Waving a white flag, the Iraqi parents trudged across a parched field toward the U.S. armored vehicles parked at an abandoned farmhouse near Karbala. Their 3-year-old daughter was dying, they said, her labored breathing coming in rapid, rattling gasps. Could the Army M113 medical vehicle with the big red cross help save the girl's life?
The impoverished Iraqi farming family was soon on its way to an aid station of the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, where Capt. Erik Schobitz took over.
The 30-year-old Fairfax County native and 1990 graduate of Robinson Secondary School reached a quick diagnosis: pneumonia. He administered an oxygen mask, trying to calm the struggling, fearful child as she resisted the strange device. He gave her antibiotics to fight the infection, showed her anxious mother how to use an inhaler to overcome an asthma attack and gave her an intravenous drip.
Before the day was out, Rajwa Rashed was doing better, the crisis averted, her life possibly saved.
As an Army doctor, Schobitz has had plenty of experience dealing with crises. And as a member of the 2nd Brigade, which captured much of Baghdad last week, he has gained much more. He is among the 3rd Battalion soldiers -- including medics -- who are being recommended for medals of valor as the result of a harrowing battle at a key highway junction in southern Baghdad on April 7.
But his real passion is pediatrics. Trained by the Army as a pediatrician, Schobitz aspires to even greater specialization.
"I'm trying to get the Army to let me become a pediatric emergency room doctor," he said. "They just let the first person train this year. I want to be the second."
"The big thing for me in being a pediatrician is that no matter what's wrong with a child, it's not their fault," he said. "It's not because of a lifestyle choice. And the difference I make will last 70 years for some of them."
Schobitz may well have made such a difference this month for Rajwa Rashed, who was kept for observation at his medical aid station for a day, then released when she showed improvement.
"She could have died," Schobitz said afterward. The parents said they were too poor to afford care.
"The total cost of a week's supply of amoxicillin is a dollar," Schobitz said, referring to the antibiotic he administered, along with other medicines, for Rajwa's pneumonia.
While Schobitz was able to help the 3-year-old, there was not much he could do for an Iraqi civilian who was critically injured the day before when the old Land Rover he was riding in along with 15 relatives was destroyed by cannon fire from a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The platoon leader aboard the Bradley, mindful of a suicide car bombing a few days before, thought the packed vehicle was trying to run through his checkpoint.
Ten people died, including five children, and six others survived. But the most critically injured of the survivors had an open skull fracture and died after Schobitz evacuated him to a field hospital.
A week later came the toughest test for Schobitz and his team of medics. At a cloverleaf interchange in southern Baghdad that planners dubbed "Objective Curly" -- Objectives Larry and Moe were farther north -- elements of the 3rd Battalion ran into an ambush.
At the junction of Highways 8 and 5, U.S. soldiers and support personnel came under intense fire from AK-47 assault rifles, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars. For seven hours, the Americans battled an enemy that was constantly reinforcing and trying to penetrate the defenses.
As the rockets, shells and bullets flew, Schobitz treated wounded combatants from both sides. A couple of Special Forces vehicles were set on fire, and the cloverleaf became an inferno. Two U.S. soldiers were killed -- hit by grenades as they approached Curly from the south -- and 11 were wounded.
"It's just amazing that more people didn't die," Schobitz said. He praised the courage of his medics, who carried wounded men to the M113 medical vehicles under fire. "Medics were covering them [the soldiers] with their own bodies," he said. Others said Schobitz was equally courageous.
"Doctor Schobitz was utterly professional treating the wounded," said the battalion chaplain, Capt. Steve Hommel. "I've seen some medics and doctors in that situation kind of lose it. He was calm and professional. He was commanding, organizing the medics and telling them what to do."
Surrounded by enemy fighters, the U.S. troops repelled a final assault, then piled into their remaining vehicles and drove north, deeper into Baghdad, stopping at one of Saddam Hussein's palaces.
The young doctor is the son of Ralph and Linda Schobitz, both 55. He is the director of school food services for the City of Alexandria, and she is a retired Fairfax County government contract employee who worked as a job coach for the mentally and physically disabled . His sister, Laura, 29, is an emergency medical resident physician in Charlotte and his brother, Richard, 27, an interning Army psychologist in Honolulu.
Schobitz lived in the Middle Ridge subdivision near George Mason University in Fairfax County for nine years on and off through college. His parents have since moved to Locust Grove, Va., west of Fredericksburg.
When Schobitz was 3 days old, doctors saved his life by correcting a birth defect in his intestines, his mother said today.
"He grew up knowing that doctors saved his life," she said.
His desire to help others grew through his youth. Even as a student at Robinson Secondary School, Schobitz would pull over whenever he saw a car accident and see whether he could lend a hand, she said.
When he was a senior, Robinson formed a partnership with Fairfax Hospital (now Inova Fairfax Hospital) in an "adopt-a-school" program, Schobitz said.
"I was invited to come to a triage nursery and work with the nurses," he said. "I learned how to do an exam on brand-new babies, and I fell in love with medicine."
A high school valedictorian and varsity swimmer, Schobitz attended the College of William and Mary, then enrolled in Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. After spending his life savings on his first year's tuition, he applied to continue his education under the Army's Health Professionals Scholarship Program.
"I was about to get married to my college sweetheart and didn't want to be in debt," Schobitz said. The program paid for his tuition, health insurance and books, plus a $900-a-month stipend. "For that I owed three years of active duty."
He has now served five years, however, and is considering making the Army a career.
He missed the 32nd birthday last week of his wife, Monique, of Virginia Beach. He also misses his two children, 3-year-old twins Anastasia and Nikulas. The family lives in Hinesville, Ga., near Fort Stewart, home of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Since he was deployed, his parents have heard only sporadically from him. Then, on Thursday, they saw him on MSNBC treating a soldier. Linda Schobitz both wept and laughed as she watched her son order his patient to keep still.
Today brought an even better treat: a call from Erik. He was doing fine. In fact, he was catching up on some paperwork.
"I said, 'Isn't that a nice thing to be doing,' " she said. "It was like he was having a normal day."
Despite the hardships of war, Schobitz said, his service has been "a wonderful experience."
"I think war is a terrible thing, and God willing, it will be over soon. I've grown as a professional and learned quite a few physician skills since I've been out here -- because I've had to."
Staff writer David Cho contributed to this report.