Dispatches From Iraq
Dr. Richard Wolfert, D81, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard Reserve, was deployed to Iraq in April with A Company, 118th Medical Battalion. The following are his reports from the field.
April 28: Battle rattle and sand flies
At the airport, which is right on Fort Bliss in Texas, we were all able to get on a large airline with enough room for 180 soldiers and their equipment. Our flight to Iraq had three legs-three hours to Bangor, Maine; six hours to Frankfort, Germany; and five hours to Kuwait City.
We made it to Kuwait City on April 24 at 3:30 in the afternoon. We were transported to Camp Wolverine, where we were treated to a cot for the night.
By April 28, Iíd arrived at Camp Anaconda, a large U.S. base near Balad, about 42 miles north of Baghdad. The commander of the battalion Iím assigned to calls what we have to wear "battle rattle." It includes our desert camouflage uniform, body armor and helmet. The body armor is very heavy and adds to the difficulty of going outside in this very hot weather. But itís necessary for us to wear this to be completely safe, so we all comply. Everything on the base gets very dusty. Lots of sand and tents and a few buildings. I hear they actually have a usable swimming pool and know they also have a movie theater and multiple gyms. The Army wants to make sure we stay hydrated, so thereís always plenty of bottled water around.
Right now Iím living in a tent, and we have the air conditioning up so high that we actually have to sleep in long underwear to stay warm. The cold, we found, keeps the sand flies from invading our tent, and weíre happy about that because they have mean bites. Tomorrow I will be leaving for my duty station in Taji, Iraq, about 17 miles northwest of Baghdad.
May 1: Convoys and Toyotas
I ended up spending a few more days than I expected in Balad, but I finally left there on April 30. I got to travel in the back of an Army ambulance. The convoy was made up of a gunner in the front, then a big truck, then the ambulance, then another gunner. I felt like I was the president of the United States, never mind a dentist in the U.S. Army.
We went very fast, and everybody watched out the window for anything that looked like it was dangerous. The Army only allows convoys to travel during the day so you can see very well. The trip took 48 minutes and 10 seconds. I timed it. The road was like Rte 3A south of Boston. We werenít the only people on the roads. I was surprised to see Toyotas, Land Rovers, Mercedes and all sorts of other types of cars.
I finally got a chance to turn my laundry in, so in five days, I should have nice clean clothes to wear. I have a goal to lose 20 to 25 pounds and to get in better shape while Iím here. Because the weatherís so hot, that probably wonít be a problem.
May 5: Dentists in the desert
Iíve been in Iraq for about 10 days now, five in Taji. The fellow I came to replace, Dr. Frank Dequattro, an orthodontist from Wakefield, R.I., was very glad to see me, but he was already making his final arrangements to get back to the States. Who could blame him? I spent an afternoon and an evening just getting acclimated to the situation and trying to get as much insight into what I was about to face for the next 90 days.
My initial observations of the living conditions were not good: Open sewer smells and dust permeate the whole camp. I didnít say much because I quickly realized that this was good compared to what A Company faced when it first arrived. I live in a hard building (as opposed to a tent) in a room thatís about 12-foot by 12-foot square. My roommates set the medical clinic up from scratch and are in charge of running it now.
The dental section was another story. Dr. Dequattro came with the initial deployment of A Company, only to get here and find he didnít have the equipment he needed to set up. He occupied himself for about a month until an active duty unit sent him a dental unit that included a dentist, a hygienist, a dental assistant and all the equipment necessary to start treating patients. Apparently the building that weíre currently in wasnít ready for occupation for about a month after they arrived, so the medical and dental "practices" didnít start ramping up until two months into it.
The clinic sees anywhere between 30 and 50 sick-call patients a day, with maybe two or three being dental emergencies. It seems to run very smoothly.
The area where I am is very noisy at times, with generators running 24 hours a day, trucks going everywhere, and on occasion, mortars going off in the distance. From what Iíve been told, the sound of mortars has really slowed down as of late. Whether thatís from the turnover in Fallujah or the U.S. just catching up with the insurgents, I have no clue.
