Injured troops return to American hospitals

High-tech transportation enables fast homecoming

War In Iraq

April 01, 2003|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The first U.S. troops injured on a battlefield a-half-a-world away are back on American soil - their wounds, and memories, still fresh.

"I told my squad to get out, I told them to be careful, I told them to stay a little bit behind me, keep their heads down, just do what I do and they'd be all right," Marine Cpl. Brent Gross recalled from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda yesterday, his leg heavily bandaged as he sat in a wheelchair. "It's a good thing they didn't, though, because I took three steps and stepped on a land mine."

At the Naval Medical Center, another Marine described getting shot three times in his arms and foot while trying to escape an ambush; a third recounted smashing a glass window with his rifle in enemy territory and severing six tendons in his left wrist.

The first American casualties in the war with Iraq have begun their recovery at the crown jewels of the nation's military hospitals - the Bethesda naval hospital and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. Fourteen Marines and a Navy corpsman are recuperating at the naval hospital, with two listed in intensive care. Another influx of Marines was expected to arrive there last night.

Five soldiers spent the weekend recovering from war injuries at Walter Reed, arriving there from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany late last week. Two of the wounded were wheeled into the hospital on gurneys; others made the trip with different limbs in casts, taking careful steps in their hospital pajamas.

The swift shipment of the wounded out of the war zone reflects a new Pentagon strategy: Medical experts say the Defense Department is relying more than ever on sophisticated flying intensive care units installed on military transport planes to move the wounded away from the battlefield, taking them straight from the edges of the front to military hospitals in Germany or the United States.

Defense analysts call this a safer and more cost-effective way of handling the wounded once they are stabilized, a shift from the 1991 Persian Gulf war, when U.S. casualties were placed in large hospitals built on the edges of the war zone.

"This is the first war in which we've been able to move really sick or injured people very far," said Dale Smith, a medical history professor at the Uniformed Services University, a Defense Department medical school in Bethesda. "The real issue is transportability. We don't have as many hospitals on the ground now as we did in 1991. These flying intensive care units can take you where you need to go."

In the event of massive battlefield injuries or casualties from a biological or chemical attack, the military is relying on the 1,000-bed USNS Comfort, a Baltimore-based Navy hospital ship with 12 operating rooms now floating off the coast of Bahrain.

Not all the wounded are on their way home. Some of the victims of gunshot wounds and explosions have not left the U.S. military hospital in Landstuhl after arriving there from Kuwait. There, a handful of severely injured troops arrived on ventilators before surgery enabled them to breathe on their own.

But some American casualties are headed to military hospitals back home that specialize in treating war injuries - skin burned by explosions, amputations caused by mine blasts and rocket explosions, internal injuries from shrapnel.

The war, for these troops, is over.

Cpl. Gross, a 26-year-old native of Austin, Texas, stepped on a mine while trying to advance his men near oil fields in southern Iraq on March 21. Doctors told him he would walk again, but his injuries would require skin and bone grafts. It could take a year to recover, he said, complaining about never making it back to the battlefield.

"I believe I need to be out there with my unit," he said. "I've got a squad out there to lead, and I've got a squad out there to protect, and I promised them that I'd bring them all back alive, and now I'm not there to make sure that promise is kept."

Like Gross, the other men who spoke at the Bethesda naval hospital yesterday were all based at Camp Pendleton in California, members of the 1st Marine Division.

On the first day of the ground war, Lance Cpl. Joel Norman, a Chicago area native, was checking government buildings for enemy troops in southern Iraq when he came across a metal door he couldn't open. He smashed the door's window and severed tendons.

"To see if there was any enemy threat inside, I broke the window out and when I did that some glass fell on my wrist," Norman said. The 20-year-old, who joined the Marines just over a year-and-a-half ago, was on his first overseas tour.

Lt. Col. John Ewers, 43, a military lawyer, described trying to find the father of a wounded Iraqi boy in the southern reaches of the country when rocket-propelled grenades flew past and then a burst of small arms fire erupted around him. That day, March 22, Ewers and fellow Marines tried to work their way out of the ambush, but at each turn he was shot - first in his right arm, then his left arm, then his foot.

"I think I was probably surprised a little bit about the intensity of the attack," said Ewers, a Bethesda native and a 19-year Marine Corps veteran. "It seemed like a pretty organized attack in an area we really didn't expect an organized attack."

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