Medical mission brings relief to Iraqi villagers
Mideast edition, Friday, September 14, 2007
ARABIA, Iraq — At first, the villagers came in just a trickle. Then as word spread that U.S. troops were treating the sick and ailing, the trickle turned into a torrent.
Within an hour, the line to get into the impromptu clinic set up inside an empty house stretched in both directions down the narrow and dusty, trash-filled street.
Soldiers with Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 1st Cavalry Regiment treated more than 100 villagers during a medical relief mission. They turned away at least that many as darkness neared and they ran out of time.
The three-hour event was one of two “med-op” missions that the squadron conducted Tuesday in their area on the southeastern outskirts of Baghdad, said Lt. Col. John Kolasheski, squadron commander. Soldiers with Troop B treated another 170 people in another nearby village. Similar operations were scheduled for Wednesday in two additional villages.
Even as U.S. forces continue to target Sunni insurgents and Shiite militants in what they term “kinetic” operations, medical relief missions like the one in Arabia Tuesday are another essential “line of operations” that U.S. troops in Iraq are pursuing to win over local populations. It’s a page straight out of classic counterinsurgency doctrine.
“I can go from kicking in doors one minute to doing humanitarian aid missions the next,” said Capt. Troy Thomas, 34, of Litchfield, Minn., Troop A’s commander. “We’re not going to win this war going at it one-dimensionally.”
Although they were prepared for the worst if necessary — insurgents had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a U.S. helicopter in the area on the day before — the Troop A soldiers were greeted with nothing but smiles as they treated villagers for everything from aches and pains to viral infections.
The soldiers had already established a lot of goodwill in the village. They are helping 19-year-old Suham Hassan Ka-Naan, who lost both legs in an insurgent attack three years ago, get fitted for new prosthetic legs.
The attention they’re giving Suham has made them immensely popular in Arabia.
“We’re definitely like rock stars in this village,” Thomas said.
While the soldiers are helping the girl and her family because “it’s the right thing to do,” as Thomas puts it, their assistance has paid huge dividends in other ways.
“With the networks they have in these areas, that kind of thing keeps us from getting shot at,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Cook, 29, a medic from Fort Myers, Fla.
As the operation got under way, Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Lockett, 26, of Huntsville, Ala., made a futile attempt to sort the more serious cases from the mundane.
“If you’ve got a serious medical condition, please raise your hand!” he shouted over the crowd.
When no one responded, Lockett turned to Thomas. “Hey sir,” he said. “They’ve all got serious medical issues, so good luck with that.”
Hundreds of Iraqis were clamoring to be seen, but it was soon evident there were simply too many of them to accommodate in one afternoon. Priority was given first to women and children, the old and infirm.
“I think it’s the fact that there’s just someone here to see them,” said Capt. Sayed Ali, 31, of Nairobi, Kenya, the unit’s surgeon.
But as the afternoon wore on and with dusk closing in, it became clear many villagers waiting in the street would never make it inside. At various times, soldiers came out among the crowd, distributing aspirin, alcohol swabs and various items, but even as they handed out what they could, the villagers still clamored for more.
Finally, a decision was made to let no one else inside the gate. Staff Sgt. Kenneth Gowins, 31, of Hurricane, W.Va., began ordering the crowd to move back.
Most dispersed. But dozens of kids still hung around. Soon, it became like a game. Gowins would order the kids back to a certain point, and as soon as he turned his back and walked away, they would start inching forward again.
One kid yelled out for Gowins’ name. “Sergeant Meanie!” Gowins shouted back.
It was a process that appeared as if it would take the patience of Job. But Gowins just shrugged it off.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “I’ve got three kids who are just like them. The only difference is I can spank them, though.”
Gowins said he’d seen much worse in Haiti in 1994.
As the operation ended, Gowins pointed out about a dozen of the kids and motioned for them to go inside. The kids readily helped the soldiers load boxes of unused medical supplies onto the back of a truck. They smiled as they did so.