Photo Information

BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Airmen with the casualty staging facility here load patients onto an ambulance bus that take them to an aircraft for a flight to Germany. Patients in Iraq are usually moved out of theater within 24 to 48 hours of being wounded. During the Vietnam War, it could take up to six weeks to have a patient ready to travel. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Collen Roundtree)

Photo by Tech. Sgt. Collen Roundtree

Total force Samaritans in the sand help friend, foe

24 Jun 2005 |

As the story goes, a good Samaritan helped an injured stranger along a well-traveled road in the Middle East more than 2,000 years ago.

Today, hundreds of miles farther east, reservists of the 433rd Medical Squadron are working with about 140 Airmen of the 59th Medical Wing at Wilford Hall Medical Center here, Army medics and Australians to help those who need medical care -- friends and strangers alike.

"We see everybody, Iraqi army, coalition soldiers and bad guys," said Col. (Dr.) Russ Turner, the 59th Aeromedical Dental Group commander deployed as commander of the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group at Balad Air Base, Iraq. "We don't turn anybody away, because there is nowhere to go."

On any given day in the waiting room of the hospital at Balad sit U.S. Airmen, Marines and Soldiers alongside Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

Iraqis first go to the Army clinic at one of the entry gates where medics assessed their condition and need for treatment. Those who need more than minor treatment are brought to the hospital for further care or diagnosis. Those needing extensive care are admitted, treated and spend time recovering until they are at a point where the local hospital in the city of Balad can take over.

"We have a great working relationship with the hospital in Balad city," said Dr. Turner, who acknowledges the medical practices and available treatment technology for Iraqi civilians is different from what Balad's Air Force Theater Hospital can offer. For serious wounds and illnesses, the theater hospital can simply offer more.

Not just civilians and friendly forces receive care here; suspected insurgents under guard receive the same quality of care as U.S. and coalition forces. Who receives treatment is not as important as how well the medics provide treatment.

"I take it as I go, day to day," said Staff Sgt. Cameron Davis, a medic deployed from the 859th Surgical Operations Squadron here. "I don't focus on who (the patients) are. They are all human."

The humanity of the caregivers is apparent when they have a few minutes to think about the job they're doing.

"I've learned maybe I'm not as strong as I thought I was," said Maj. Diane Walcutt, head emergency room nurse at the hospital who is deployed from Air Force Reserve Command's 433rd Medical Squadron. "I guess things bother me more than I thought they would."

However, it is not the magnitude of treating war injuries; it is the heart of each Soldier being treated that gets to her. The fact that they worry more about others than what they are going through themselves is the hard part for her and many of the others working at the hospital, she said.

Major Walcutt said she remembers a young man who struck her as remarkable because even as injured as he was, his main concern was making sure his wedding ring was close to him as he went into surgery.

"He kept telling us how beautiful his wife was," Major Walcutt said.

"He said, ‘You better save my other leg or my wife will be PO’ed,’" said Lt. Col. Laurie Hall, hospital chief nurse. "By the time he went into surgery, we knew he was going to lose both."

Those injured are amazingly able to accept the injuries they receive, she said.

"It's incredible -- the resiliency these guys have in coming to grips with their injuries," Colonel Hall said. "They are happy to be alive."

Colonel Hall and Major Walcutt said most of the patients they see just want to get patched up and go back to their units.

"It's nothing like you'll see in the civilian world," said Colonel Hall who is deployed from the 59th MDW.

"This isn't the Saturday night knife and gun club you get on weekend nights in the trauma center at Wilford Hall," Colonel Hall said. "These injuries are from accidents and improvised explosive devices to people who are trying to do some good."

And although current statistics indicate 91 percent of those wounded survive, the reality of war is that not everyone survives.

"No one dies by themselves (at Balad), and we wish the families could know that," Colonel Hall said. "We wish the wives and moms could know that they are not alone. When there is nothing else you can do for them, you stay with them until it is done."

The emotional stress the nurses at the hospital feel is a very real thing. They said they identify with their patients and know how to begin to deal with a patient's combat stress-related issues. They also have coping skills to deal with their own combat stress issues.

"We all take care of each other," said Capt. Warner Tse, a ward nurse at the hospital. "We exercise, run, workout, talk, chat, joke (and) goof around a lot to cut the stress."

Despite the inherent stresses of working in a battlefield hospital, there are very positive experiences these medics said they are taking away with them.

"I'll take home the ability to handle anything, like walking into an emergency room filled with patients at home," said Major Walcutt, who works as a civilian trauma nurse at Wilford Hall. "I don't think I'm going to sweat the small stuff."

One concern on the mind of Major Walcutt is what the people at home think without the advantage of the direct feedback she has from the Iraqi civilians she treats.

"(People in the United States) are afraid we aren't doing any good (at Balad), and we are," Major Walcutt said.

One Iraqi national guard soldier, speaking through an interpreter, said the care he has received at the hospital "is very good."

The soldier said he was on duty about three months ago with U.S. forces against insurgents when someone from the house they were approaching shot him in the abdomen.

"In three days, I will go home to recover," he said. "Then, I will go back in the Iraqi national guard."

His family visits him at the hospital often. He said his family is why he stays in the guard; he wants to give them freedom.

"Yes, I voted," he said. "Now (my country) is free, and it's very good."

Like many of the Airmen in the 433rd AW, he has decided to re-enlist and spend his life serving his country.

"I'll keep extending (my term of service) until I'm a very old man," he said with a huge smile. (Courtesy of AFRC News Service)