Waiting for the bone-rattling coughs from dust finer than powdered sugar to stop attacking the lungs. Waiting for the generals to order the battalion to move north, toward Tikrit, where others—Iraqis—are also waiting: waiting for us. A quick look around my tent will show you who is fighting this war.
He never complains about his age, but his body does, in aches and creaks and in the slowness of his movements on late nights and cold mornings. His grandfather owned an animal farm and lived next to his grandmother, who owned an adjacent cocoa field. They met as children. But if you watch them closely, you can catch them stealing secret glances at each other. They are so focussed on each other that the world seems to dissolve around them. If they were on a picnic in Sheep Meadow in Central Park, instead of here, surrounded by sand and war machines, it would be the same.
I keep telling him no. On D Day, a grenade popped up from behind a hedge grove near a Normandy beach and spewed burning white phosphorus all over his body, consigning the man to a cane and special shoes for the rest of his life. He works so hard that I often have to order him to take a day off. Her family ran away to prevent the draft from snatching up her older brother and consuming him in a war they considered absurd and illegal. A few years later, the family, with no place else to run, watched helplessly as the U.
She has become one of my best soldiers. The day before we went on leave, he roared up in front of the barracks and beamed at me from behind the wheel of a gleaming white monster truck that he bought for fifteen hundred dollars. Three days later, he drove it into the heart of Amish country, where the transmission clanked and clattered to a stop. Kicker is, he made it back to post in time for my formation. As she tried to pry them apart, the pit bit off the tip of her ring finger. Top punched the pit bull in the skull and eventually separated the two.
A hospital visit and half a pack of cigarettes later, he learned the blow broke his hand. He bought her a new wedding ring in Kuwait. I hope you are doing well, Mom. For them. For me. For you. Commander Edward W. Jewel M. Journal entries, hospital ship U. March-April, March Q: The Comfort is a large non-combat hospital ship protected by the most powerful Navy, Army, and Air Force in history. What is there to be afraid of? A: Everything. Danger is all around us. We are really very close to the action.
At times we see oil fires near the shore. However, we cannot really see the combat. We are not afraid of the Iraqi military. However, we believe there are mines in the Gulf. Purportedly, small boats have approached the Comfort several times. When this happens we call in a helo and launch our small boat to run them off. How can we possibly see one of these things in the dark? I think it would be very easy for a terrorist to attack this ship with an explosive-laden small boat.
Very easy. Would the Iraqis attack a hospital ship if they could? Why not? In their view, they were invaded by mercenary infidels who deserve no better. A surgeon buddy of mine, Mike from Massachusetts, thinks an attack on our ship is a near-given, with a fifty-per-cent chance of success.
However, he is a proctologist and a Red Sox fan and naturally pessimistic. Who knows what was lost? Last letter to save a troubled relationship? A fat check? Notice of tax audit? The doctors are all bored from under-utilization, but the surgeons seem particularly restless. There are so many of them and not enough cases to fill the time. The Army helos cannot fly patients out to us in bad weather. The visibility has been poor the last three days, with choppy seas. We were to have received twenty or thirty new patients, but they never made it because of the weather.
We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, thirty new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque fractures.
Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short period of time is so great that it causes the entire system to crash under the burden of electronic data it is being fed. Our patients are mostly Iraqis. Along with their combat wounds, they are dirty, undernourished, and dehydrated.
One rumor says that we will treat all the wounded Iraqi E. If true, this would, in effect, make the Comfort a prison hospital ship. The corpsmen on the wards have to guard the prisoners and keep them from communicating with one another to prevent rebellion. As medical people we are trained to care for the sick; it is difficult to stay mindful that these patients are the enemy and could fight back against us. April 5. The Saturday entertainment is karaoke. The room is hot and crowded, and the whole event just too loud. I step out for air. On deck is a different world. This means no external lights and all windows are covered to block light transmission.
The goal is to make the ship invisible or nearly so to evildoers trying to locate the ship in the dark. It does actually work. The night is moonless, skies only a slight haze. It is very dark outside. So dark my eyes need ten minutes to fully accommodate. There is a magnificent display of stars tonight, reminiscent of what you see in Utah. The night has a misty, Impressionist feel. People moving about in the night are just vague dark shapes.
Voices are low. Boys and girls being what they are, couples are forming on Comfort. They drift into obscure corners. Ghostlike green blobs of fluorescence rise and fall in the water. Thousands of jellyfish drift and bob around the ship. I watch the stars until my neck hurts. Someone is singing in the dark in a beautiful, strange language. He tells me it is Hindi, and he is actually practicing for karaoke. I hope he wins. April 7. The prisoners are kept on a separate ward, deep in the bowels of the ship, for security reasons, and the location is kept obscure.
