Hospital in Germany first stop for the wounded

Its leader was shot down during first gulf war

November 11, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

LANDSTUHL, Germany - When a squad of dark gray buses pulled up at the U.S. Army hospital here last week, bearing 21 soldiers wounded in an attack on their Chinook helicopter, none of the waiting doctors could identify with the victims quite the way the hospital's commander, Col. Rhonda L. Cornum, did.

She, too, was shot down in a helicopter over Iraqi territory, nearly 12 years ago while on a rescue mission during the Persian Gulf war.

A wiry woman with a piercing gaze who talks about her ordeal in unsentimental terms, Cornum said she felt sorry for these soldiers because they had not been able to return fire after being struck by a missile. "We were shooting back like hell," she recalled.

Cornum now serves 2,000 miles away from the Iraqi desert, in southwestern Germany. But she remains very much on the front lines, commanding a hospital with 120 doctors that is the first stop for almost every wounded soldier flown out of Iraq.

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq this year, the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, as the hospital is known, has treated 7,714 soldiers, 937 of them for combat injuries. They arrive at nearby Ramstein Air Base around the clock, at a rate of more than 30 a day.

"This is never going to be a quiet medical center again," Cornum said. "Our people are proud and privileged to be doing it. But we don't have any illusions that it's going away."

Hospital staffers are proud that only four soldiers from Iraq have died while in Germany.

Cornum needs more doctors and nurses. The Army and Air Force have assigned 340 doctors, nurses, technicians and chaplains from reserve units to augment the medical staff of 1,800, but their tours run out in February.

"You can't work people 60 hours a week forever," she said. "People have to take leaves. They've got to go to school. You can't run it as a contingency when it's obviously become a steady state."

Maj. Brent Johnson, who directs the admission of the wounded as they arrive, said the troops' sophisticated equipment has helped reduce grave injuries. Most of the injuries he sees are gunshot and shrapnel wounds to the arms and legs.

"These are people who were subjected to blasts but were wearing body armor," he said. "Without it, a lot of them would have been killed."

Landstuhl has admitted 6,777 troops for conditions not related to combat. Many can be treated as outpatients, which reduces the burden on the hospital but creates a housing shortage.

"There are between 130,000 and 150,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan," Johnson said. "Figure what a normal hospital in a city of 150,000 would see. Then add the combat injuries."

Cornum made the rounds of the soldiers from last week's helicopter crash, listening to their stories and telling them about her crash.

That crash, which killed five of the eight crew members of her Black Hawk, broke her arms, shattered her knee and left her with a bullet in her shoulder. She was captured and sexually molested by an Iraqi guard.

Released a week later, she went home to testify before a presidential commission on women in the military.

Cornum jogs regularly and hikes during her one day off a week. Restoring the broken bodies of these soldiers - the way she restored her own - is her overriding goal. "It gives me impetus to make sure we get it done for them with as little disability as possible," she said.

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