Knowing Iím only here for 90 days makes it tolerable, and I refuse to complain, knowing the 118th Medical Battalion will be deployed for a year. They are actually happy when the rotators arrive. When I came, they knew they were one-fourth the way through their deployment.
Medics and litter bearers unload a "patient" from an Army ambulance during a mass casualty drill in Taji, Iraq. In the ambulance is Scott Salloway, a physicianís assistant, who was showing Rick Wolfert what his role as triage officer would be. "Everybodyís role in a mass casualty is very fluid, depending on where it is and if we are called as first responders," Wolfert says.
May 19: 104 degrees and rising
It has been a month since I went into the Army and three weeks since Iíve been in Iraq. Our jobs are pretty routine most days, but the staff here is well trained, and I know they will come through if they have to. We have a new doctor who normally works in a hospital emergency room. He is very highly qualified, and under these circumstances, weíre all glad heís here.
For about a month after the unit first got here, they had to live in and work out of tents, just like the old TV show "M*A*S*H." Now some buildings have been built or remodeled, and we all live and work in what we call "hard buildings." It is much more secure and safe. The living conditions have improved as well. It used to be very difficult in the beginning because there was limited plumbing for going to the toilet or taking a shower. Apparently if you could get a shower once a week, it was a good thing. Now, itís much better because all of that is readily available.
Today we will have a mock mass casualty drill. This way, if at some point we are called to action, we will have practiced our duties, and we will know what to do. Iím very happy we did this because now I have a better understanding of what will be expected of me. You know what they say about practice makes perfect.
I have never felt in danger here. There are a lot of specially trained soldiers who make sure we are safe. There is one group, for example, that travels around and collects unexploded munitions. In fact, if we come upon a rocket or a mortar, we are told to fence off the area and call this group. They put all these munitions in one pile and on days that are announced ahead of time, between 6 and 7 at night, you hear a big explosion. They call these "controlled blasts," and they do this so nobody will get hurt. They are part of a specially trained unit called EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal).
Interestingly enough, Iím starting to get used to wearing the uniform. At first it felt kind of silly and uncomfortable, but now I feel itís a part of me. It feels weird when Iím missing part of it, like my hat or my weapon. Itís actually easier to get up and put on a uniform than it is to decide what shirt and what tie I should wear in the morning.
May 24: Baptism by fire
It started out as just another day in Iraq - until we were on our way back from lunch. My two dental assistants headed back to get ready for the first afternoon patient. Top (the top sergeant) and I headed to get our laundry. A last-minute decision for me because I didnít want Top to walk by himself. We get our laundry and start walking back.
Thump....Thump...Thump...Thump. Iím thinking to myself, "Outgoing (i.e., weíre shooting at them)." I see clouds of sand streaming skyward on the flight line about three miles away. Thump...Thump. I see Army guys running. I see civilians running from the chow hall into bunkers. "Whatís going on," Iím thinking. Top points to a building and says, "What are those guys saying?" Heís partially deaf and has tinnitus from a recent attack when he was on convoy. "Get inside," theyíre saying. OH, S**T. "Get under cover," the soldiers keep screaming. "Incoming, incoming."
Wait to see what happens. Weíre in the building. Thump...Thump....Thump. Three more hit the flight line. Then a really big Thump! Weíre told they hit about a mile away! Wait and listen. Nothing. Wait and watch as the CO (commanding officer) of the 393rd and his XO (executive officer) come running into the building. Nothing.
"Letís go, Top," I say. "We need to get back to the medical clinic in case weíre needed." With laundry in tow we chase each bunker as we make our way back. No more thumps. Back at the clinic everybody was readying themselves. I took my position as triage officer. Anxiety in everybodyís eyes as we wait. Nothing. An evacuation helicopter goes screaming past the clinic toward Baghdad. Nothing, as the ambulance stands ready and so do I. Convoys that had been halted from leaving as the attack helicopters and Air Force jets circle overhead are told they can leave.
