Tuesday, December 21, 2004
The first report said a mortar had just hit a nearby chow
hall during the middle of lunch. Ten were dead and approximately
50 wounded. They were being transported to the Combat Surgical
Hospital (CSH) down the street. It was a mass casualty event
and it’s where the rubber meets the road in military
ministry. I woke my assistant, and we rushed to the hospital.
I didn’t expect what I saw.
scene was little more than controlled chaos. Helicopters
were landing, people shouting, wounded screaming and bodies
were everywhere. As the staff began to triage the dead and
wounded, I offered my assistance. I would be hard pressed to
write about every person I had the opportunity to pray with
today, but I will relate a few instances.
A piece of shrapnel had hit “Ilena” in her chest
causing a sucking chest wound. The doctors said her left lung
was filling with blood and she was having a hard time breathing.
For the next 20 minutes I held her hand while a doctor made
an incision in her left side, inserted most of his hand and
some kind of medical instrument and then a tube to alleviate
the pressure the pooling blood caused. It was the most medieval-looking
procedure I had ever witnessed. In the end, Ilena was taken
to ICU and she will be OK.
put on a stretcher and laid along a wall. A small monitor on
his hand would tell the nurses when he was dead. Even a cursory
glance said it was inevitable. Mark had a head wound that left
brain matter caked in his ear and all over the stretcher on
which he was lying. I knelt next to Mark and placed a hand
on his chest. His heart was barely beating. As I put my face
close to his ear to pray with him, I thought, He’s practically
dead. So why stay? He probably can’t hear anything! Nevertheless,
I couldn’t risk it. I prayed the sinners prayer. Few
things in this life will make one feel more helpless.
Outside, the number of body bags had grown considerably. I
saw a fellow chaplain who obviously was in need of care himself.
I put my arm around him and asked how he was doing. He just
shook his head so I pulled him in close and prayed for his
strength, endurance, a thick skin and a soft heart.
Any attack with casualties will naturally concentrate a large
number of caregivers in one location. The first mortar round
hit about 100 to 200 meters away. Everyone started shouting
to get the wounded inside. The next mortar hit closer. I stood
at the door shoving as many people inside as I could. Just
as I headed inside, the last round hit directly on top of the
solid concrete hospital. I couldn’t have been more than
10 to 15 meters from the point of impact and, brother, did
I feel the shock. I rushed inside to find doctors and nurses
draped over patients, others on the floor or under something.
After a few tense moments, the business of patching bodies
and healing minds continued in earnest. An officer asked me
to pray for another patient who had just been moved to the “expectant” list.
When I finished, I looked up at the nurse who had been tending
him. She was struggling to maintain her composure. I asked, “Are
you OK?” and she broke down. I put my arm around her.
She said, “I was fine until you asked!” Then she
explained that this was her third patient to die that day.
As I walked away at the end of the day I saw a soldier standing
among the rows of black body bags. He wanted to see his friend
one more time. We slowly and respectfully unzipped the bag
to reveal the face of a young private first class. His friend
stared for a few seconds then turned away and began to cry.
I’m where God wants me and wouldn’t change that
for anything, even if it means death. After all, “to
die is gain.”
According to the Washington Post, of the 22 people killed
in the December 21 attack, 14 were U.S. military personnel,
four were U.S. civilians, three were Iraqi Security Forces
and one was unidentified. It is now believed that 69 people
were wounded, 44 of whom were U.S. military personnel. The
original explosion was likely the result of a suicide bombing.