And on
the fighters came, their attacks ever more sophisticated and ever more deadly.
According to the military's official count, up to six soldiers are now killed
each week in Iraq six months after the fall of Saddam Hussein, and at least
another 40 are injured.
military has never admitted the total number of soldiers injured so far, though
the figure appears to run into the thousands. At the combat hospital in Balad,
one of a handful of military medical centres in Iraq, a total of 1,088 patients
were admitted for treatment between May and the end of August. As many as 916
had to be evacuated, although not all suffered combat injuries (soldiers who
break their ankles in football games are also sent home to recover.) One report
last month said 6,000 US soldiers had already been evacuated home, of whom more
than 1,000 were designated "wounded in action" - twice the toll for
the first Gulf war.
minutes after the first call, the Black Hawk helicopter is in the air, racing
just a few hundred feet above the canals and brown fields of Balad towards the
smoke flare. At the pontoon, heavy reinforcements in Humvees and armoured
personnel carriers have already set up a perimeter. A medic on the ground has
bandaged Wilhelm's leg, encased it in a splint and attached a white paper to his
flak jacket reporting the injury: "RPG blast to left leg."
convoy hit a makeshift bomb in the road and was then hit by a rocket-propelled
grenade and rifle fire. Spc Wilhelm lies on the stretcher in pain but still
conscious, propping up his head with his right arm, dirt in his fingernails.
Blood is starting to seep through the stretcher.
minutes after the call the helicopter lands back at the base. Specialist Chris
Shirley, a cheery ambulance driver with "God Bless America" scribbled
on his helmet, helps lift the stretcher off the Black Hawk. Minutes later
Wilhelm is lying on trolley five surrounded by doctors and medics inside the
emergency room tent. A nurse carefully places his bloodstained flak jacket and
uniform into a black plastic bag as the doctors prepare him for surgery. Within
just an hour of the first call, the young soldier is already on the operating
the opposite corner of the emergency room tent stand a group of sullen soldiers,
among them the patient's company commander, Captain Kevin Ryan, 29. It is the
seventh time in recent weeks that Ryan has stood here waiting for news of an
injured soldier from his company. Frequently he spends the night by their
bedsides, comforting young men trained to believe in their own invincibility,
and then returns to his company at dawn to prepare them for another day of
patrolling. "It pisses most of them off," he says. "There is
really nothing we can do except try and prevent it the next time. After an
incident like this we get everybody involved back together and piece together
what happened and see how we can handle it a little better next time."
doctors report to him that Wilhelm will live and will probably keep his badly
damaged left foot. They cannot quite believe Ryan is back in the hospital.
"He has had an inordinately high number of soldiers that have ended up
here," says Colonel Carol McNeill, deputy commander of nursing. "He
has brought them through the moment that decides whether they are going to live
or die and he has made a difference."
problem facing American infantrymen is the resistance fighters' weapon of
choice: homemade bombs, known in military parlance as improvised explosive
devices (IEDs). They are artillery shells or grenades hidden by the roadside and
detonated from the bushes with a command wire as a US convoy passes. The blast
forces the convoy to halt and then the fighters open fire. "We return fire
but they have got the choice of ground. They get as many shots off as they can
and they back off," Ryan says. Soldiers now stuff sandbags into the
flooring of their Humvees for protection from the bombs and otherwise hope today
is not the day the medevac is coming for them.
21st Combat Support Hospital (motto: "Fear Not") is a peculiar
honeycomb of white, air-conditioned tents built around a corridor that connects
the emergency room to a pre-op tent and then to two fully collapsible operating
rooms. Spread out on either side are wards for intensive and intermediate care.
There are seven surgeons in the unit and a host of other medical staff including
a dentist, a psychiatrist, a physiotherapist and even a dietician. Most are on
active duty - full-time soldiers put through medical training by the army and
taught to handle gruesome combat injuries. Specialist Robert Burrell, 32, a
phlegmatic medic with nine years' service in the military, was one of the first
to treat the injured infantryman. A photograph of Burrell's two young daughters
is among dozens of family snaps pinned up on the wall in the emergency room,
next to the incongruous "Peace and Love" posters, a timetable of the
five different religious services held each week and a calendar that counts down
the unit's time left in country: 158 days to go.
attends the chapel every Sunday, says grace before each meal, chats regularly
with the chaplain and has no truck with the post-traumatic counsellors who
suddenly materialise in the hospital after particularly heavy days. "We
sure see some ugly stuff in here - guys who come in from the field, bleeding all
over and with 15 bullet holes in them," he says. "We see all the shit
that the rest of them don't want to see."
among the medical staff are reservists, Americans who joined up as students to
pay their way through $120,000 medical schools and who are now giving back their
time to the army. Now they live far from home, work 12-hour shifts and spend
part of nearly every night sheltering in the bunker from the regular mortar
attacks. Major Gordon Olsen is an orthopaedic specialist who runs a small
private practice in Heber City, Utah, where the most serious injuries he sees
are riders who have fallen off their horses. "Before I came over, watching
the news I was rah-rah and here we go," he says. "Now I am just
thinking, this needs to stop and go away. When talking to my wife at home, you
know, people just hear about a few casualties a day and it doesn't sound like a
big deal. But when you see a 19-year-old kid with his leg barely hanging on,
that one alone is a big deal."
what most of the medical staff in the hospital find the biggest challenge is not
the horrific injuries they see every day but the fact that they must also treat
Iraqi prisoners. In one recent case an American soldier died from his injuries,
while on the trolley next to him the Iraqi suspected of attacking him was
treated for his wounds, operated on several times and eventually pulled through.
"There are times when you take these guys in, take care of them and they
are going to live and that is really hard," says Captain Eric Ritter.
"I know what these guys have done and you have got to remind yourself they
are patients. But every day our guys are out there getting hit."
are nine Iraqis recovering in the enemy prisoner-of-war ward, all of whom have
been injured by US troops. Two armed military policemen guard the door. Ather,
24, a taxi driver, was shot in the hand in a scuffle after troops found a gun in
the back of his car. Doctors at the hospital performed a complicated operation
on his hand, which is now held together with several pins. "We didn't do
anything wrong. We were just driving to Baghdad and we had a gun in the car to
protect ourselves from thieves," he says. "I was happy that Saddam has
gone but I'm not pleased with what has happened to me." Like all the other
patients on this ward, once he has recovered he will be taken in for questioning
at a US detention centre, probably at Baghdad airport.
a ward next door nurses are treating a young Iraqi girl, Aya, six, who suffered
severe burns to her back after she fell into a clay oven apparently scared by a
low-flying American helicopter. There was little the local hospital in Balad
could do for her and her father, Faris Abdullah, is plainly overjoyed that his
daughter is being so well treated. But every day outside the base there are long
queues of Iraqis desperate for similar treatment. Some of the soldiers even
mutter their own private criticism that such Iraqi civilians benefit from their
news for Wilhelm is good. After more surgery he will probably be evacuated first
to Landstuhl regional medical center in Germany, from where most are sent on to
the overcrowded wards of Walter Reed army medical centre in Washington. The
doctors tell Ryan to go back to his tent and rest. His soldier won't be out from
surgery for a while yet. But Ryan wants to stay and the nurses prepare a bed for
him next to Wilhelm in the intensive-care ward. In the quiet after the terrible
casualties, there is little encouragement to question the reasons for war.
"We are here doing our job. It is part of the risk we take," he says.
"If being in the army was easy, there would be a lot more soldiers
October 13, 2003
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