Video: Aug. 2006: Inside a military hospital

updated 10/31/2006 10:22:06 AM ET 2006-10-31T15:22:06

Staff at the U.S. military hospital in Baghdad like to pause to salute a dead combatant’s body as it leaves on an “Angel Flight” helicopter bearing the remains on the journey home.

Sometimes they dare not linger on the hospital helipad for long because the demands of the living are often pressing.

“We’ve got helicopters two minutes out with seven urgents so we’ve got to get these guys off the pad,” said Maj. Bill White, an army nurse from Griffith, Ind., standing by to take in fresh casualties from a night ambush in Baghdad on Monday.

Shouting above the din of the departing helicopter, White pointed to three more circling the landing pad in Baghdad’s Green Zone.

A few hours earlier, grim-faced staff wheeled a black body-bag on a gurney to the morgue.

“This guy, we worked on for an hour and we did everything we could, humanly, medically possible to fix him and he still passed away,” White said. “What goes through your mind is the family is going to get notified in four or five hours.”

Rising U.S. casualties have put President Bush under pressure before next week’s midterm elections, when his Republican party could lose control of Congress in large part because of disenchantment over Iraq.

The U.S. military death toll in Iraq for October passed 100 on Monday and 2,816 have now died since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion. More than 20,000 have been wounded.

Improved body armor and medical care mean more of the wounded survive than in past conflicts, but many soldiers return home horribly maimed.

Military statistics show that while 23 percent of U.S. combat wounded in World War II died and 17 percent in Vietnam, the death rate in Iraq and Afghanistan is 9 percent.

The Baghdad ER boasts a 94 percent “save rate.”

‘Super Bowl of trauma’
The soldier who died on Monday was one of 27 patients treated on the 12-hour day shift.

A few hours into the night shift at what staff call the “Super Bowl of trauma,” news of a big attack comes on the radio.

A Stryker armored vehicle has been hit. Nurses hang around the radio, listening to the helicopter pilot saying he’s having trouble finding a place to land to pick them up.

Around 40 minutes later, just as the Angel Flight departs, they arrive -- a lieutenant with shrapnel wounds and burns, wincing in pain, and six men from his platoon, their faces raw and red from burns and some of them dazed with concussion.

Nurses, doctors and medics surround Lt. Aaron Willard in the emergency room, stripping off field dressings, examining him front and back, cleaning a hole in his thigh, inserting a catheter and taking x-rays.

“My pants were on fire,” Willard tells the burns specialist.

An x-ray shows a piece of shrapnel lodged in his knee. Willard, shivering but cheery, winces and groans. “Sorry about that doc. Do what you got to do, but man that hurts,” he says.

An Iraqi cleaner is already mopping blood from the floor.

Lifeline back home
In the next room, nurses gently wipe the glistening burned faces and necks of the others and prepare two for CAT scans to check for brain injuries.

Robbie Strauch, from Grand Prairie, Texas, described the blast that hit the armored vehicle as “a big fireball.”

A wounded staff sergeant tells Maj. White they were hit by a “shaped” roadside bomb which fires a chunk of hot metal that can rip through armored vehicles like a rocket.

A nurse brings them a cellphone to call loved ones.

“My little girl turns one next month,” Strauch said. “She was born three months after I left for Iraq. I got to see her on leave. I’ve seen her about two weeks her entire life.”

In little over an hour, all the wounded soldiers are shipped out to recovery wards or the operating theatre.

Awake and chirpy on Tuesday morning, Willard pointed to a green plastic cup containing the shrapnel removed from his knee.

He said his platoon was lured into a trap by gunfire. When they went to investigate, the blast hit, followed quickly by gunfire. “That’s what they call a baited ambush,” Willard said.

The night shift logged 17 patients, more than half Iraqis, mostly police and soldiers working with U.S. forces. One Iraqi had suffered gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen, two collapsed lungs, damaged intestines and liver failure.

“As bad a shape as he’s in, he should do fine now,” said Lt. Ken McKenzie, a nurse. “They’re all survivable injuries.”

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.


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