Within the first hour of our return to the main military hospital in Baghdad on Sunday, a U.S. Army unit that had been patrolling streets nearby rushed in. The medical staff declared one soldier dead in the emergency room from head trauma and rushed to treat two other soldiers who survived with severe wounds to the abdomen and legs. The injuries were from a roadside bomb, an improvised explosive device (IED), which had struck their vehicle.
We took no pictures. The soldiers accompanying their stricken comrades were far too upset, some were weeping.
A few minutes later two Blackhawk MEDEVAC helicopters landed with Iraqi victims of another IED attack that had blasted a bus. Two men were dead while a 1-year-old baby and her mother survived. In addition to the massive trauma, mother and child seemed to have suffered some kind of lung damage. The medical staff guessed it might be from chlorine, although they could not immediately confirm a diagnosis.
In January, when I was last here, insurgents launched the first chemical bomb attack. They added swimming pool chemicals to explosives causing severely scarred lungs in 60 Iraqi police officers. There is no way to treat such lung damage. Doctors can only give the patients oxygen and watch to see whether they heal or die.
Almost eerily calm
Despite these events at the beginning of our return to the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad's "Green Zone," the fortress-like enclave, the staff here say the past few weeks have been calm – eerily so, in fact.
At the beginning of the so-called "surge" of troops earlier this year, U.S. causalities increased sharply. At the same time, the numbers rounds of mortars and rockets crashing into the Green Zone climbed sharply. When we were here in January it would be normal to hear two or three mortar attacks every day. Soon after the surge began they became much more frequent and accurate – some landing near the hospital. In July one attack killed Maria Ortiz, a warm, expansive Army Captain, and injured another nurse as they were walking back to the hospital from the gym.
But in the past few weeks, the rockets and mortars have almost stopped along with the incoming causalities. I have not heard a single one in two days.
Is it success from the surge or are the attackers holding their fire, awaiting the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus along with so many others? Or could the fury resume with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a few days?
One way or another, the brave, dedicated medical staff of the 28th Combat Support Hospital have just completed one year of their deployment. But they face another five-month extension along with so many other troops – and they are certainly not relaxing.