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A day in the life

We've just visited Camp Speicher near Tikrit -- Sadam Hussein's hometown -- as we continue reporting on medical care by the U.S. military. The tent hospital here is now staffed by the 399th Combat Support Hospital (CSH – or "cash" in military speak.) This is a reserve unit out of Boston, mostly Massachusetts folks, followed by many from Ohio and several other states. They tend to be older and less military in their bearing than their full-time Armed Forces colleagues, but they are certainly no different in their fierce dedication to patient care.

We heard this Sunni area was quiet now. It certainly was not during our visit. Many Medivac helicopters landed — some with warning, others with none.

As the CSH medics roll out their stretchers on  big wheels (called "rickshaws") to one of the choppers, the helicopter medic hands over four horribly wounded Iraqi men guarded by four U.S. soldiers.

The doctors, nurses and medics move calmly but very quickly to determine what is wrong. One of the Iraqi's legs is hanging off and he is bleeding massively from internal injuries. The doctors rush him into surgery. Some of the other wounded scream out with moans so loud it is hard for the medical staff to hear each other.

While the life-saving efforts continue, an intelligence specialist starts to determine what happened –- almost never an easy task in these first minutes in the emergency room, but the story emerges.  A U.S. helicopter spotted two men planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) at the side of the road. The men ran away from their own car and hijacked a second car and tried to flee. The helicopter opened fire, hitting the two insurgents and two other men who had been in the hijacked car. The insurgents' abandoned car is full of explosive devices and a video camera to record their planned destruction of U.S. troops. The other two Iraqis seem to be among the many who are simply caught accidentally in the battle.

After the helicopter fired, a team of soldiers called a Quick Reaction Force, arrived on the scene and its medics administered first aid to all four and called for the Medivac helicopter.

In the emergency room at the CSH, the first case is one of the insurgents who is still bleeding so much that surgeons give him 30 units of transfused blood in a matter of minutes – almost depleting the hospital's supply. An urgent call goes out at the base for blood donors and within minutes several dozen U.S. soldiers form a long line. The soldiers are not told who will get the blood, but I ask one what he thinks if it goes to an insurgent. "A life is a life," he replies. "We have an obligation to save him no matter what he did to us."

Not long after, an ambulance from Tikrit arrives with an Iraqi policeman shot in the head by a sniper. The staff struggles to save him, performing CPR,  pushing air into his lungs, and transfusing blood. But after 15 minutes of struggle, the doctor in charge sees large amounts of brain matter flowing out and declares the man "expectant" -– meaning he will die soon. "That is really tough," the doctor tells me later. "These guys are on our side."

Then a call comes in about a U.S. soldier arriving on a helicopter with a "head wound." The staff prepares.  But when the chopper unloads it turns out to be a hip wound, and a mild one at that. Such missed communications are common from the noisy helicopters.

The four men shot by the helicopter are stabilized by the end of the day. The staff relaxes and gives a cake, "homemade" in a bread making machine, to one of the female medics for her 28th birthday. After they sing Happy Birthday, they banter to relieve the tension while they wait for whatever will come in next.