Whenever I sit down to write something, the stories usually just seem to write themselves but that's not happening here so I guess I'm just gonna have to grind this one out the hard way -- with elbow grease. This is going to be a two-part story. Part one involves my tour of a Marine combat support hospital (CSH) at the Al Asad airbase in western Iraq. And both you and me will have to wait and see what Part 2 is going to be about.
Last October, I had e-mailed another reporter about how things seemed to be going really peacefully over here in Anbar province.
"Don't just naively believe everything that you hear, Jane," he e-mailed me back. "Before you go getting all mushy and teary-eyed about how well things are going over in Anbar, take a look at the airbase's combat support hospital -- where they bring in the casualties. When I was there this summer, all the beds were filled up with seriously injured soldiers and they lined the corridors too. Check it out."
"Well, sure," replied the airbase's public affairs officer. "When would you like to go? Would tomorrow be okay?" Yeah, I guess. So the next morning I stolidly set off to visit the CSH hospital -- totally prepared for the worst.
"If you had come here last summer," said the doctor in charge, "you would have seen every bed in the ICU taken and people sleeping on the floor of the operating room as well. But now? We only have 13 patients currently and most of them are Iraqis. It's been this way since September." Oh yeah? Then prove it. So we went on a tour.
"Soldiers arrive at the CSH by helicopter except when there's a sandstorm and then they are ground-evaced," continued the doctor. "Casualties first go to the triage tent where they are resuscitated and stabilized and then are sent off to Balad, Kuwait or Longsteul in Germany for further treatment if necessary. We try to med-evac them within three days. Combat wounds are usually evacuated. And this is also where we send the Angels off to Germany." The Angels? Oh. Dead soldiers.
Then the doctor showed me their MRI machine. "IED injuries usually involve concussions. We use this in order to diagnose them more accurately." I went through one of those machines once when some doctor thought I had Altzheimers. I didn't have Altzheimers, however. I'm just eccentric.
"And over here is our 12-bed ICU, with a full-time intensive care staff." All 12 beds were empty.
"And here is our general surgical ward. 20 beds." I saw a couple of Iraqis and their families and also one American soldier. Aha. At last. A casualty of war!
"What are you in here for, soldier?" I asked. IED concussion? Shrapnel removal? Bullet wound?
"They treating you well here, soldier?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Hmmm. The food did look good....