Eng. 1113 Sec. 325
6 October 2015
The Surviving Casualties of War
It was late January 2009, in Balad, Iraq, and it was also day 7 of my 180-day Air Force deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. After almost a week in country, I felt like I was finally getting acclimated to my new job as an oral surgery technician working with a head and neck trauma team at the largest U.S. military hospital in the Middle East. The jet lag and work pace were the biggest adjustments to overcome. It was a 9-hour difference from my home station at Keesler AFB, Mississippi, and I was scheduled to work at the hospital during the day from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. while also being on call 24/7 in case of emergencies. The days were slow, but the nights were really busy, and almost every day right around dusk, we would get the call at the hospital that a group of Blackhawk helicopters were heading our way with multiple injured people aboard.
These injured people we treated were U.S. soldiers, enemy suspects, and local civilians. Our job was to triage and treat all injuries in the order of most severe, regardless of the type of person who sustained it. Whenever these Blackhawk helicopters arrived filled with wounded people, all hospital personnel rushed to the emergency room area to help expedite the triage process. To the untrained eye, the sight of this large group of military medics working in tight quarters would be perceived as chaotic. It was fast paced and stressful, but it was not chaotic; we had all been through rigorous, specialized training for many months prior to our deployment. I had been trained to focus on the technical aspects of trauma to the human body, rather than focus on the shock and emotions that can overcome an individual when faced with human suffering, or so I thought.
Most of my time during the first six days in Balad was spent in an operating room assisting in procedures to repair wounds like burns, gunshots, and skull/jaw fractures, which was all routine and expected in our situation. But, it wasn’t until the end of my seventh day there that I was able to truly understand the magnitude and importance of the work we were doing in that hospital.
We had just completed another day of scheduled work when we got the notification that three helicopters were in-bound and carrying multiple casualties. As usual, I quickly made my way to the emergency room alongside the rest of the hospital staff, where I anxiously awaited the arrival of the wounded. Those moments just before the patients arrived reminded me of a calm before a storm; no one was engaging in conversation because we were all trying to predict or imagine the details of the disaster we were about to encounter. Moments later the first chopper arrived with five patients who were quickly transported to the emergency room from the helipad about 300 yards away. All five patients were U.S. soldiers; I could tell because of their uniforms and because they...