Taking care of the enemy is not something the soldiers at the 31st Combat Support Hospital asked for, or particularly relish.

“It’s kind of difficult when you’re taking care of American soldiers, then you walk down the hall and see the detainees,” said Staff Sgt. Dion Robertson. “It can be a strain, day after day.”

The job of treating seriously wounded Iraqi prisoners fell to the hospital staff because the prisoners can’t be treated in an unsecured Iraqi hospital.

And the hospital at Abu Ghraib, the prison that became universally infamous for the alleged abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, doesn’t have the necessary equipment or expertise.

So when more than 20 Abu Ghraib prisoners were seriously injured in a mortar attack last month, they were transported to the CSH. When insurgents are injured in firefights and captured, they’re brought to the hospital. And when insurgents hoping to shoot off a rocket-propelled grenade or detonate a roadside bomb make a mistake and it explodes in their faces, they, too, come to the CSH.

Maj. Margie Johnson, the head nurse on the prisoners’ ward, said at least half of the Iraqis on the ward blew themselves up accidentally.

“They tried to detonate IEDs [improved explosive devices] or RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and they backfired and they lose an eye or a leg,” she said.

On average, there are about 20 enemy prisoners of war at the hospital. They’re cared for in the busiest section in the hospital, separated from injured Americans only by a nursing station. Military police guard the hallway.

Treating the Iraqis is in keeping with a crucial tenet of American medicine: that anyone who needs care gets it, without taking into account who they are or what they’ve done.

“A patient is a patient,” said Lt. Col. Steve Smith, hospital executive officer.

But it isn’t an entirely simple matter.

“It’s not easy to take care of people that have killed our own,” Johnson said. “We’ve been able to see through the bad deeds and see the human beings. We’ve been very good to these people. We’ll give blood for these Iraqi prisoners.”

But the Iraqi prisoners at the hospital remain prisoners. All are restrained to their beds by at least one arm or leg, including the amputees. They may watch television or listen to music. But they may not talk to each other. If they do, they’re threatened with being placed in four-point restraints, Johnson said.

They’re served American food, which they find unpalatable.

“They don’t eat it,” Johnson said, “so the healing process is much slower.”

The prisoners generally eat some bread, rice or chicken, she said.

Johnson said the International Committee of the Red Cross came through some time ago and was generally satisfied with the prisoners’ treatment. The Red Cross did suggest they be allowed to write letters home, and the hospital complied.

Red Cross officials in Baghdad declined to comment, citing their policy on confidentiality.

Some hospital staffers were particularly incensed by the photographs of alleged abuse at the prison, which has significantly damaged the U.S. military’s reputation and credibility.

“We save their lives,” one surgeon said indignantly. “American policy can’t be set by those jacklegs at the prison,” said the surgeon, who declined to be named.

It’s unknown what the Iraqis think about their hospital care. The hospital forbids them from being interviewed or photographed.

But spotted among them was an old man, who did not appear to be very much of an insurgent.

“That’s Saddam’s uncle,” Johnson said. “He’s our favorite. He got shot; nobody else will take him. You can’t just put an old man out on the street.”

author picture
Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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