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NAVAL STATION ROTA, Spain — U.S. military doctors and nurses are moving into a larger field hospital in southern Spain to treat an expected rise in battlefield casualties from Iraq.

A new 250-bed tent hospital will more than double the capacity of a smaller facility at the Rota naval base and could open as early as Monday. As coalition forces close in on Baghdad, the medical staff is gearing up for a surge in wounded.

“We need to be prepared to see a great number of casualties just in the event that there are,” said Navy Capt. Pat Kelly, commander of Fleet Hospital Eight — a deployed unit comprised of mostly Navy personnel from Bremerton, Wash. “Again, that’s the prudent preparation that goes on in war planning.”

On Tuesday, the base began erecting the tents that will make up the new military infirmary. When the 250-bed facility is ready, a 116-bed hospital in operation since mid-February will be “mothballed.” The smaller one will remain standing throughout the war and can be used if casualties exceed expectations, Kelly said.

If necessary, the new hospital can expand to 500 beds. Battlefield casualties will be stabilized at hospitals closer to the front lines before arriving in Rota. The facility will not treat soldiers injured in chemical or biological attacks because facilities in the Persian Gulf are already set up for that, Kelly said.

The naval station in Rota is one of two bases in Europe treating war casualties. Landstuhl Medical Center in Germany, the U.S. military’s largest hospital in Europe, has treated more than 175 soldiers since the war began.

In Rota, the unit has treated 50 American servicemembers in the past month. Since the war started March 20, 15 battlefield casualties have come through the smaller tent compound built on a field near the base’s airfield.

The latest flight of injured soldiers arrived last weekend. More were expected to arrive late Wednesday.

Most of the soldiers with combat-related injuries remain in Rota recovering from their wounds and could return to their units on the front lines.

Many more, however, could arrive in the coming weeks, especially if U.S. forces enter Baghdad to deliver a crushing blow to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Some analysts predict a bloody battle if American troops get into street-to-street fighting.

So far, doctors and nurses have treated patients with injuries typical to the battlefield: gunshot and shrapnel-related wounds.

“It’s the kind of things that our doctors have trained on and many of our surgeons have done in their training rotations in trauma centers and all,” Kelly said.

The only thing that has surprised doctors is the sheer disappointment of some casualties.

It is “the most painful look I’ve seen in the eyes of some of these patients we’ve got here just before the war started,” Kelly said. “They were out in the desert with their units, trained for months, ready to pull the trigger. Then, those guys got pulled back here as their unit was moving forward and the war started.

“Those guys were really, really hurting. Because, you know, as a military man you want to do what you’re trained for.”


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