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Injured Troops Look for Courage, Face Fears

Amid Traumatized Marines, Field Hospital Staff Prepares for Possible Fallujah Offensive

By Jackie Spinner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 5, 2004; Page A18

NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq, Nov. 4 -- He wants to get back into the fight, but Dennis Astor has to first work up the courage to go outside by himself at night.

"That's the only thing that bothers me," said the 22-year-old U.S. Navy hospital corpsman 3rd class, who was injured five days ago when a suicide bomber blew up next to his military convoy, killing eight Marines and injuring nine others. "I'm just afraid my friends are going to pop up outside, and I'll see them, see my dead friends."


Dennis Astor, 22, received second degree burns when a suicide bomber attacked his military convoy on Oct. 30, killing eight and injuring nine. (Jackie Spinner -- The Washington Post)

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Astor, a medic with the Marine Battalion Landing Team 13 based in Kaneohe, Hawaii, was recuperating Thursday in a ward of the Bravo Surgical Company hospital at a Marine outpost not far from where his convoy was attacked.

While two of his injured platoon members played a video game, "Ghost Recon," Astor, a slight sailor with a baby face pocked with scabs, stretched out on a cot, his radio tuned to a U.S. music station. His left arm, with second-degree burns, was cradled in a green sling and his forehead was stitched where doctors had removed a piece of shrapnel.

"I think there might still be a piece in there," Astor said, rubbing his index finger across the stitches.

Like the rest of the Marine outpost, this field hospital is preparing for a potential battle in Fallujah, which insurgents have controlled for six months. A few days ago, Marines unloaded racks of body bags, and the staff at the hospital has more than doubled so it can handle one of the few near certainties in any upcoming operation: There will be casualties.

The hospital has three operating rooms to handle the wounded and a mortuary affairs unit that handles those killed in action. "Wounded and angels coming in," said Cmdr. Loch Noyes, a general surgeon at the hospital. "That's our abbreviation."

On a busy day, the hospital handles nearly 30 casualties, including Iraqi civilians and insurgents who are wounded in clashes with American forces. Doctors expect the number to double during an offensive, said Capt. Eric Lovell, an emergency medicine physician.

Unfortunately, he said, "if we build it, they will come, and we're building for it."

On Thursday afternoon, medics brought in two Marines and an American photographer who were injured when a roadside bomb blew up as their light armored vehicle passed during a patrol near Fallujah. None of the injuries was life-threatening.

The photographer, Stephanie Kuykendal, 28, of St. Louis, who was working for Corbis, a photo agency, was the first journalist injured in the lead-up to the possible offensive. Kuykendal, whose photographs have appeared in The Washington Post, was embedded with a Marine unit when the attack occurred. She was injured in her face and mouth and evacuated by helicopter to a military hospital in Baghdad. The Marines, whose identities were withheld by the military, suffered burns.

Noyes, the surgeon, said doctors at the field hospital mostly do "damage control."

"We do what we can to stop the bleeding," he said. "All we're trying to do is stop them from dying."

The stress can take its toll, doctors and nurses at the hospital said. But "there is a job to be done," Noyes added.


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