COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – In Baghdad’s Green Zone, soldiers from Fort Carson’s 10th Combat Support Hospital are surrounded by opulence and Babylonian beauty, from swimming pools to the villas of Iraq’s deposed rulers.
They get few chances to enjoy Saddam Hussein’s former playground. The war raging outside the 4-square-mile compound keeps intruding.
“This is the busiest trauma center in Iraq,” Col. Dennis Doyle said in a telephone interview from the hospital where his soldiers are caring for wounded, who sometimes come in dozens at a time.
Most patients seen by the 10th’s doctors and nurses are the victims of roadside bombs or car bombs, the weapons most often used by insurgents.
As their tactics moved from directly attacking Americans, the mix of patients at the Army hospital has changed, too. More than half of the wounded are Iraqis, either the civilian victims of the bombings or members of that nation’s growing police and military forces.
Lt. Col. John Golds is a nurse who evaluates the patients as they arrive.
“You couldn’t see anything like it in the United States,” he said of the wounds, comparing them to what a person might suffer getting hit by a bus or train.
In the professional terms of the hospital, the injuries are classified as multiple trauma. It’s a combination of bleeding shrapnel wounds, damaged organs and broken bones that come along with often-severe burns.
Golds said many of the younger soldiers in the unit, on their first war tour, have been shocked by what they’ve seen since arriving in Iraq last fall.
“Seeing people their own age getting injured and killed was a sobering experience,” Golds said.
Doyle said the soldiers were faced with “mass casualty” events within days of their arrival in Iraq and quickly adapted.
“The trauma they see, they handle so professionally and so calmly,” he said.
The unit’s soldiers work 12-hour shifts that often run hours longer. Some doctors have gone two days or more with just a few naps to keep them on their feet.
They got specialized training from the Army that helps them treat combat wounds, but no training has made them ready for the realities of Iraq.
“You worry you’re getting too hardened because you don’t have the time to get emotionally attached to patients,” said 1st Lt. Kara Beattie, a nurse.
She said it’s all business when casualties arrive, with doctors and nurses rushing to keep the patients alive.
Americans make up about 40 percent of the patients, and the hospital’s job is to stabilize them to ensure they can be flown to more sophisticated medical facilities in Germany. Most of those patients return to the United States within days of arriving at the 10th’s hospital.
Iraqis, including some children, stay longer. Working though interpreters, the doctors treat them before they’re sent to local hospitals.
The hospital has also treated several insurgents injured in battle. Beattie said the insurgents, while kept under guard, are treated like any other patient. She said they appear to be surprised and grateful for the care they receive.
The American patients leave the deepest impressions on the doctors and nurses.
Beattie said she’ll always remember a Marine who arrived at the hospital missing three limbs. He was conscious despite the severe injury.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Just another day at the office, ma’am,'” Beattie said.