As I have written here before the men and women who provide the medical care for U.S. and Iraqi wounded do a fantastic job. But on this trip I can see the strain brought on by the prolonged deployment, the extra five months.
I'm in the Ibn Sina hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone, a decent facility built by Saddam Hussein for friends and family. The 28th Combat Support Hospital (CSH or "cash" in military speak), out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., currently staffs it. Combat Support Hospitals are like other numbered Army units with a home base. When this group leaves, the hospital will have a different number when the next CSH takes over.
On Friday, the 28th will have been here exactly 365 days. When they arrived they thought they would be flying home that day, but like so many units, they got extended. (That is the nurses, medics and support staff. Most physicians stay six months, but get deployed more often). The extension is one of the hardest things these dedicated people have had to endure.
Change of plans
Maj. William White, the head nurse in the ER, remembers the day they got the news. "It was devastating. A lot of us were really planning on going home to our families," he said
Lt. Col. Sharon Williams, the chief nurse for the operating room, promised her three sons aged 7, 9 and 12 that she would be home for their first day of school.
"Your family holds on to that," she told me. "And when you don't meet that goal, you have to go back and tell them 'OK, I'm not going to be there when you start school.' It's almost like do they have faith in what you're saying?"
Stories like that are the norm with the unit. Many mothers and fathers are missing the first years of babies' lives. Strained marriages are hardly uncommon.
And while everyone of the medical staff is quick to point out that the infantry out on patrol have it tougher, caring for so many mangled bodies is certainly stressful.
"It gets old fast. It gets real old," said Maj. Bruce Matthews, an operating room nurse. "I don't think you ever get used to it. You just deal with it. It's definitely a long time, no doubt about that, every day non-stop."
It will be non-stop for another unexpected five months.