Saving Countless Private Ryans

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The Iraqi conflict may eventually become known as the "survivors' war," because of the all-time high ratio of wounded who returned home alive. I was one of them, thanks partly to the Army field hospital featured in HBO's extraordinary documentary, "Baghdad ER." Injured in a grenade attack while reporting on a December 2003 patrol, I was sent to a facility built by Saddam Hussein for his inner circle and commandeered by the U.S. military. Doctors operated on what was left of my right arm and sent me to Germany three days later, giving me a generally favorable impression of military medicine. But from my end of the gurney, I had little idea about what was happening around me. HBO's spotlight on the 68th Combat Support Hospital fully assays the skill, bravery and humanity of my caregivers, and goes a long way to explain why the survival rate among U.S. combat casualties has reached an historic peak in the Iraq conflict.

"Baghdad ER" is a raw, unflinching look at the human cost of the three-year conflict. The doctors and nurses who bear witness play starring roles in a documentary that offers close-ups of medical heroes at work and play. Not surprisingly, a few voice despair over the extent and relentlessness of the carnage. But their words reflect compassion more than partisanship, something the Washington brass could embrace as a sign of commitment to save every life. The film quotes a soldier saying he and his buddies are comforted to know "there's still a chance we'll survive" a hit. The film is refreshingly nonpolitical: no nation-building hype, nor rants about fighting a war under false pretenses.

For patients, the medical staff assumes a God-like status. I recall how big a deal it was for my orthopedic surgeon, Major Gregory Hill, to spend a few minutes going over my prognosis. But the documentary shows the specialists as anxious, overworked and bored as any grunt. One night they repair to the roof of the hospital to smoke cigars and look over the rooftops of Baghdad, spotting explosions a few miles away. "We just see the consequences," says one doctor. Another says, "There's one with your name written all over it."

Many of my fellow patients were injured by remote-controlled bombs, planted in roads like Route Irish, a five-mile stretch from the hospital to Baghdad International Airport. It is one thing to hear about the roadside explosions, and another to go for a ride with an HBO cameraman along "the most dangerous road in the world." The viewer sees the deadly effects all too plainly: concrete curbs smashed every few yards from explosions.

"Baghdad ER" provides rare footage of medevac crews getting their assignments at the map-filled Tactical Operations Command and inside a Black Hawk transporting a patient. I would have liked to see more of the crucial role played by those air rescue squads. Likewise, the big medical decisions — whether to amputate a limb or move a brain-damaged victim — get short shrift. HBO missed potentially dramatic scenes of those debates. A long, jazzy saxophone solo by a soldier reflects the melancholy mood of patients. But, despite a few emotional scenes, the film failed to plumb the mindset of casualties.

Those are small flaws in an otherwise remarkable view of the medical battles in Iraq. One of my favorite scenes shows a doctor out for a walk in the Green Zone, the protected area where the U.S. government and military is headquartered and the hospital lies. "The thing I miss most is to go more than a half a mile in either direction," he said. "That's our world in Baghdad." After more than three years of war, the statement could be taken many ways.

  • Michael Weisskopf's book Blood Brothers: Among the Soldiers of Ward 57 is due out from Henry Holt & Co., October, 2006