Tonight, as we continue our series the "Wounds of War" about U.S. medical care in Iraq, we'll tell the amazing story of a 5-year-old Iraqi girl who came close to death and got a second chance at life due to the efforts of some very dedicated Americans. Two organizations played a big role in helping her -- the National Iraqi Assistance Center and the Shriners Hospitals. The Iraqi Assistance Center was set up and is run by the U.S. military to provide charity care to a few of the many in that nation who need it. For more than 85 years the Shriners have been providing care for needy children from around the world with orthopedic, burn or spinal cord problems. I urge anyone who wants to help to contact those organizations via their Web sites above.
Many will watch tonight's story and ask why the girl could not be transferred to an Iraqi hospital. Simply put, the Iraqi medical system is in shambles. In most places there is no such thing as rehabilitation, so in the overcrowded and understaffed hospitals it is, as one American doctor put it to me, "survival of the fittest." Many Iraqi doctors, because of sectarian killings and kidnappings or threats of them, have fled the country. U.S. efforts to help set up a functioning health care system have been plagued by corruption and mismanagement. In fact, earlier this month Deputy Health Minister Hakim al- Zamili was arrested and charged with funneling millions of dollars given for health care to insurgents. So as we share this one girl’s story tonight, I hope we remember the thousands of children injured in this war who get no second chance.
After touring the combat hospitals of Iraq with Robert Bazell, cameraman Craig White, and soundperson Susan Becerra, I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to say that none us have ever before seen the amount of severe trauma we witnessed in our two week trip. Since returning back, the lasting impression for me is the somewhat surprising roller coaster of emotions felt on a daily basis. I’m not talking about the simple up and down reactions to each day’s event, but a rather more forceful pulling and tearing of emotions to levels of extreme highs and extreme lows.
Tonight we begin a series on the treatment of the U.S. troops wounded in the Iraq war. In addition to the broadcast report, I wrote an article for the Health Section of MSNBC.com describing the overall medical care system in Iraq, and I blogged while on assignment and shooting this material. So I won’t write much more here today. But I want to take a little space to thank the people who traveled with me to Iraq. They take the risks and don’t get the credit I do. Craig White was the photographer, Susan Becerra did the sound and engineering, and Kevin Monahan was the field producer. Jane Derenowski and Maggie Kassner did not go to Iraq, but did a terrific job of editing in New York, as did M.L. Flynn, the senior producer. Thanks to these colleagues for helping me tell the story of the brave men and women who are so dedicated to treating the wounded soldiers of this war.
We flew in to Germany this morning on the C-17 that regularly shuttles the U.S. wounded from the battlefields of Iraq to the Army's regional medical center here in Landstuhl. Injured soldiers rest in gurneys stacked two or three high while teams of doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists offer care at 37,000 feet as good as most hospital intensive care units. It is quite a sight. The cargo bay of the huge jet is configured so that the medical teams can care for someone on a ventilator, give continuous oxygen, monitor vital signs and intervene when necessary. Last night as the plane hit choppy air, some of the wounded who were conscious groaned loudly in pain. The nurse gave them additional sedating drugs. A man with intestinal damage was continuing to bleed internally, so he got a blood transfusion in the sky.
He's a 21-year-old soldier and amazingly upbeat considering that the right side of his face is peppered with shrapnel and there is a slit in his right eyelid. His vision is blurred, but fortunately he is not blind. His other injuries include a fracture of the bone in his right forearm so bad that the bone was sticking out of the skin and there is possible damage to his carotid arteries.
His story is, sadly, a very common one here at the Air Force’s hospital in Balad, the hub for transporting wounded U.S. soldiers to the Army hospital in Germany and then back home for treatment in the states.
We're at a U.S. Air Force base in Balad, Iraq, 50 miles north of Baghdad and a world away. The 332d Air Expeditionary Wing has assembled here an enormous force of people and machines that looks to me anything but temporary.
One of the unit’s many missions is the transport of injured U.S. troops “out of theater” to Germany and then on to hospitals at home. Tonight alone, the five beds in the emergency room and the two operating rooms have turned over again and again as waves of wounded U.S. troops and Iraqis arrive by helicopter or airplane. I’ll have lots more to say about the amazing care here online and on Nightly News soon, but back to Balad.
We’ve just visited Camp Speicher near Tikrit -- Sadam Hussein’s hometown -- as we continue reporting on medical care by the U.S. military. The tent hospital here is now staffed by the 399th Combat Support Hospital (CSH – or “cash” in military speak.) This is a reserve unit out of Boston, mostly Massachusetts folks, followed by many from Ohio and several other states. They tend to be older and less military in their bearing than their full-time Armed Forces colleagues, but they are certainly no different in their fierce dedication to patient care.
We heard this Sunni area was quiet now. It certainly was not during our visit. Many Medivac helicopters landed — some with warning, others with none.
In this past week I have seen a lot of horrific wounds and heroic attempts to save lives. I've been with the 28th Combat Support Hospital, the military's trauma center in Baghdad's Green Zone. But yesterday a case almost overwhelmed me emotionally. In the afternoon, two mortar rounds fell a few hundred yards away near the U.S. embassy. Loud speakers and sirens announce "a lockdown" of the heavily fortified area. People are not allowed to leave buildings. It proved a good call; a third round came in minutes later. Then a huge car bomb exploded just outside the Green Zone's gates. The tension level in the hospital rises immediately. Will there be casualties arriving? Within minutes a U.S. Army Humvee speeds to the gate and soldiers carry in a bloody and mangled Iraqi girl. I would guess her age to be 6 or 7 years. The doctors, nurses and technicians immediately start working on her with the same furious intensity they summon when a U.S. soldier arrives. "Two amputations and chest perforations," one of the doctors shouts. They rush her immediately from the emergency room to surgery.
I have been in Iraq only two days and this is my first visit, so my impressions can only be those of a new set of eyes looking at a very well-examined place and situation.
Still, two things stand out to me immediately: One is that at the hospital in the Green Zone where the 28th Combat Support Hospital (CASH in military speak) receives massive numbers of wounded soldiers, there is a sense of it all being so routine. And it is not just the medical staff that does such a sensational job; the troops I spoke with who woke up with missing limbs and other severe injuries seemed so stoic and calm. It is as though they know that their patrols here have such a high chance of encountering life-threatening trouble that they almost expect it to happen.
People can talk about bravery and dedication, but when a young woman who just lost her leg tells me she is still glad to just see the sun rise and be in the Army, I'm so moved I start to cry. Another impression: the Green Zone -- the international American-guarded sector -- Saddam's old palaces, where massively armed U.S. soldiers and a few Iraqis walk around in a calm atmosphere. One can see and feel huge explosions only hundreds of yards away, but it seems thoroughly incongruous. But today, seeing the mangled soldiers in the Green Zone made me know -- it is real.
Editor's note: If you missed Robert's report on Tuesday's broadcast, click here to watch.