U.S. casualties grim cost of Iraq war; Human tragedies take toll on medics

26 Sept 2004 | Toronto Star


LANDSTUHL, Germany?At the U.S. military hospital on a wooded hilltop here, the cost of the Iraq war is measured in amputated limbs, burst eyeballs, shrapnel-torn bodies and shattered lives.

They’re the seriously wounded U.S. soldiers who arrive daily at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a growing human toll that belies American election talk of improving times in Iraq.

They’re the maimed and the scarred that hospital staff believe are largely invisible to an American public ignorant of their suffering.

“They have no idea what’s going on here, none whatsoever,” says Col. Earl Hecker, a critical care doctor who trained at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital.

The broken bodies move some of the hospital’s military staff to question a war producing the most American casualties since Vietnam.

And they reduce the chief surgeon to tears.

“It breaks your heart,” says Lt.-Col. Ronald Place.

“There’s nothing more rewarding than to take care of these guys. Not money, not anything,” he adds, crying.

From their hospital beds, solidarity with the men and women in the platoons they’ve left behind has wounded soldiers expressing an amazing desire to return to Iraq.

But few feel they need to hurry. They’re convinced U.S. soldiers will be fighting, dying and getting maimed in Iraq for many years to come.

Says Col. Rhonda Cornum, the hospital’s commander: “Peace doesn’t seem to be breaking out any time soon.”

The 50-year-old medical centre is where the U.S. military’s sick and seriously wounded from Iraq are treated after being patched up on the battlefield.

Prior to the Iraq war, the hospital received no more than 10 injured U.S. soldiers a year from conflicts. Now, it usually handles between 30 and 55 a day from Iraq and Afghanistan alone.

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq began in March, 2003, almost 16,000 wounded, injured or sick soldiers from the conflict have been evacuated to Landstuhl.

As of Friday, 1,042 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq — more than 900 of them since May 1, 2003, when U.S. President George W. Bush declared major combat over — and 7,400 were wounded in combat, according to the Pentagon. About 3,400 of the wounded returned to duty after 72 hours. Almost all the rest came to Landstuhl, in southwestern Germany, for treatment.

On Thursday, a medical flight from Iraq brought 27 injured soldiers, two of them fighting for their lives.

“He might not make it,” says a member of the medical team as a 27-year-old soldier is lowered from an ambulance and rushed to the intensive care unit.

Plugged to a respirator, the soldier lies naked on a bed, his pelvic area covered by a towel.

A roadside bomb 12 hours earlier left deep burns on 20 per cent of his body, a punctured lung and a broken leg. His chances of survival, a doctor says, are roughly 50-50.

His seared hands are sliced opened to prevent the need for amputation due to swelling. His dead skin is scraped off, a gel is spread thick to prevent infections, and his arms are wrapped in thick, white bandages.

“He’s very unstable,” says Hecker, 70.

Hecker retired from the military years ago but recently left his lucrative private practice in Detroit to save lives at Landstuhl.

“I’m here for him — nobody else,” he says, pointing to the soldier. “I didn’t come here for my government.”

He pauses, then blurts out: “Bush is an idiot.”

Immediately, he regrets having said that about the U.S. president, and makes clear he’s been under enormous stress.

He describes taking a bullet out of the neck of an 18-year-old soldier six days ago, a wound that left the young man a quadriplegic.

“It’s terrible, terrible, terrible,” Hecker says. “When we talked to him, he just cried.”

“If it was me, I’d tell them to take me off the machine,” he says. He then considers his job and adds, “I’ll never be the same mentally.”

What the hospital’s chief psychologist calls “compassion fatigue” is a widespread syndrome among the medical staff.

“There’s a great deal of hurt going on in the hospital,” says Maj. Stephen Franco.

But Maj. Cathy Martin, the nurse in charge of the intensive care unit, prefers to deal with her stress by calling on Americans to consider the plight of the war wounded when making a choice in the Nov. 2 presidential election.

“People need to vote for the right people to be in office and they need to be empowered to influence change,” she says.

Most combat wounds treated at the hospital are caused by rocket-propelled grenades or shrapnel from bombs, Place says.

About 160 U.S. soldiers from Iraq have had limbs amputated, and 200 have lost all or part of their sight from bomb blasts. Body armour has saved lives, but Place believes wounds that significantly disfigure are a greater advantage to insurgents than the rising body count.

“From a psychological warfare aspect, to maim many is better than to kill a few,” he says.

Wounds that can’t be seen are also taking their toll. About 1,400 U.S. soldiers have been treated exclusively for mental health problems caused by the trauma of war.

Hospital officials keep access to the wounded strictly limited. But they allow three soldiers to be interviewed, all in the hospital’s orthopaedic wing, where two nurses steady a soldier learning to use a walker and dragging a lifeless right leg.

In one room is Marine Lance Cpl. Corey Dailey from San Diego. Dailey says he enlisted shortly after the war started because, “I’m 18-years-old, I wanted to go and get some.”

