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U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Thanh Phan of the 57th Medical Company stands with H’ora, a 7-year-old Iraqi girl, outside the Camp Warhorse main gate before her recent surgery to implant a glass eye. Phan paid for the purchase and surgical implant of the eye.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Thanh Phan of the 57th Medical Company stands with H’ora, a 7-year-old Iraqi girl, outside the Camp Warhorse main gate before her recent surgery to implant a glass eye. Phan paid for the purchase and surgical implant of the eye. (Courtesy of U.S. Army)

CAMP WARHORSE, Iraq — Staff Sgt. Thanh Phan has put the sparkle back in the eyes of a 7-year-old Iraqi girl named H’ora.

Until last week, H’ora’s one good eye stood out from the dark, sunken socket where her right one used to be.

She now has matching brown eyes after Phan spent $125 for a new glass eye and the surgery to put it in.

“She’s a beautiful, beautiful child,” said Phan, an air ambulance team sergeant for the 57th Medical Company’s detachment.

The 19-year Army veteran said that he’d first seen H’ora a month ago when he went to buy a case of soda from the Iraqi vendors outside the camp’s main gate.

She was selling small, inexpensive trinkets to the soldiers.

“It was very unusual to see a little girl actually trying to sell stuff like that,” he said. Women or girls usually don’t work the markets outside the gate.

Phan first noticed H’ora had a skin problem.

“Being a medic, it’s a natural thing to want to take a closer look,” he said. “I called her over and then noticed she had one eye closed. I took a look at it and saw that the whole eye was missing.”

Three days later, Phan returned to the gate with a treatment for the skin problem and questions about how the girl lost her eye.

A vendor, speaking in broken English, told Phan that she lost it as the result of a gunshot.

H’ora’s father, he added, was killed by the Saddam Hussein government and her mother is raising their three children alone.

When the Americans arrived at Warhorse, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, members of the family turned to selling whatever they could get their hands on to the soldiers outside the gate.

The family still sometimes has a hard time raising $25 for the monthly rent and moves frequently as a result.

H’ora’s story touched Phan deeply, as it has similarities to his own life.

In 1975, when he was 10, his mother fled Vietnam by boat with her three children. His father, a South Vietnamese soldier, had been killed in battle three years earlier.

They ended up settling on the American territory of Guam. Phan graduated high school there and joined the U.S. Army.

Now, nearing the end of his career, Phan is assigned as the senior enlisted member of a three-helicopter, 16-soldier forward medical evacuation team.

They are, he says, the best soldiers he’s ever worked with. In six months, the unit has flown more than 150 wounded soldiers from the battlefield to hospitals.

Phan had originally been concerned that H’ora’s eye had been lost to disease. Once he knew it was from a trauma injury, he could more easily pursue getting her the glass eye.

Phan asked an Iraqi doctor who works nights at the camp hospital to find out how to purchase a glass eye for the girl.

Two weeks ago, the doctor got him the information, and last week H’ora’s mother took her to Baghdad for surgery.

They returned to Warhorse last Friday to show Phan the results.

“It looks pretty good, pretty natural,” he said. “You know, it was like seeing some of our patients after we drop them off at the hospital … and a couple of days later they’re doing a lot better.”

H’ora not only has a new eye, she’s got a new sense of self-confidence.

“The girl’s mother said she’s very happy,” he said. “More happy and outgoing. They thanked me and were telling me ‘thanks’ to the American forces.”

The mother told Phan that she would pray for the American forces’ safe return to their families back in the United States.

“She commented on the generosity of our people and the soldiers in general,” he said.

Phan said he felt it was the least he could do.

“I spend more money buying stupid stuff,” he said. “It doesn’t make a big impact on me, but it makes a huge difference to her.”

Phan, who doesn’t have children of his own, said he wants to continue to help H’ora. He’s working with the camp forward support battalion’s adopted school in nearby Baqubah to get her enrolled in classes for the first time.

“The biggest thing is to try and set something up to help her long term,” he said. “Right now, they’re not doing too bad. In a few weeks or a few months, I’ll be gone. The only way she can break out of this is to get an education and try to get a good job later.”

Other members of his unit aren’t surprised that Phan has been looking after H’ora.

“He’s got a soft spot for kids,” said 1st Lt. Angela Wagner, Alpha Team leader, about Phan. “I know he’s done a lot for this little girl.”

Other soldiers’ children in the unit call him “Uncle Tony,” his Anglicized name, and ask about him when they speak with their parents.

The unit is expected to rotate to Tikrit, where its parent 56th Medical Battalion is based, so Phan is working hard to get everything in place now.

Until then, Phan will continue to help the family.

“I’ve been having them come back every week and will buy her stuff,” he said. “I’ve given her money to get clothes and food. She’s always hungry.

“Over here in this country, life can be pretty hard on them.”

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