Military doctors busy treating Iraqi forces as ISIS continues fight
By CHAD GARLAND | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 22, 2018
A U.S.-led medical task force in Iraq has treated hundreds of patients over the past five months, including about 300 wounded Iraqi security personnel, as coalition forces have shifted from offensive operations to holding ground retaken from the Islamic State.
Though ISIS has lost all of the territory it once controlled in Iraq, remnants of the group continue to launch attacks, killing and wounding security forces and civilians.
The volume of patients and the rate of Iraqi wounded being treated has at times surprised U.S. officials.
Because Iraq often lacks sufficient medical capabilities to treat the casualties of the ISIS battle, now in its third year, coalition medical units are filling the gaps for now and working to train local medical staff for the future.
The U.S.-led coalition has mostly aided severely wounded Iraqi troops, but occasionally civilians as well, when life, limb or eyesight would otherwise be lost.
Based out of Washington’s Joint Base Lewis-McCord, the 47th Combat Support Hospital deployed to Iraq in early October, after much of the heavy fighting had ended and just a few months before Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared victory over the terrorists.
Nevertheless, the hospital has seen patients on nearly every day of its more than five months in country.
Pentagon data shows 16 Americans killed and five wounded in action while supporting the anti-ISIS fight in that period. Nearly half of the hospital’s patients have been Iraqi troops — a “significant rate,” said Col. Robert Howe, commander of the task force, known as TF Med.
During the grinding, monthslong battle for Mosul, the Iraqi government called on the World Health Organization to help provide front-line trauma care for those wounded in the battle, most of whom were civilians.
Though ISIS lost control of Mosul last summer and the rest of its Iraq territory by the end of 2017, a commander in northern Iraq said that confrontations between Kurdish forces and ISIS fighters continued to be bloody in the early part of this year. In recent weeks, the militants have carried out surprise attacks on Iraqi forces and government-backed militias.
The volume of patients in the first 90 days of the deployment was surprising, said Col. Jennifer Gurney, a surgeon with the medical task force. At the time, they’d received patients on all but one day and had treated nearly 400 in total, though that figure included everything from someone with the “sniffles” to cases of multiple traumatic wounds.
Since then, there have been few down days, but a slightly lighter volume of about 200 more patients treated, said Maj. Elizabeth Desitter, the command’s operations officer. That figure isn’t counting patients who came in for less urgent issues or dental and physical therapy appointments.
Equipped with a pharmacy, lab, X-ray unit and blood bank, the hospital provides the highest level of care for troops in the country and can keep patients as long as needed.
Troops from far-forward locations are transported there after being stabilized by surgical elements at forward positions, in an effort to treat the wounded within 60 minutes. During that critical period, known as the “golden hour,” the odds of saving their lives are greatest.
The hospital also keeps those far-forward units stocked with blood for transfusions, a key focus of its efforts, which supplies managed at 15 sites. Supported units have received 100 boxes of blood, Desitter said.
Each box can contain up to 20 units of whole blood — more than that if packed with other types of blood product like platelets — and each unit could save up to three lives, though in some cases trauma patients may need dozens of units or more.
Gurney said the Iraqis who had been treated were largely suffering from gunshot or blast wounds.
However, Howe said the unit has “expanded the scope a bit,” in part to keep surgical and other critical skills sharp.
The medical staff is also performing restorative operations to repair years-old devastating injuries some Iraqis have suffered. The surgeries may address bone loss or disease that have destroyed or damaged the patients’ limbs. Some patients have been able to walk for the first time in years following surgery, Gurney said.
Training with the Iraqis and partners
The task force also has trained Iraqi medical professionals, with the ultimate aim of “working itself out of a job,” Desitter said.
To support the large number of Iraqi wounded, the task force has been developing a course to teach Iraqi personnel to train physical therapy assistants, Desitter said.
Training helps officials keep up their readiness during the occasional slow periods, she said. To prepare for their deployment, they reviewed lessons their predecessors learned from the grinding battles for Iraq’s Mosul and Syria’s Raqqa. They’ve since shared those lessons with their Iraqi counterparts, 20 of whom have been trained to teach others basic combat lifesaver skills. They’re now working on advanced skills.
The Americans have also trained in theater-specific skills with British, Dutch, German, Australian and Canadian teams. Personnel from 10 countries make up the medical task force, which includes U.S. troops from the Army, Navy and Air Force.
Howe, the task force commander, said he was proud of the work they’d been doing.
“We’ve got the best job out there,” he said.