The doctor is a lieutenant colonel serving with U.S. Special Operations forces, and under the ground rules for my four-day trip to Syria in February, I’m not allowed to use her name. She’s a trim, clear-eyed woman who speaks with a soft, firm voice and a conviction about her work that melts your heart when you listen to her talk.
The lieutenant colonel tries to put broken bodies back together, all day, every day. When I spoke with her, she was the only experienced trauma surgeon in the region, which meant all the worst cases came to her. She described operating on all four limbs of some severely wounded Syrians. She recalled one especially horrible day when nine injured children were brought into her operating room at the same time.
Her patients are almost all Syrian civilians, people who have been maimed by hidden IEDs and bombs as they tried to return to their homes after Raqqa was liberated last October in a bloody, house-to-house fight by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and their American allies. The lieutenant colonel says that a dozen times a week, she treats people who are at “death’s door
” but she points out that she is able to save 95 percent of her patients.
And here’s the most striking fact: This military surgeon is grateful for the chance to be in Syria, to help put the people and their country back together. “In the States, if I didn’t show up for my job, someone else would do it. Doing what you’ve been trained to do, and contributing to something greater than yourself, is very important. It’s an honor for us to be here.”
The lieutenant colonel is part of the Syria mission that President Trump seems determined to end. Reflecting on the surgeon and the scores of other U.S. soldiers I’ve met during three trips to Syria since 2016, I can’t help thinking that there’s something about this mission — which has been low cost and high success, according to commanders — that Trump doesn’t understand.
So before U.S. forces start coming home, here are a few portraits from my notebook, sketched during my trip to Syria two months ago.
Let’s start with the on-the-ground commander of U.S. forces inside Syria. He’s been working with the Syrian Kurds for nearly four years, since the battle for Kobane
in October 2014. U.S. commanders saw that the Kurds were ready to fight and die against the Islamic State. What emerged was a brotherhood of battle.
The commander is driving our vehicle along a rutted track near a front-line position outside Manbij, in northern Syria. He seems to know every curve and bump in the road, and he speaks Arabic, too. He has lived this war. When I ask how the pieces of the Syria puzzle will ultimately fit, eventually, he responds: “There’s not a military answer to that question.”
We’re at the berm at the eastern front, near Shaddadi; Islamic State forces are hidden about two miles away. U.S. and SDF troops man a simple, makeshift fortification, topped by an observation post shielded by a tin roof and Oriental carpets. Down below are two trenches to stop car bombs.
Walking away, I talk to a sergeant major who’s traveling here with one of the commanders. He’s older than most of the other soldiers, who joke that it is dangerous to be near him, because he’s a bullet magnet. He has four Purple Hearts, all earned in Iraq, and six Bronze Stars. I ask how he was wounded. He pauses, scratching his head as if to think. One was a mortar round, another was a hand grenade, a third was hand-to-hand combat when he was attacked by a man dressed like a woman, a fourth was when he was shot while riding in a helicopter.
Why does he keep coming back for deployment after deployment? He pauses, not sure how to answer and then says simply that he is
lucky to serve his country.
I’m flying out of Syria on a C-130 cargo plane. Sitting next to me is a young officer who’s upset to be on that flight, for two reasons. He is going home to see his mother, who’s very ill. And he is leaving his comrades on the battlefield before the fight is over. He hates that last idea. So should we all.