• The Iraq war…. you don’t know about.


    US Army Captain Gabrielle Bryen never questioned whether “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was right or wrong. As part of the invasion force, her job was to provide comfort and support to her fellow soldiers, Iraqi citizens and even the enemy. Here, her stunning account.

    The call came at 0830 on my first day of holiday leave, December 2002. I threw an arm over my husband and whispered “let the machine pick it up”. But 5 minutes later, the phone rang again. Groggily, I answered it “Hello?” “Good morning Captain Bryen” said my boss, Lieutenant Colonel Dexter Freeman. “I hate to break this to you, but your name came out on a task for a mission to southwest Asia”. Translation: I was shipping out to the Middle East, part of the invasion force of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

    I’d been an enlisted soldier in the army Reserves for eight years, and during that time, I got sent to such hot spots as Haiti and Bosnia. However, when I accepted my commission as an Army social-work officer in June of 2000, I pictured myself counseling soldiers, running support groups, or chairing meetings while comfortably seated in an air-conditioned room, a cup of coffee in my hand. Instead, I was going to the “theater”, an active military operation!

    Shortly after Christmas, I reported to the 546th Area Support Medical Company out of Fort Hood, Texas, where I joined three doctors, three physician’s assistants, a nurse and a dentist. Of all the officers in the group, I had the least medical experience. After four weeks of training, my company and I would leave for the Middle East.

    While the media was still debating the merits of even having a war in Iraq, thousands of US soldiers were already either in Kuwait or en route. It is not my job to debate the pros and cons of going to war. When I joined the United States Army, it was with the understanding that I would uphold the decisions of the commander in chief, whether I agreed with them or not. As I packed my gear, I hoped that a show of force would be enough to get Saddam Hussein to comply with the president’s demands, and that we’d all be sent home. But I was experienced enough to realize that was a wishful thinking. I trudged up the steps of our plane with 50 pounds of gear on my back and new, painful boots on my feet. I knew deep inside that this development would be life-altering. I hoped that I would grow as an officer and a therapist, but I was concerned that my growth would be a result of others’ suffering. As a friend advised, I was determined to make every moment count, and not count every moment until I returned.

    The untold hardships of war….

    For crossing the “berm” (the border between Iraq and Kuwait) all army units were ordered to don chemical protective suits, Kelvar vests, Kelvar helmets, protective masks and weapons. We were prepared for the worst. We didn’t know for certain whether Iraqi forces might use chemical weapons.

    Crossing the desert in all that gear and equipment made urination extremely difficult for me and the other 40 women in the company. Female soldiers deal with issues men don't even think about.  Temperatures in the Kuwaiti desert range from the mid-80s on a typical March day to the 30s when the sun goes down. This fluctuation produces cracked lips, chapped skin, and dry hair. The trip across Kuwait was long and arduous. Because the roads were not secure, we traveled across the desert itself. Even with the vehicles moving at 40mph, a dust cloud created by one vehicle often created a whiteout effect for the driver behind it. It was easy to lose track. Often the vehicles got stuck in the sand, the wind and the dust made the track difficult. Most of the trip was spent digging out the heavy armored vehicles and trucks along the route.

     We reached our first objective, Tallil Air Base at night after 3 days of travel in the desert. Our clinic needed to be set up immediately in an abandoned building. The shelter had intact doors and windows, but it lacked electricity and plumbing. Arm field manuals describe a clinic as a stable, manageable entity, in real life, though; there are barriers, such as trying to fit a patient on a “litter” (stretcher) through a narrow doorway. Our mission was to provide medical care to the US soldiers and “enemy prisoners of war” (EPWs) that came through our clinic, practicing what is known as “blind triage”. That meant the most seriously injured people were to be treated first, regardless of whether they were US/coalition forces or the enemy. This concept, while easily understood, can be hard to put into practice when caring for someone whose goal is to kill American soldiers!

