For Iraqi Soldiers, A Medical Morass

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 6, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Mohammed Mizher Massen was a different man on the morning of Feb. 21. His muscles filled out his Iraqi army uniform. His posture radiated the confidence of a soldier who had helped capture insurgents. And his heart swelled: In a few hours, after his unit finished its shift guarding a Baghdad construction project, he was going to propose to his girlfriend.

Then the bomb in a cooking oil can on the roadside blew up, shredding his left leg and marking him with a constellation of shrapnel.

Now 1st Sgt. Massen, 22, is a one-legged man whose brothers carry him from his bed, where he has dreams of loud explosions, to his computer, where he researches prosthetic legs. He spends his $460 monthly soldier's salary on the $3,400 in medical expenses that he has accrued.

As the U.S. military prepares for an eventual handover of security duties to Iraqi forces, more of Iraq's 120,000 soldiers are advancing to the front lines of the war, and more are being wounded. But because there are no Iraqi military hospitals, thousands have been left to the mercy of overtaxed and corrupt civilian hospitals and a military compensation system paralyzed by red tape and disorganization, according to soldiers, family members, doctors and military officials. Many, feeling abandoned, turn to their families for help.

"I was fighting and going into combat missions for three years. When I was wounded, I was thrown out to my house," said Massen, a baby-faced man who slumped over a table, eyes downcast, during an interview at a Baghdad restaurant. "They did not provide me crutches or a wheelchair. They provided me with nothing."

Iraq's Defense Ministry has recorded 3,700 injured soldiers since the war began, but officials say the true figure is probably double that. The Congressional Research Service estimates that more than 33,000 Iraqi security force members -- about two-fifths of whom are soldiers -- were wounded by late April 2006. Last year, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Iraqi forces were wounded at about twice the rate of American troops. About 25,000 U.S. soldiers had been injured as of this May 1, according to the Department of Defense.

U.S. military officials who work with the Defense Ministry say Iraq's capacity to care for its troops has greatly improved but remains hampered by its reliance on public hospitals, which deteriorated under economic sanctions in the 1990s.

Though Iraqis fight alongside Americans, their destinies diverge upon injury. Wounded U.S. soldiers are typically flown within one day to a first-class military hospital in Germany and arrive within 72 hours at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where amputees receive extensive rehabilitation and prosthetic limbs at a cost to taxpayers of $58,000 to $157,000 per soldier, according to a 2006 study by the American Enterprise Institute-Brookings Institution.

Decent military hospitals existed under Saddam Hussein, but they were looted during the war and their doctors fled. So while some seriously injured Iraqi soldiers now receive initial treatment at sophisticated U.S. military facilities in Iraq, they must recover in public hospitals where medicines and highly trained staff are scarce. There is one military prosthetics clinic in the country, little in the way of mental health services and no burn center.

"U.S. soldiers have access to rehab and prosthetics that are obviously better than what Iraqis have," said Maj. Brian Krakover, 32, emergency room physician at the U.S. military hospital in Baghdad's Green Zone. "It really makes the sacrifice that these guys make so significant, knowing that if they get hurt they don't have the potential future that, say, a 20-year-old U.S. soldier who gets his legs blown off would have. They are really sticking their necks out here."

While several aid organizations focus on the civilian victims of Iraq's violence, none has stood up for injured soldiers.

"No one is paying attention, unfortunately," said Said Arikat, a spokesman for the United Nations in Baghdad.

CONTINUED     1           >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company