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The Lasting Wounds of War

Roadside Bombs Have Devastated Troops and Doctors Who Treat Them

By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, April 27, 2004; Page A01

BAGHDAD -- The soldiers were lifted into the helicopters under a moonless sky, their bandaged heads grossly swollen by trauma, their forms silhouetted by the glow from the row of medical monitors laid out across their bodies, from ankle to neck.

An orange screen atop the feet registered blood pressure and heart rate. The blue screen at the knees announced the level of postoperative pressure on the brain. On the stomach, a small gray readout recorded the level of medicine pumping into the body. And the slender plastic box atop the chest signaled that a respirator still breathed for the lungs under it.

Staff at the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, move a patient into position for a CT scan. (Dana Smillie For The Washington Post)

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At the door to the busiest hospital in Iraq, a wiry doctor bent over the worst-looking case, an Army gunner with coarse stitches holding his scalp together and a bolt protruding from the top of his head. Lt. Col. Jeff Poffenbarger checked a number on the blue screen, announced it dangerously high and quickly pushed a clear liquid through a syringe into the gunner's bloodstream. The number fell like a rock.

"We're just preparing for something a brain-injured person should not do two days out, which is travel to Germany," the neurologist said. He smiled grimly and started toward the UH-60 Black Hawk thwump-thwumping out on the helipad, waiting to spirit out of Iraq one more of the hundreds of Americans wounded here this month.

While attention remains riveted on the rising count of Americans killed in action -- more than 100 so far in April -- doctors at the main combat support hospital in Iraq are reeling from a stream of young soldiers with wounds so devastating that they probably would have been fatal in any previous war.

More and more in Iraq, combat surgeons say, the wounds involve severe damage to the head and eyes -- injuries that leave soldiers brain damaged or blind, or both, and the doctors who see them first struggling against despair.

For months the gravest wounds have been caused by roadside bombs -- improvised explosives that negate the protection of Kevlar helmets by blowing shrapnel and dirt upward into the face. In addition, firefights with guerrillas have surged recently, causing a sharp rise in gunshot wounds to the only vital area not protected by body armor.

The neurosurgeons at the 31st Combat Support Hospital measure the damage in the number of skulls they remove to get to the injured brain inside, a procedure known as a craniotomy. "We've done more in eight weeks than the previous neurosurgery team did in eight months," Poffenbarger said. "So there's been a change in the intensity level of the war."

Numbers tell part of the story. So far in April, more than 900 soldiers and Marines have been wounded in Iraq, more than twice the number wounded in October, the previous high. With the tally still climbing, this month's injuries account for about a quarter of the 3,864 U.S. servicemen and women listed as wounded in action since the March 2003 invasion.

About half the wounded troops have suffered injuries light enough that they were able to return to duty after treatment, according to the Pentagon.

The others arrive on stretchers at the hospitals operated by the 31st CSH. "These injuries," said Lt. Col. Stephen M. Smith, executive officer of the Baghdad facility, "are horrific."

By design, the Baghdad hospital sees the worst. Unlike its sister hospital on a sprawling air base located in Balad, north of the capital, the staff of 300 in Baghdad includes the only ophthalmology and neurology surgical teams in Iraq, so if a victim has damage to the head, the medevac sets out for the facility here, located in the heavily fortified coalition headquarters known as the Green Zone.

Once there, doctors scramble. A patient might remain in the combat hospital for only six hours. The goal is lightning-swift, expert treatment, followed as quickly as possible by transfer to the military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.

While waiting for what one senior officer wearily calls "the flippin' helicopters," the Baghdad medical staff studies photos of wounds they used to see once or twice in a military campaign but now treat every day. And they struggle with the implications of a system that can move a wounded soldier from a booby-trapped roadside to an operating room in less than an hour.

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