CAMP TAQADDUM, Iraq -- The discomfort of inhospitable conditions coupled with the fear of knowing that mortar and rocket attacks can, and do, occur at any time seem to have never existed when the ‘docs’ of Taqaddum Surgical make the switch from having a quiet, calm and otherwise boring day to handling the emergency needs of more than a dozen patients injured fighting insurgents.
Instinctively, nurses, corpsmen, surgeons and Marines quickly bound from room to room, rushing blood to some patients while performing emergency surgery on others.
Unpredictability and adverse surroundings are common as this small hospital serves a vital role in the Sunni Triangle - a hotbed of insurgent activity.
The unit is classified as a surgical shock trauma platoon, or SSTP, because it has two main elements: a shock trauma platoon, which serves as an emergency room, and a forward resuscitative surgical suite – a battlefield operating room. With such capabilities, Taqaddum Surgical handles the trying task of treating mass casualty incidents such as the one unfolding before them.
Small tents serve as their treatment rooms, often with temperatures hovering around 120 degrees to regulate the patients’ body temperature during treatment. Their tents’ tarp canvas offers minimal protection from the sandblast affect of the wind and the unforgiving heat of the desert sun.
The Iraqi Army had several soldiers wounded in an insurgent attack that also hit two American service members attached to the unit’s Military Transition Team.
The MTT is a small group of American military personnel tasked with training and advising the Iraqi soldiers.
For the staff of Taqaddum Surgical, patients are viewed as just that - patients - regardless of their nationality, said Navy Lt. Lane C. Zeitler, a nurse with the surgical unit. There is no time to see anything more than a member of the multi-national forces urgently needing treatment, he explained.
When a mass casualty incident occurs, the sailors and Marines here must react instinctively; there is little time to do anything more than the next necessary step for their patient’s survival.
As they intensely concentrate on their mission in the treatment rooms, the sailors still get a glimpse of the progress being made on the frontlines, said Zeitler, a 39-year-old native of Erie, Penn.
“(In here) it looks like the transfer of power is happening,” said Zeitler, referring to the fact that Iraqi casualties outnumbered U.S.
Although the attack left several wounded, some feel these instances serve to strengthen their resolve.
“We are fighting as one team,” said Lt. Col. Abdulmajeed, who chose not to give his full name. “We fight together, we are injured together … we try to build this country together.”
Abdulmajeed, a surgeon, has served with the new Iraqi Army for more than three years and has seen the ebbs and flows of the insurgency and has also seen his country’s army improve, he said, thanks to the work of U.S. service members like Master Sgt. Jay L. Lillefloren, the MTT’s senior enlisted advisor.
The Iraqis are forming a solidified, independent army with the support of the American advisors, said Lillefloren. He added that as the Iraqis take a more significant roll in the fight, they continue to see themselves as working right alongside the Americans instead of the supporting role they had earlier in their development.
The MTT members wholeheartedly return the sentiment, said Lillefloren, a 43-year-old native of Anaheim, Calif.
“There is a personal bond…that tends to happen when you’re getting shot at,” he added, as he and several Iraqi officers waited anxiously for updates on their injured troops.
The bond formed by the combat action and rigorous training has begun to slowly blur the line between Iraqi soldier and U.S. Marine, Lillefloren said.
"There’s only ten Marines out there and 200 jundi (junior enlisted Iraqi soldiers),” Lillefloren said. “(It’s) like having 200 Marines.”
Regardless of whether a soldier is Iraqi or American, it’s a confidence booster for them knowing Taqaddum Surgical is close by, Lillefloren said.
“You can get (hurt) out there and treatment is minutes away,” he said, adding, “You never know what’s going to happen out there.”
When asked about the amount of blood covering his smock, whether it was Iraqi or American, one doctor said it doesn’t matter, they’re all patients the same.