There is concern for the security of the prisoners. Lawyers run everything now, and we actually have a lawyer on board whose primary job is to insure we comply with all tenets of the Geneva Conventions. There are press on board all the time. Most of the Iraqis show real appreciation for the care rendered them.
I would love to talk to them about family, etc. The prisoners are a sad lot. I feel for them. Most were not real soldiers, just conscripts forced to fight for the Big Lie, Saddam Hussein. Some of these guys, however, were the feared fedayeen suicide commandos. In general, the prisoners are badly wounded. They look defeated and glad to be out of combat.
April The number of patients coming aboard Comfort is simply out of control. Today we received at least thirty-five more patients. New in the last twenty-four hours is a big influx of sick and injured children. We have only one doctor with residency training in pediatrics. Some of the kids are very ill. One was D. We take them all and do our best. There is no long-term-care plan for all these patients, and the ones who survive will need long-term care.
Where will they go? Who will care for them after we leave? We have become deeply involved in a humanitarian crisis that we will not be able to extricate ourselves from. Civilian Iraqi patients are being allowed to move around the ship more with escorts, of course as their conditions improve. I saw a teen-ager today smiling and shaking hands with everyone. As he bent to tie his shoe, his sleeve slid up. I saw he had a tattoo on his upper arm.
Hearts and minds, indeed. We began in earnest to discharge stable E. Close to thirty sent back today. Sent somewhere. For security reasons, they cannot be told where they are really going. Looking at these pathetic-looking fellows, it is easy to forget that they were the enemy, and many probably still wish us harm. According to an I. Another patient awoke from surgery disoriented to place; he asked if he had been sent home to Syria! A group of their medical-admin bureaucrats, primarily Army, are on board to give us an overview of the medical situation in Iraq and Kuwait.
We hope to hear something concrete about our own status: what is planned for us, how can we offload our patients, and, mostly, when can we go home? Instead of insight and clarity, we got more obscuring mud in the eye. The formal presentation is tiresome, trite, and uninformative. It takes fifteen minutes to get the PowerPoint working. The speaker uses too much Army-specific jargon. He admits that the Comfort is the most stable, established, and productive medical unit in the theater. The hospitals in Iraq have been looted and are barely functioning.
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The discussion is as overheated as the room. Pointed questions regarding why we got stuck with so many patients go ignored or glossed over. It is explained that the Iraqi casualties were put on helicopters by well-meaning, altruistic U. They offer no explanation for why all the Iraqis ended up in our hospital.
It is not convincing or reassuring to us. These guys all look rested, tanned, and pain-free to us. Personal essay drawing on letters to friends and family from Tallil Air Base. November, March, First off, we are going to prepare our living area. Go to your vacuum, open the cannister, and pour it all over you, your bed, clothing, and your personal effects. And, no, there is no escape, trust me. You just get used to it. Now pack everything you need to live for four months—without Wal-Mart—and move in. Tear down the three walls of your tent seen from the street and you have about as much privacy as I have.
If you really want to make this accurate, bring in a kennel full of pugs; the smell, snoring, and social graces will be just like living with my nine tentmates. Also, you must never speak above a whisper because at all times at least four of your tentmates will be sleeping. Time for hygiene.
Walk to the nearest bathroom. Ever stagger to the john at ? Try it in a frozen rock garden. Given the urges that woke you at this hour, taking the time to put on your thermals and jacket might not be foremost in your mind. So dress warmly. All I have to say is that, after the first time, I went back to the tent and felt like either crying or lighting myself on fire to remove the filth. I am somewhat limited in my ability to say how, when, and why we do what we do.
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Essentially, my unit escorts third-country nationals T. We handle their passes, and we also watch over areas in which they work and, in some cases, live. I currently work in the control center for those escorts and workers. I handle radio traffic and communication between the people coming in, patrols and posts controlling or containing escortees, and the police who search their vehicles. I am nearly always speaking through my Iraqi translator with Iraqis, Koreans, Italians, Dutch, and countless other nationalities while tending to multiple other duties.
This goes on for twelve hours. Rule No. I then had to get the interpreter to tell you. I then had to post one of the troopers on you to babysit. And stop asking how long it will be. I told you twice we are waiting on your rep and he will be here when he feels like it. No weapons, communication devices, cameras at all on base for T. You have got to be shitting me.
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What do you mean to tell me that your sharpened eighteen-inch piece of bent angle iron is a family heirloom? You go. As soon as your fingers clear the handle, the spring tension, from the pull, slams the bolt forward and chambers your first round. And, for at least three seconds, the only sound you hear, as the crowd unpuckers, is of your own heart trying to break out of its rib cage, one pounding thump at a time.
From that point, amazingly and without exception, people do what they are told, immediately. They suddenly understand everything we have been trying to tell them. Whaddaya know? The guns are for our self-defense as an absolute last resort. Nothing more. Most days pass by smoothly with only funny stories to break up the monotony.
