Thursday, September 30, 2004

A doc's memories of Iraq, good and bad

Good and Bad

I found this article quite moving. Too often it is way too easy to sanitize talk about "war" and not realize what that really means.

Lest we forget...

Lt. Cmdr. Heidi Kraft, a Navy doctor and a former flight surgeon, now a psychologist, just finished a seven-month deployment to Iraq with a surgical company treating wounded Marines. Last week she returned to her family and friends near Jacksonville, Fla. She came home to the 2-year-old twins she left with her husband while she fulfilled her duty.

Before she left Iraq, Kraft wrote an e-mail home summing up the good and the bad of that tour of duty.


"Sunset over the desert, almost always orange. Sunrise over the desert, almost always red.

The childlike excitement of having fresh fruit at dinner after going weeks without it.

Being allowed to be the kind of clinician I know I can be, and want to be, with no limits placed and no doubts expressed.

"But most of all, the United States Marines, our patients.

"Walking, every day, and having literally every single person who passes by say "Oo-Rah, Ma'am..." Having them tell us, one after the other, through blinding pain or morphine-induced euphoria: 'When can I get out of here? I just want to get back to my unit ...'

"Meeting a young sergeant, who had lost an eye in an explosion ... he asked his surgeon if he could open the other one ... when he did, he sat up and looked at the young Marines from his fire team who were being treated for superficial shrapnel wounds in the next room ...

"He smiled, laid back down, and said, 'I only have one good eye, Doc, but I can see that my Marines are OK.'

"And of course, meeting the one who threw himself on a grenade to save the men at his side ... who will likely be the first Medal of Honor recipient in over 11 years ...

"My friends ... some of them will be life-long in a way that is indescribable.

"My patients ... some of them had courage unlike anything I've ever experienced before.

"My comrades, Alpha Surgical Company ... some of the things witnessed will traumatize them forever, but still they provided outstanding care to these Marines, day in and day out, sometimes for days at a time with no break, for seven endless months.

"And last, but not least ...

"Holding the hand of that dying Marine.


"Terrifying camel spiders, poisonous scorpions, flapping bats in the darkness, howling, territorial wild dogs, flies that insisted on landing on our faces, giant, looming mosquitoes, invisible sand flies that carry leishmaniasis.

"132 degrees.

"Wearing long sleeves, full pants and combat boots in 132 degrees. Random and totally predictable power outages that led to sweating throughout the night. Sweating in places I didn't know I could sweat, like wrists, and ears.

"The roar of helicopters overhead. The resounding thud of exploding artillery in the distance.

"The popping of gunfire ...

"Not knowing if any of the above sounds is a good thing, or bad thing. The siren, and the inevitable 'big voice' yelling at us to take cover. Not knowing if that siren was on someone's DVD or if the big voice would soon follow. The cracking sound of giant artillery rounds splitting open against rock and dirt. The rumble of the ground. The shattering of the windows ...

"Hiding under flak jackets and Kevlar helmets, away from the broken windows, waiting to be told we can come to the hospital ... to treat the ones who were not so lucky.

"Watching the helicopter with the big Red Cross on the side landing at our pad. Worse, watching Marine helicopters filled with patients landing at our pad ... because we usually did not realize they were coming.

"Ushering a sobbing Marine colonel away from the trauma bay while several of his Marines bled and cried out in pain inside. Meeting that 21-year-old Marine with three Purple Hearts, and listening to him weep because he felt ashamed of being afraid to go back.

"Telling a room full of stunned Marines in blood-soaked uniforms that their comrade, who they had tried to save, had just died of his wounds. Trying, as if in total futility, to do anything I could to ease the trauma of group after group that suffered loss after loss, grief after inconsolable grief.

"Washing blood off the boots of one of our young nurses while she told me about the one who bled out in the trauma bay, and then the one who she had to tell, when he pleaded for the truth, that his best friend didn't make it.

"Listening to another of our nurses tell of the Marine who came in talking, telling her his name, about how she pleaded with him not to give up, told him that she was there for him, about how she could see his eyes go dull when he couldn't fight any longer.

"And last, but not least ...

"Holding the hand of that dying Marine."


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