|November 23, 2004|
My Visit to Landstuhl Army Hospital
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
A friend and I recently returned from Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany and thought you might be interested in our experiences there.
We arrived at the hospitals main entrance in the early afternoon. The main entrance is also the entrance to the Emergency Room. As we were walking from the parking lot to the stairs leading down to the entrance, we saw between 25 - 30 medics standing outside the ER door, drinking coffee and talking on cell phones, their hands covered with either purple or turquoise latex gloves. We also saw about twenty gurneys lined up behind the medics. It was obvious they were expecting casualties.
Suddenly four dark blue buses with white crosses on the front and rear drove up to the ER entrance, followed by a German ambulance. The buses were filled with injured just flown in from Balad, Iraq. One of the buses carried the seriously injured on stretchers, which we could see through the bus windows. We watched as several stretchers were placed on gurneys and wheeled into the ER. Soldiers on the other three buses were, for the most part, able to move about on their own, or on crutches, or to wheelchairs. One soldier stepped out of the bus with a plastic tube in his nose, spitting up blood. Most of the wounds appeared to be legs, arms, hands and feet injuries.
As we watched the scene below, a young enlisted Marine in desert combat fatigues limped toward us. He greeted us, and we asked him how he was doing. He said he was okay and explained that hed been hit by shrapnel from a Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) while in Fallujah, and that there was damage to the tendon and ligaments in his calf. He told us that after his unit had taken control of a bridge and Fallujahs hospital, theyd started taking fire. Hed jumped behind a concrete barrier, but not before the shrapnel penetrated his leg. He was loaded quickly onto a helicopter and sent to Balad, where the Army doctors removed the shrapnel and flew him to Landstuhl. He showed us his bandaged lower leg inside an unlaced boot, the wound seeping a bit because it couldnt be stitched; it had to heal from the inside out. He told us that the flight from Balad to Ramstein, Germany took about five hours and was not enjoyable. He said that soldiers on his plane had been given painkillers to help get them through the jolts of the flight.
The Marine was eager to talk and answer questions, especially when he found out that my friend was a Vietnam veteran. He said that the Vietnam War must have been hell, and that he considered everyone in that war to be a hero. My friend said he thought the Iraq War was much worse because it was being waged as an urban conflict in too close proximity to the civilian population. The Marine then told us that the insurgents didnt "fight fair." They hid inside buildings, took shots from rooftops, threw down their weapons and ran away to blend in as civilian non-combatants when the fighting got tough.
Before being wounded, the Marine said that his unit had captured over thirty insurgents and confiscated over 350 weapons of various types, specifically mentioning AK-47s and RPGs. He said that after the Marines captured prisoners, they turned them over to the Army, and the Army brought them to Abu Ghraib. We asked the Marine about Iraqi casualties. He shrugged and said that civilian casualties were unfortunate but couldnt be helped and added that his unit had already suffered twelve deaths. We asked him if he thought the DoD had enough "boots on the ground." He said he thought there were probably enough. We told him hed been through a lot for someone so young. He said he really didnt like to talk about it much. Yet, he continued to talk about his experience, and we told him it was probably psychologically healthy for him to do so. He then added that the stress level was pretty high because it was hard to get good sleep in the field with all the noise, that everybody was on the edge and that many of his buddies were having nightmares.
We asked the Marine if his unit had been able to vote, and he said they had been provided absentee ballots. We asked if he had a sense of whom most of the Marines had voted for. He said, enthusiastically, "Yeah, Bush, because Bush understands the war and has given the military money and soldiers increased pay." I asked him if the Marines ever got to read the militarys Stars and Stripes, (which had published several articles and editorials critical of Bush and his lack of funding support for the military). He said, "Yeah, but not very often." He explained that his unit had been out in the field most of the time and had only occasionally received the Marines newspaper. His unit had been able to bathe only infrequently during the past several months and ate only Meals Ready to Eat (MREs); there was almost no access to current news.
My friend asked him when it was all going to end. The Marine said that the troops were accomplishing a lot in Iraq, "doing some good things," but that as soon as an uprising was put down in one area, another hot spot flared up somewhere else; there was no end in sight. He said that the only concern he and his unit had was for watching each others back, staying alive, and making sure they all returned home safely. He said he wanted to return to Iraq to help out his buddies. We asked him if he needed anything, money for phone calls, clothes, food, etc. He politely declined and said that the military was meeting his needs. The wounded had been given a $250 voucher to buy civilian clothes at the Base Exchange before their flight back to the U.S. We wished him well, reminded him to write his mom and dad, and went into the hospital for lunch.
