I received a Thanksgiving e-mail and photos from Dr. Tim Cook, a family physician working at the ER at the 325 Combat Support Hospital outside Tikrit. Thought you’d enjoy hearing from him:
Things have been going pretty well the last few days. When I initially got here, we were taking about four trauma patients a day from either improvised explosive devices (IEDs) or gun shot wounds. Only one out of four were Americans, the rest were Iraqi citizens, soldiers and police. The Americans faired well, only one had to go back to Europe for more surgery and should be back to duty in a couple of months. The Iraqis were more serious, with about three cases of traumatic amputation, including an Iraqi Colonel who came in missing half of his left arm and his left lower leg. Interestingly, I heard that later he was glad that it was his left arm. Iraqis consider it bad taste and an invitation to evil to do things with the left hand.
Amazingly, he and all the others are still alive.
As bad as that sounds, the half dozen or so people I have met who have been in this area two or three times all say the violence is a fraction of what they used to have. It is all the more remarkable because 325th Combat Support Hospital is responsible for about 20% of the medical coverage for Iraq outside of Baghdad. It is also located in an area north of Baghdad that is felt to be where the insurgents and terrorists are attempting to regroup after continuing to be driven out of Baghdad.
The violence in Baghdad is approaching a third to a quarter of where it was a year ago and half of where is was even four months ago. From our perspective at the CSH, the fact that we have had just four Americans hospitalized in the last week given the area we cover a fifth of Iraq is something to be very optimistic about. Of course, all of that could change tomorrow, or even before I finish this letter. But with Ramadan coming soon, the month of fasting and prayer for the Muslims, and the yearly pilgrimage after that, we are again cautiously optimistic things will continue to go the way they have.
My Thanksgiving here has been as satisfying as any in memory. Everyone is upbeat, even though we are sort of waiting for the other shoe to drop, trauma-wise. We had a big dinner with all the fixings early in the afternoon and they set up big screen TVs to watch football. And while yes, it would be nice to be home, I know that if I were magically home at this instant, I’d be wanting to be back here with my brothers and sisters in arms. Certainly, there’s a lot of things I miss about being in Vermont this time of year, but at the same time I can easily understand why people have voluntarily come back here for tour after tour after tour. If I didn’t have a business to get back to I could easily extend my own tour (assuming, of course, that there is still a business to get back to).
The gratification comes in the simplest ways possible.
Sometimes it is witnessing the sheer American ingenuity of the Intensive Care Unit nurses, whose creativity is matched only by their peerless dedication. The base had its own “Macy’s Day Parade” here earlier today and different units were allowed to enter floats and the ICU team made one with the theme “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” using surgical drapes and paper mache for the Peanuts figures and an IV pole and wire coat hangers for the tree.
Sometimes it from being able to walk past a group of Iraqi soldiers and almost instinctively put my right hand over my heart and nod my head and smile and say “Salaam” as they smile back and do the same. The idea that just a few years ago I might have been exchanging bullets with his guys instead of greetings is astounding to me. Yet every Iraqi I have met to date has been entirely gracious and grateful and very happy to speak with me if there is an interpreter around (being as I have enough difficulty with English as it is). Chalk one up for humanity.
And the three-four detainees we have treated since I have been here are quite incredulous when it finally dawns on them that we aren’t going to torture them, we aren’t going to saw their heads off, we aren’t even going to subject them to Michael Moore fakeumentories. Rather, they are bewildered to discover that people wearing the same uniform as the people they were conspiring to kill just hours before are going to treat them better then their own health care system has ever treated them. Chalk up another for humanity.
Mostly the gratification comes from simply being able to shake the hands of the soldiers – the war fighters. They generally come in for simple stuff, but every couple of days they come in to the ER after being knocked around by an IED (we’ve figured out how to make the IEDs go off such that there’s very few direct hits on vehicles – and another reason for the decline in American casualties).
I do my mandatory evaluation and ask them if they want to be put on quarters for a day to rest and recover and then they politely decline, saying thanks, but they need to get back out there on patrol with their battle buddies. Simply amazing. Someone in the ER told me that a couple of days before I arrived, we recieved an Iraqi girl with the burns from
being down the street from an IED that hit one of our vehicles. A soldier who was in the vehicle that was hit assisted in treating her on the spot and later when he presented to the ER, limping in with a bloody nose, he just kept saying”I’m good, I’m good – just take care of the girl first.” Again, amazing.
The word “hero” just doesn’t even seem to fit these people. “Heroes” are what they call characters on NBC drama series or professional football players that are apparently worth the ridiculous amounts of money they get paid. These guys, by contradistinction, are a breed apart. And so young, too. It dawns on you once in a while why the words “Infant” and “Infantry” have the same Latin root. So I say as long as they keep calling fictional characters with mystical powers heroes, or sports stars heroes, they need a new and better word then “hero” to describe the selflessness and courage I have witnessed in the soldiers I have treated here.
It is sobering and tragic that Hollywood doesn’t seem interested in telling their story. From what I understand, there’s a crop of Iraq-themed movies coming out that would prefer to rely entirely on the imagination of Hollywood screenwriters rather then tell the true stories of the soldiers themselves. So they conjure up images of our soldiers being rapists, or murderers, or victims or patsies of the Army or our government, rather than the very best our nation has to offer the rest of the world.
Being able to care for them is the best thing I have done with my life to date, and that is what I am most thankful for on this day of thanks.
Best wishes on this great day and an early Holiday Season’s greetings to you and those you hold dear.