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Part Two: Talking with Dr. Chris Coppola, author of "Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq"

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Welcome back for the conclusion of my interview with Dr. Chris Coppola, author of Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq . You take us behind the scenes and into your life on the air base, Chris. Everyday objects and activities become eerily different in war - from combat showers, to riding a bike wearing 35 pounds of body armor, from kitchen shears used to snip off a destroyed limb, herbs and sunflowers planted among the sandbags, to using a surgical instrument at a barbeque. Even the base itself changed in important ways by your second tour. Can you tell our readers about that?

The biggest change in the base between the two deployments, so far as medics were concerned, was that the new hospital had opened. The original hospital was a network of about 30 tents connected by corridors and tunnels. These tents served as our wards, ICUs, and ER. They were not ideal. It was hard to keep them warm in winter and cool in the summer. The sandstorms would blow clouds of fine silica dust under the flapping tent walls. In the spring, the rains would wash mudflows an inch deep across the floors. We would hit our heads on the bare fluorescent tubes hanging from the ceiling. It was amazing we were able to do specialized procedures like brain surgery in such a place.

When I arrived for my second deployment in 2007, the new hospital had just opened. It had metal walls like a warehouse, and linoleum tile. It looked just like any busy hospital inside. Instead of bare NATO gurneys, we moved patients around on real high tech hospital beds with motors and thick padding. it was a lot easier to keep the patients from getting bedsores. Instead of operating in shipping crates, we had a four room modern OR suite. It was a lot easier to move patients in and out and keep the place sterile. Some people complained that the new hospital had lost the camping or deployment feel, but I was thrilled because it was a lot easier to keep wounds clean and prevent bedsores.

In general, the base had much more of an air of permanence about it. Many of the buildings were new, and there were all sorts of amenities like a beauty shop and the Taco Bell right across the street from the hospital. It seemed like we were setting up to stay for a hundred years.


Dr. Chris Coppola at ease

You really connected with the translators who worked at the base. Can you explain their special role?

It was astute of you to notice the importance of the translators. I could say a few things in Arabic like "Anduc allaam?" ("Is there pain?") and "Amalia Bokra" ("Surgery tomorrow"), but to figure out what had happened to a person, and what was going on in their body now, it was really important to have translators.

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The first translators were well-educated, bilingual Iraqis, and they risked their lives working with us. One translator's mother had her legs blown off, and another had his house burned down, just for associating with Americans. They worked tirelessly. They lived together in a small tent by the hospital. Day and night, whenever there was a helicopter landing, or whenever the call went out over the loudspeakers "Interpreter needed in the ICU," they were there in a flash. At times, I called on them to translate very difficult conversations, such as telling a mother her son was dead, telling a young unmarried Iraqi policeman that his penis would never work again, and explaining to a family that their little boy was actually a hermaphrodite girl.

Over time, the military began hiring US citizen contractors to interpret, and they let the Iraqi translators go. Often, they had noting to return to: families scattered, homes destroyed, and constant death threats. The lucky ones escaped to Syria, some joined the military. At this point in time, I have no idea if any of them are still alive. One of my closest friends during both deployments was an Iraqi interpreter with whom I cared for many families in need. I wish I knew where he was and if he was safe.

You're talking about Kasim? I was going to ask you if he ever got his papers in order to meet up with his GI Jane fiance'e. Do you feel that we left the translators hanging after they put their lives on the line to help us?

The translators were left to twist in the wind. Author George Packer expresses it far better than I could in the article "Betrayed" for the New Yorker in 2007. The injustices and abandonment of interpreters he describes are exactly what I saw for the Iraqis I knew on the base. I never found out what happened to Kasim. I can still see him with a giddy smile on his face as he walked from the hospital to the helipad to begin his journey to meet his fiance'e. I get no response from the email addresses I have for him and I've had no word of his whereabouts. I like to think that he is laying low, enjoying a quiet life with his bride, and maybe even a new baby. There are so many Iraqis I met who deserve that peace and happiness.

It's disturbing how the translators were treated. A four-month stint doesn't sound like so long, in the abstract. But, oh how much you missed being involved in the every day details of bringing up your children. I can still picture the toys on top of the trunk that each of them sent along with you. Luckily, you were blessed with an incredibly supportive wife. How much more difficult it must be for troops with less stable situations at home. Would you like to comment on that?

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You have been very insightful to pick up on that: stress at home makes deployment incredibly difficult. And you are also very insightful to pick up on how lucky I am to have Meredith's support. Deployment, like any challenge for a married couple, is like a crucible: it will make the strong ones stronger, and it will burn up the fragile ones. I have seen doctors, nurses, and techs who were staffing the hospital put up with mortars exploding outside the hospital, and patients dying around them without stopping. But, when the attack comes from home, they are laid low.

Even for me, the most difficult times were when there were problems at home, such as one of the boys being ill. That was far worse than tough hours and challenging operations because I was powerless to do anything to help except listen on the phone. It was then I hated deployment the worst. But I survived because Meredith was always so caring and understanding, and I was buoyed up by brothers at the hospital. I did my best to support them too when their turn came. We got each other through it.

I think your book is actually a multi-faceted love story. While it has its grim side, it's a celebration of your love for your wife and children, the troops, your colleagues on the medical staff over there, the injured, and especially the children who are the collateral damage of the war. Would you disagree with my assessment?


Chris and Meredith


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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)
 

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