‘Chaos’-seeking US veterans wait on Mosul front lines, ready to patch up the wounded
MOSUL, Iraq — Veterans of the U.S. and foreign militaries are drawn to the front lines here in the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city. Besides military experience, they bring medical skills, part of a toolkit they use to save the lives of Mosul’s “most vulnerable.”
What they find, on the edge of a battle now in its fifth month, is a familiar camaraderie — born of adrenaline-pumping action and mind-numbing boredom.
One of them is Austin Howe, a Marine infantry veteran who went from firefights in Afghanistan six years ago to working in a California warehouse. He said he volunteered as a medic because he “needed more chaos in my life.”
“I felt useless in a warehouse,” he said. “This is where I needed to be.”
On Tuesday, Howe, together with a dozen other volunteers working with a Slovak charity known as the Academy of Emergency Medicine, set up a field clinic — several cots and crates of medical supplies — near a blockaded road.
The Iraqi army’s Counter Terrorism Service, a U.S.-trained special operations force also known as the “Golden Division,” was waiting here to enter Wadi Hajar, a neighborhood on the city’s southwest side.
Troops had recently met with fierce resistance from Islamic State militants there, and the medics wanted to be closer to the casualties to have the best chance of saving lives.
On a visit to the area the same day, Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Najim al Jabouri said Iraqi forces working from several axes were advancing north toward the city’s center. The army’s 9th Armored Division was less than 2 miles from Badoush Prison, he said, on the city’s west side, near the highway linking Mosul to Syria. Controlling the highway there would effectively cut off the militants’ escape route.
“The morale of (Islamic State) fighters is down,” he said.
As a result, he said, the western offensive has been easier than the fight to claim the half of Mosul on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, which began in mid-October and lasted about 100 days. As they push forward, the army will “fight like infantry, without armor,” leaving tanks positioned in the hills on the city’s edge, al Jabouri said.
The strategy of presenting the militants with “multiple dilemmas” as troops advance along several axes proved successful in the east, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters on Wednesday. But in the west, militants have dug trenches and built barriers to complicate and slow the Iraqi advance deeper into the city.
The medics near the front line said they’d seen fewer military casualties on the western side, so far, but that it was because the fighting was still largely in open areas where troops were traveling in armored Humvees and mine-resistant vehicles.
Suddenly, a trio of mortar rounds landed on the hillsides flanking the road. An Iraqi soldier yelled to a group of reporters to stay back because the fighting was close.
Soon, a woman wailed from just beyond a wall, and the medics hopped into action as a man carried a limp, injured boy through a gap in the wall sections.
The boy had suffered a shrapnel wound to his back from the last of the mortar rounds, said Matej Karlak, a Slovak medic.
“Luckily, it was one casualty,” said Katrine Mathisen, a Norwegian doctor and army veteran who volunteers on the front line. “It could have been 15.”
Medical services are limited south of Mosul, where the Iraqis are now focusing their efforts on taking the western half of the city still occupied by Islamic State fighters and some 750,000 civilians. The seriously injured must be taken to hospitals in Irbil, hours away across bumpy dirt roads, over pockmarked highways and through numerous checkpoints.
“What we’re doing here is pretty important because we’re stabilizing them for transport,” said Max-Hendrik Gelink, a Norwegian air force veteran, one of four Norwegians who recently joined the medical group.
The group consists of five full-time staff members from the Academy of Emergency Medicine and eight volunteers from Slovakia, the United States, Norway, Sweden, Italy and Germany. Many of them have military or law enforcement backgrounds, said Oliver Valentovic, one of the Slovak medics. The group is supported by donors from Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States.
Mathisen is a veteran of the Norwegian army and a member of the country’s national guard. Since last summer, she has been using vacation time to volunteer off and on in Iraq, mostly to train Kurdish forces in first aid. She said she felt her experience and skills would be especially useful on the front lines, a sentiment echoed by other veterans in the group.
“You can’t get that opportunity to do this kind of work again, maybe ever,” she said.
For Howe, the Marine vet, it’s an opportunity worth selling a few of his prized rifles to fund. To sponsor his six-month mission, he also started a crowdfunding campaign, and his family held a Tupperware party. He arrived 10 days before the offensive for western Mosul began on Feb. 19, accompanied by another Marine veteran, Chris Lint, who he met in an online chatroom for volunteer medics.
“I sold my Harley-Davidson just to volunteer,” said Lint, who trained as an EMT before shuttering his cabinet shop near Santa Cruz, Calif., to spend six months volunteering here. “This is exactly what I wanted.”
The volunteers come from different countries and different militaries, Howe said, but they share “the same humor ... the same brotherhood.”
It was a slow day for the medics. At one point, a few of them tried to stave off boredom by timing a colleague as he field stripped a handgun and put it back together on the hood of a Hilux truck.
But, Lint said, it’s hard to complain about the boredom. Days earlier the team had treated the most patients they’d seen in one day since fighting began in October — 136 wounded and six fatalities, mostly civilians.
Howe said there’s a lot of bravado in the group “until you have to unload a bunch of kids” from an ambulance. He found out later that the boy wounded in the mortar attack died after being treated at a nearby coalition facility.
Nearly three weeks into his trip, Howe wasn’t sure the experience would cure him from his need for adrenaline and chaos, “but there’s only one way to find out.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report.