We entered the ER area. Gurneys and wheelchairs were being rolled out of Admissions and down the long corridors. Soldiers who could move on their own were given directions where to eat. We followed behind several going to the cafeteria. After wed paid for our food, my friend led me to a table where an Army Blackhawk medivac helicopter pilot was eating. He had a non-combat injury and was headed back to the States for treatment. We asked him how things were going, and he quietly told us that there were a lot of casualties. We asked him if he thought there were enough soldiers in Iraq to handle the situation, and he said, "This is just my personal opinionNO." He told us he had seven more years before he could retire, and that the rest of his career would probably involve being rotated in and out of Iraq on alternating years. US presidents from Bush Sr. to Bush Jr. had downsized the army, and now the US was paying the price, fighting a multi-front war with too few troops. He said that without the Reserve and Guard units, wed be sunk. We asked him how morale was faring. He said he thought it was okay among the enlisted ranks, but that the Reserve/Guard units were, for the most part, not very happy. We asked him how he thought it was all going to end. He said it would take quite a while longer but that we were doing some good things there and that he was hoping for the best.
The cafeteria was now closing, the wheelchair patients on IVs were leaving, along with everyone else, so we headed to the Snack Bar down the hall for a cup of coffee. After buying our coffee, we sat next to a Reservist in a wheelchair, his foot wrapped in bandages. His injury was non-combat related, and he was headed to the States to undergo physical therapy. He said he hoped he wouldnt have to return to Iraq again, that he just wanted to get back to his family and his job. He said all of Iraq was very dangerous. His Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) was ground transportation.
My friend and I then drove to Ramstein Air Base, 15 minutes north of Landstuhl. After going through security, we went upstairs and saw several cargo planes and a commercially leased jetliner on the tarmac. As we were trying to determine which planes were C-5s and which were C-141s, a retired veteran approached us and said, under his breath, that there had been several casualties brought in that day. He complained that the caskets hadnt even been met by an Honor Guard but rather, were unceremoniously stacked on pallets and left on the tarmac to be redirected elsewhere. Just then, the mans MAC flight was called, and he left us before we could talk to him further.
Later, a retired Vietnam veteran approached us, who also confided that Ramstein Air Base was receiving several casualties, almost daily. He said that the day before wed arrived, approximately 20 flag-draped caskets were resting on the tarmac. He said that if we were to stay another day, we would see more caskets waiting to be transported to Landstuhl Army Hospital to be prepared before being sent stateside, to Dover. He was disgusted with the war in Iraq and asked, "What are we there for? Did we not learn anything from Vietnam? What a hell of a mess that war was. We refused to listen to France's warning about going into Vietnam. It's unlikely we've learned anything from the USSR's ten year quagmire in Afghanistan." He was very knowledgeable about the US preemptive strike against Iraq and was highly critical of the Bush administration. He thought the leadership at the Pentagon was dismal and its planning poor. He thought Bushs go-it-alone foreign policy was reckless and his coalition weak, that coalition members offered no substantial support, and now it was unraveling, with coalition countries evaporating in the heat of conflict. He predicted that if the Bush administration has its way, the US would be invading Iran next. He couldnt see an end in sight. He told us that none of the 9-11 perpetrators was from Iraq, that most had been Saudis, and that the Bush family was a business partner of the Bin Laden family. He spoke, with disgust, about Diebold Election Systems, and that he believed the election had been stolen. He told us that the only news media he could tolerate anymore was the BBC.
We left the MAC Terminal and went to the Base Exchange. We saw several wounded soldiers pushing shopping carts full of clothing, spending their $250 voucher in one fell swoop (a "use it now or lose it" deal). Some soldiers were limping, and some had hands wrapped with thick gauze.
Outside the BX we overheard a young man, dressed in oversized civilian clothing and a baseball cap worn backwards, talking to his friends about girls who could out-drink him. He was a 21-year-old soldier from the 1st Armored Division out of Baumholder. He told us that his Division had returned from Iraq a few months ago, after being stationed there for sixteen straight months. He said the 1AD was scheduled to return to Iraq in November 2005. We asked him how he felt about the prospect of returning, and he said he wanted to go back because he could make more money and be with his buddies. He said lower enlisted soldiers didnt earn very much, but in Iraq, combat pay boosted salaries an extra $1,000 a month. We asked him if he had ever worked with any Kellogg, Brown and Root contractors (Halliburton). He said he had, and that they were okay, but that they typically made about $10,000 per month doing the exact same work as the active duty soldiers, and that the active duty soldiers often had to teach the contractors how to do their job. "Busting tires" was the example he gave.
This soldier also said that when he had returned to the States after his first tour of duty in Iraq, his fiancé, and even his family, had told him hed changed, that hed become "more cautious." His fiancé eventually ended their relationship because of his changed behavior. We reminded him that he was young, that there would be other women in his future and that, hopefully, better times were ahead.
A BUZZFLASH READER CONTRIBUTION
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