At the Front with the Devil Docs

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No, it didn't occur to me that the missile flying over Camp Iwo Jima in the northern Kuwaiti desert might not be friendly. I'm a doctor, a medical correspondent, not a bang-bang journalist. But I noticed all the Marines around me were hitting the deck. Five seconds later, the alarm "Bunker! Bunker! Bunker!" blared over the P.A. system. Over the next 20 hours, I would share with 70 Marines and two CNN colleagues the same space and the same occupation: target.

We were at Camp Iwo Jima on our way to spend time with the Devil Docs, the military's nickname for a group of physicians who set up a groundbreaking approach to battlefield medical care called the Forward Resuscitative Surgical Suite. The idea is to provide real surgery at the front lines during the so-called golden hour, when proper treatment gives wounded soldiers the best chance of recovery.

The Devil Docs had already moved forward with the first advance, so to catch up with them we rode in the bed of an open 7-ton truck—lined with sandbags in case we hit a mine—for 17 hours. Their base, Camp Viper, in south-central Iraq, had a team of 44 medical personnel, including doctors, nurses, medics and corpsmen. I toured the two 40-ft. by 40-ft. operating tents, each reinforced with two layers of tent canvas and a solid floor. They were clean and sanitary, as any operating room should be.

A few hours after I arrived, a helicopter dropped off a soldier with a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He was an Iraqi prisoner. The young man was immediately taken to the operating room, with CNN providing live coverage. "Medical triage, not political triage," said Dr. John Perciballi, the lead surgeon. During my six-day stay, they treated 64 patients, 70% of whom were Iraqis, with injuries varying from gunshot wounds to broken limbs to amputation completions. This is difficult work even absent a war. Yet the surgeons sometimes operated wearing gas masks while alarms sounded in the distance.

Our tents were miserable, and the weather even worse. One day, the shamal winds stirred up a huge sandstorm. With gusts to 60 m.p.h., we could hear Marines pounding the loosening tent stakes back into the ground. Despite their efforts, one tent was blown over, scattering all the medical equipment.

Just when things had started to calm down, we were warned that Iraqi special-ops forces were nearby. We put on our helmets and Kevlar vests and hunkered down in our tents. There would be no air cover, given the weather. Our unit couldn't withstand an attack by tanks or grenades—hell, the wind nearly took us out.

The next 12 hours were the longest of my life, interrupted by a lone moment of courage: I had to go. Outside. I couldn't stop thinking that being picked off by a sniper while taking a leak would be a truly embarrassing way to die. Shortly thereafter, two British tanks moved into the area (now that's relief) and two Cobra helicopters arrived overhead, to cheers from the camp.

When I arrived back at my hotel in Kuwait I was told I had to do a live interview immediately with CNN's Wolf Blitzer. I was so overcome with emotion that I had to steady myself before answering his questions about the missile attack and the Devil Docs. At the end of the interview, he told me and all the viewers that I needed a shower because I didn't smell very good. For the first time in a long while, I smiled. I was now a war correspondent.