“Combat is the ultimate adrenalin rush. It’s scary as hell but when your adrenalin gets pumping, it’s really awesome,” he says.

Last Wednesday, a month after he got to Iraq, Dailey was at an observation post in Ramadi, part of the so-called Sunni triangle of insurgency, when a sniper’s bullet shattered a bone in his right arm.

Now, Dailey doesn’t think much of Iraq.

“The whole place sucks,” he says. “The heat — that sucks, and the streets smell like crap.”

Still, he’s itching to go back.

“We can’t win this fight without the Iraqis. They need to help us. They need to stand up” to the insurgents, he says.

In another room, 23-year-old Mark Romero from the army’s Third Brigade is also nursing a broken arm. A mechanic who served 11 months in Iraq, he snapped a bone trying to stop a 230 kilogram metal door from falling on a fellow soldier.

Lodged in his back is a piece of shrapnel from mortars that rained through the roof of the gym at the U.S. base in Mosul, northern Iraq, while Romero was working out.

He says the question constantly asked by soldiers is: “What are we doing there?”

“Realistically, I think it’s going to turn into Korea where we have troops that will always be stationed there,” he says of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Sitting stiff with pain on his bed is Romero’s roommate, Sgt. 1st Class Larry Daniels — “Big Daddy Daniels” to his men in Iraq. His arms are bandaged from just below the shoulders to the tip of his fingers and rods stick out of them like scaffolding. Shrapnel wounds cover the back of his body, from behind his right ear to his ankles.

“They got most of it out,” he says about the shrapnel.

Doctors estimate it will take two years for Daniels to recover.

On Sept. 18 at 3:30 p.m., Daniels and his men were protecting Iraqi contractors repairing a chain-link fence on a bridge near the Baghdad airport.

“The traffic was going around us and this guy came out of nowhere,” Daniels says, describing a car in the distinctive orange and white colours of local taxis.

“I took a step and I heard a pop, and in my head I thought I stepped on a land mine. At the same time my body went up in the air and I was upside down looking at the cars and the spot where I’d been. And then I hit the ground,” he says.

Two of his soldiers in their early 20s lay dead. Daniels, 37, was patched up in a military hospital in Baghdad and arrived at Landstuhl last Monday.

A member of the 1st Cavalry, Bravo 4-5 ADA Company, Daniels traces his family’s long military roots to a colonel in the American Civil War.

“I wish I was there instead of here,” he says about Iraq. “That’s where I’m suppose to be. That’s what I was trained to do. I wasn’t trained to get hurt.”

Suddenly being away from the 23 men in his platoon, Daniels says, “feels like a part of me is gone.” He says the soldiers in his platoon never balked at the daily patrols, often working shifts from 6 p.m. to 9 a.m.

“Every day that we did something, we were one day closer to going home,” he says. “The more missions we did, the sooner we got out of there.”

But no one in his platoon thinks U.S. soldiers will be pulling out of Iraq anytime soon.

“They say our kids might end up here,” says Daniels, an Arkansas native.

“It’s going to be a long one, because the enemy don’t wear a uniform so you can’t identify them. If you don’t have a specific person to look for, you just have to wait for them to shoot at you.”

If Americans understood what was really going on in Iraq, they’d pressure Bush to be clearer about “why we’re really fighting,” he says.

“The war on terror wasn’t in Iraq till we went there,” he says. “We initially went there to topple Saddam (Hussein) and then all these damn terrorists came in.”

As a soldier, he describes himself as “almost a political prisoner” in the sense that he can’t express himself on whether he believes U.S. soldiers should stay in Iraq.

But his 33-year-old wife, Cheryl, has no qualms about speaking her mind.

“The army is not going to like what I have to say, but I think we have no business being there,” she says about Iraq.

She too comes from a family with a long military tradition and works as a civilian at her husband’s military base in Texas. She voted for Bush in 2000, but now says Democratic challenger John Kerry will get her support.

“I will definitely vote for Kerry, not because I prefer Kerry over Bush but because I don’t want Bush back in office. I’m hoping that if Kerry takes office, we’ll be pulling out” of Iraq, she says.

Cheryl believes Bush misled the country to war, arguing he diverted resources from far greater threats to U.S. interests, including the hunt for Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Asked why Bush launched the war, she says: “I think he wanted to fill his dad’s shoes. I think he felt he had something to prove.”

If the point of the war was to remove Saddam from power, then Bush’s father, former president George Bush, should have done so in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, in which Daniels also fought.

Increasing Cheryl’s anger is the fact the army did little to help her contact her wounded husband.

She paid for her flight to Germany, and is staying at the Fisher House, a privately funded agency that offers virtually free accommodation in Landstuhl to the families of injured soldiers.

Infuriated by what she sees as a misleading president, an unnecessary war and a heartless military, Cheryl vows to break the Daniels’ family tradition of serving their country. Her 12-year-old son and eight-year-old daughter are already talking of enlisting one day, but Cheryl won’t hear of it.

“We’ve paid our dues,” she says.

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