    The following day, “MedEvac” flight carrying patients circled our advancing vehicles like pack of vultures. One among the first patients was an Iraqi first sergeant who had burns over 80 percent of his body. He was in the “expectant” triage category: we expected him to die of kidney failure as his system shut down and we needed to keep him comfortable until he passed. The average age of our medics was 25; few had trauma experience, and only some had ever treated patients who had died. Even I had no experience caring for the terminally ill.  But because this Iraqi was an EPW, he could not be transferred to die near his family. We needed narcotics to keep him comfortable. But if we used our limited supply of drugs on our dying enemies, we could have found ourselves critically low when we had to treat American patients. Some of the medics were concerned: they had recently learned that US soldiers from a lost convoy had been taken prisoners of war by Iraqi forces and had misgivings about letting our Iraqi patient die comfortably. I understood their frustration but reminded them of the concept of blind triage. We had an obligation to treat our enemy as we would want to be treated ourselves. Once the first sergeant was stabilized we located an interpreter. Through him we learnt that he and another soldier came upon an US roadblock, the driver panicked, swerving to escape…the US soldiers opened fire, igniting the truck’s gas tank. I racked my brain trying to think of what I could do for him. Finally I asked the interpreter to help him write a letter for me to send to the man’s family. In the end, we moved his cot into one of the few private spaces available, a bathroom. The man sent everyone away…he died alone. I wonder if he knows that his “enemy” washed his body after his death and prepared it as closely as possible to Muslim burial traditions. I was exceptionally proud when one of my most conflicted soldiers volunteered to guard the body from harm until it could be transported to our makeshift morgue.

    One day a radio yelled across the room: “incoming bird; three to five patients, some children”. As we waited for the helicopter to come, we donned latex gloves, checked the defibrillators and the trauma trunks. The first patient unloaded from the ambulance is always the most critical and I watched a litter carried a man off to surgery team, our neighbors. The second patient was a child; he too was whisked down to them. The last patient was taken to our clinic. As we untied the woolen army blanket, we found ourselves gazing down at a 4-year-old girl. She had big dark eyes and curly black hair. Her hair was matted, her torn dress was covered with dried blood and she was wearing only one shoe. Because she had no physical injuries she was placed in my care. I carried her out of the treatment area wondering, who is this child? Were she and the boy related to the adult man? Or did a desperate mother place this little girl on the helicopter for safety? During the next few days, I learned that her name was Ykeem, and that she was one of six siblings whose parents had heard radio warnings urging people to leave town. The family had crammed into a truck with relatives, but the truck got caught in cross fire. Everyone was killed except Ykeem, her 6-year-old brother, and their father, all of whom were brought in on the helicopter. Ykeem’s father and brother recovered, and the family or what was left of it, was reunited. I was present when her father told Ykeem that her mother will not be coming back because she died…My Arabic is limited, but there was no mistaking what was said. Ykeem began rocking and wailing pitifully, burying her face in her father’s chest while her frail body was shaken with overthrowing sobs.  I left the room and went quickly outside behind the building, so no one could see the hot tears running down my cheeks!!

    Ykeem became my companion and I was the world to her. Whenever I had some free time I spent it with Ykeem, she spoke non-stop to me although she knew I didn’t understand her. I often carried her in my arms and at night I was near her when she had nightmares. She was never far from me until they left the Tallil Air base….. It was a heart breaking farewell for me and Ykeem.

     My tour at the “theater” lasted for more than five months. I am never without my memories of the war. Daily life in Iraq was excruciating at best. Frequently, we were fed only one meal per day. Some days the temperature soared to 120 degrees; the average soldier lost 10 to 15 pounds. We used baby wipes for waterless showers. The latrines with their barrels of excrements drew flies and diseases. This was no life for decent people. How do you go back to normal life after something like that? You can't just turn the page. Back home everything still looks the same, but I'm not.


     I keep a photo of the little girl on my room as a reminder that our biggest plans have consequences for even the smallest people.

    I just hope the people I encountered will remember the Americans who treated them with dignity and respect. Perhaps the memories of those positive interactions will help strengthen them in their arduous efforts to forge a new Iraq.

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