ALL CLEAR. Five injuries, one dead.
June 6: Suicide bombers
I woke up early to call my daughters, Bethany and Jessica. Suddenly, there was a huge explosion that rocked the Treatment Medical Center (TMC). BA-BOOM! Then another explosion. BA-BOOM! Maybe, I thought, it was a controlled blast. But normally they set those off between 6 and 7 at night, and it was 7 a.m. I knew that something more dreadful had occurred.
My helmet, body armor and orange reflector vest were stowed in the corner of my room, awaiting the next mass casualty drill. But this was not going to be a drill. I donned my gear and quickly scurried back to the clinic where most of my unit was now assembled and anxiously awaited word on what was to come. We huddled around the radio. What would our role be? I looked around as the first sergeant was trying to get 100 percent accountability. Whereís Mary Riley and Maj. Marty Lucenti, the doctor? Maryís a medic whoís been in the National Guard for 30 years, lives in Rockland, Mass., and has three kids. I thought to myself that Mary and Marty were likely at the chow hall grabbing breakfast before sick call hours were scheduled to begin. Shouldnít they be back by now? I nervously waited to hear where the explosion took place.
The radio crackled, and the messages started to come fast and furious with more and more urgency: "We have injuries at Castle Gate!" Castle Gate is the "territory" of Charlie Med, not us, Patriot Med. So we knew at that point that we werenít to be the first responders. The commander made the decision to radio Charlie Med and offer our ambulances to help. The doc wanted to go to the scene. The decision was to go, but come back with the first loaded ambulance. The crews left with everybody and the doc outfitted in full battle rattle.
I started to prepare myself for what could turn into a long day. Litter bearers and medics were getting into their positions when I saw an ambulance pulling into our area. "Colonel Wolfert," someone yelled. "One immediate and two delayed." I sensed the immediacy in their voice. "Make sure the Iraqis have been searched!" Scott had just said to me that he thought all Iraqis should have their clothes cut off. I didnít get the implication (hidden weapons or bombs) until I was standing at the ambulance door ready to open it up.
After a quick discussion with the medic, we started pulling the patients out of the ambulance by order of their instability. One was screaming at every lurch of the litter; the others were more compliant. We continued to treat the wounded as details of the incident started to filter in: One mortar round launched as a diversion away from the scene and two suicide bombers in cars. The explosions went off at one of the entrances to the base, where hundreds of Iraqi contractors and workers congregate in the morning before they make there way into the base. What the heck are these people thinking?
I directed the litter bearers into the different treatment rooms. Here the injured would be stabilized for evacuation to a more definitive treatment center. An American contractor was just checking in for his first day of work when he was hit by shrapnel from the explosion. He could have been anybody, even one of us. His wounds had to be explored and the shrapnel extracted. Though a morphine haze, he told us he was a New Orleans Saints fan. The patient who was doing most of the screaming had an open fracture of his right ankle. I held his hand to try to keep him quiet, but I mainly wanted to be in a position to respond if he was to react against those whom were trying to help him. Language was a problem. These two and one other patient had to be evacuated by helicopter to the Combat Area Support Hospital in Baghdad.
The initial surge of six patients had been stabilized when the doc came back with two more "walking wounded." Our company, A 118th Medical Battalion, treated 11 - nine Iraqis and two American contractors.
Word came over the radio that six Iraqi nationals had been killed, including the two car bombers, and 50 others were injured. Luckily only two American soldiers were minimally injured. Purple Hearts and a chance for them to go home! Iím sure this will make CNN tomorrow.
Dr. Richard Wolfert finished his tour and arrived back in the United States in August. His journal originally appeared in the summer issue of Tufts Dental Magazine. Photos courtesy of Dr. Wolfert.
This story originally ran on Nov. 8, 2004