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."
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.
"We don't make policy," he said. "We take care of patients who walk through our doorstep. Sometimes it brings tears to our eyes. But that doesn't help the patient."
Lovell, the emergency physician, said a rocket hit the Marine outpost six hours after he arrived to join the hospital in August. "The first day they missed me," he said, then dropped his voice and added, "They didn't miss someone."
In a back ward at the hospital, doctors and nurses have kept together the platoon members injured in the ambush last Saturday. Marine Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict, 28, of West Milford, N.J., whose face and arm were burned, said some of the injured were having nightmares. The events are hard to forget, he said.
The unit had been in Iraq only two weeks when it was hit.
"It was a bad day," he said. "We had no losses before that."
The platoon was riding in the middle of a truck, sitting back to back on sandbags, a protective measure against an attack.
Benedict said he didn't see the bomber and only remembered hearing a loud noise and then looking to his right where a column of Marines had been sitting. "There wasn't anybody else," he said. "There was just smoke."
As soon as the car bomb exploded, insurgents began firing weapons and rockets at the convoy, he said. The heat from the truck began setting off ammunition and mortar rounds in the packs on the truck.
Benedict said the attack was clearly coordinated between the bomber and fighters hiding in the fields off the road.
"There were a lot of hard lessons learned," he said. "We know the tactics and techniques used by the insurgents. We're more alert to our enemies hiding among the locals. I think that's why everyone was mad at first. There was no way" the locals did not know what was going on.
But Benedict said if the unit took part in an offensive on Fallujah, they would not seek revenge on the city's residents.
"We know you can't get angry with the locals, the regular people who want freedoms," he said. "It's the insurgents."
Benedict said the unit was eager to return to duty and to whatever operation that might be planned for Fallujah.
"We're anxious to get back and go back in," he said. "Nobody wants to remain here."
Astor said he knew he would probably be left behind because his burns were not healing fast enough.
"It's hard to get over it, but you just have to," he said. His buddies from his unit come to visit at the hospital and Astor said he tells them he is fine. But "deep inside, every now and then you still see the faces of your dead friends."