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A week ago, for instance, Geraldo Rivera came to Tallil to do a report for Fox. In prime time. This is the same troop who got kidney stones, was shipped to Baghdad to have a CT scan, and whose convoy was attacked while he was there. When he came back, the Army doctor informed him that he had two more stones, which he then painfully passed over the next two weeks.
He had no idea that the camera was zooming in at that exact moment. Was it bad manners? This place truly never ceases to trip me out. Last week I met a man who came through here to visit his wife, who was in hospital. He spoke O. English and, it turns out, he was an American citizen, from Dearborn, Michigan. His home was less than ten miles from where I lived before joining up. He told me that eight of his friends from Dearborn have died in the service of the new Iraqi Army in the past few months.
I had no idea that so many of those guys were U. He brought his kids in to meet me, and they looked like American kids, in their Spider-Man jackets and Nikes. I wonder often what they think about all of this. Captain Donna Kohout, thirty-two, Dillon, Colorado. April, When I first arrived, I did a double take when I looked at the maps in the back of my Bible and recognized the locations of the cities we were flying over. Tallil had been Ur of the Chaldeans, the birthplace of Abraham, who was the father of the Israelites. When God punished the Israelites with exile from the land that He had given them, they were taken to Babylon, near present-day Al Hillah.
I wish I could describe the feeling of flying across what we called the T. The T. Line, which marks the edge of the settled area, is just south of the Euphrates River. South of the line is barren desert. Genesis describes the Garden of Eden standing at the headwaters of four rivers, two of which are the Tigris and Euphrates. That places the Garden just north of Basra, within sight of where I flew almost daily.
Abraham, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, the whole displaced Israelite nation, and perhaps even Adam and Eve all trod the ground I was looking down on daily. And I was living in the same desert where the Israelites wandered. At night a person can see every bullet and missile launched, near and far away, with the aid of night-vision goggles. Thankfully, most of what the Iraqis shot was unguided and too small to reach the altitudes at which we fly. Praise God for the safety He has provided so many of us over the last several months.
And please continue to pray for the Iraqi people and the soldiers over there now. There is a long and unconventional road ahead of them still. Personal essay based on diary entry. June, Manuel Ernesto [not his real name] was a soldier assigned to the famous Fighting 69th, a National Guard infantry battalion based out of New York, which is where I call home. The unit has a history of being one of the most decorated outfits in the Army, boasting a lineage that goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War and with a fair number of legends in its ranks.
Office of Strategic Services , the predecessor to the present-day C. Manuel Ernesto probably represented that better than anyone. He was kind and had a childlike innocence about him, but he had difficulty understanding easy, straightforward tasks and directions. There was also something about him that seemed awkward and out of synch. My many years in the Army have taught me to be a quick study of men, and my initial impression of Ernesto led me to believe that he would not fit in very well within the spartan, testosterone-driven world of the infantry. We spent four months at Fort Hood, Texas, preparing for our deployment to Iraq.
My first real observation of Ernesto in action was during one of our early-morning P. I had to get these men in shape and help them shed the pounds that their comfortable civilian lives had packed on them. Combat in Iraq would be unforgiving on these citizen soldiers, and they would have to tote around as much as fifty pounds of gear every day in the brutal hundred-and-twenty-to-hundred-and-thirty-degree summer heat. Usually I began with jumping jacks, and on this one morning as I was jumping along and leading the company, I could hear the men break out into a roar of laughter.
I scanned the ranks looking for the reason. Lo and behold, there he was, in the last row, rear left-hand corner of the formation. It was Ernesto, jumping around in spasms of unsynchronized, discombobulated movement. He looked like a fish that had just landed on the deck of a boat, flapping around waiting to be clubbed.
At first, I thought it was an act and began to get angry, thinking he was trying to get laughs during my P. I watched him for a couple of seconds more and came to the conclusion that this was no act. The harder Ernesto tried to get in synch with everyone else, the worse he looked. That was who Ernesto was.
It was time to come up with a game plan for him or he would get himself or someone else killed. I decided one day to have a discussion with our battalion sergeant major in reference to Ernesto. As soon as the topic was broached, the sergeant major began to smile. Ernesto, it turns out, had been in his company some years back when he was a first sergeant. During training, Ernesto started to squirrel away food from the mess tent and keep it in his backpack in anticipation of some unknown impending famine.
But on that day, the mess tent had served fresh milk, and Ernesto, not realizing the difference, stuck the containers of milk in his duffel bag. A few days later, people heard screaming in the middle of the night from somewhere inside the patrol base; Ernesto was on the ground writhing in pain and clutching his stomach in agony. The cause of his illness was consumption of spoiled milk. But there was something else he said that stunned me: Ernesto, prior to this deployment, had been homeless and living in a city shelter. This was why he had been squirreling away the food, and this was why he had been saving the milk; these were habits he had cultivated from being homeless for so long.
A few days later, I was informed that Ernesto would be transferred to the headquarters company to work in their supply room. Essentially, Ernesto would get a job that would not require him to leave the camp to go out on missions. Problem solved, case closed. Some weeks went by, and, one night while working late in my office, I heard a soft tap on my office door.
Ernesto shuffled quietly into my office, shy and apologetic for disturbing me. I told him to come in, sit down, and tell me what was bothering him. He sat down wringing his hands and looking all around my office, studying every nook and cranny and every object in the room. I gently asked him what was on his mind.
He finally looked me in the face timidly and asked if he could come back to the company and be with the men. I was a little surprised by his comment, and I asked him if he was unhappy where he was. He said that the supply sergeant was taking very good care of him and that he liked the work he was doing and the hours he kept. He quietly stated that he knew the men would be risking their lives soon in combat and that he wanted to be with the men and would do anything he could to help them—even if it meant picking up the dead and filling body bags.
We were weeks away from deploying to Iraq, and the newspapers and cable channels were rampant with stories about people getting their heads cut off, convoys being ambushed on a regular basis, and U. I realized that his comment was not just an idle or morbid statement. For all his awkwardness and childlike qualities, Manuel Ernesto showed more compassion for his fellow-soldiers than they ever showed him.
I felt ashamed at that moment, especially considering that some men in my company were trying to do everything in their power to get out of going off to fight. Here was Ernesto, a guy who was homeless and shunned by the rest of civilized society, and, in the end, he turned out to have more heart and guts than most. I told him that if the day ever came when, God forbid, I had to pick up my fallen soldiers, it would be an honor for me if he could help in any way. He smiled and tears welled up in the corners of his eyes. He quietly got up and saluted me in an awkward manner, and I saluted back, not having the heart to tell him that I was a sergeant and only officers get saluted.
Sergeant Timothy J. Gaestel, twenty-two, Austin, Texas. E-mail to his father, from south of Baghdad. September 21, Hey, Dad, this is your son. First off: let me tell you we made it here safe and so far, but everything is going very good. Now, Dad, I know that you have already received a phone call that tells you I am O.
We were heading south down Highway 8 and I was gunning for the second truck. Byrd was driving and my chief was the passenger. I was in the back of the truck with my B machine gun, and the S2 [an intelligence officer] wanted to ride in the back of the truck with me, since I was the only one back there. We were at the end of the convoy at this point so we were really hauling ass, driving down the wrong side of the road and all that, just so we could get to the front of the convoy.
My buddy Eddie was a badass driver and kept us from getting in wrecks a few times. But still able to get the mission done. The X. At that exact moment, a loud and thunderous boom went off and pushed me all the way to the front of where my B was mounted. I knew something had just happened and when I turned around I could see two large smoke clouds on each side of the road. The first thing I thought was that I had just been hit in the back by an I.
Before that I honestly thought it had just hit my I. It turns out that it had hit my I. As you can imagine, I was pretty pissed off at this point, and I showed my anger toward the people in the town that we were driving through. I had my M4 rifle at the ready and my trigger finger on the trigger and was just waiting for someone to give me a reason to have me put it from safe to semi.
I maintained my military bearing as well as one could in that situation. I sure wanted to shoot the bastard that had just set the I. As we were making our way back to the F. There was a major who was our field surgeon waiting for me in the front of the gate to check me out.
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When I told him that I was O. They rushed me to the aid station, where I talked to some sergeant majors and the colonel. In like fifteen minutes, in my brown underwear, green socks up to my knees, and a blanket, I was rushed out to the landing zone where a chopper took me to C.
The flight through Baghdad was amazing, too, you could see the whole city and all the buildings and stuff, it was very strange. The helicopter pilot was a badass as well, he had to do a wartime landing, which is really fast and quick, it was cool. Now when I landed, a female second lieutenant took me into the E. She came up to me and ripped off my blanket, grabbed my brown undies, and ripped those off too and gave me a catheter. Now that was more painful than the I.
Then she gave me some morphine and I was good. They did an X-ray of my back and found that I had two pieces of shrapnel in my back.
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So, yeah, now your son is going to have two pieces of metal in his back for the rest of his life. I was cleaned up and taken to patient hold. A place that is something out of a movie. Ashley White and Capt. Jenny Moreno were members of a ground-breaking all-women team recruited for special operations combat missions. Both died on night raids in southern Afghanistan alongside the elite Army Rangers. White in , Capt. Moreno two years later. Follow the Opinion section on Twitter latimesopinion and Facebook.
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