Okinawa sailors recall Iraq surgical duties
CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — Artillery fire. Explosions.
It was part of their daily routine and they dealt with it — the best they could.
“It is much better to hear artillery going out rather than coming in,” said Seaman John Hammersla, a surgical technologist with U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa. He was recalling his seven months deployed to a forward resuscitative surgical site in Iraq.
Hammersla, Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Parra and Seaman Tim Blazosky, all surgical techs who returned to Okinawa in mid-March, talked Tuesday about their experience as individual augmentees with Charlie Surgical, 1st Medical Battalion.
Hammersla and Parra worked in a makeshift building at Camp Fallujah that was converted into a hospital run by a staff of about 60. Blazosky worked in hanger-turned-hospital in Al Taqaddum with a staff of about 200.
At a base hospital, surgeries are normally scheduled in advance. But in Iraq, Hammersla said, you never know when you will be called upon.
“We would be at the chow hall getting something to eat and would get a radio call that patients were coming in,” said Hammersla, 25. “At all hours of the night, we would be called to get up and do our job.”
Not knowing was “a nerve-racking experience,” he said.
Artillery fire never made the experience easier. And it was worse in the operating room, Parra said.
“If you were in the OR and you heard incoming, there was nothing you could do. If a patient was on the table, you just had to hope (artillery) doesn’t hit your building,” Parra said.
Blazosky, 22, said he, too, heard lots of explosions in Al Taqaddum.
“They usually fired in bursts of three,” he said. “You would hear the first one and know there were two more coming, and you would have to wait for them.”
But artillery was not the worst thing about Iraq.
Parra said nothing compared to “looking down at the patient we were working on and then finding out he was an 18-year-old kid who joined the Marine Corps right out of high school, and knowing he wasn’t going to make it back to his family.”
It happened too many times, Parra said.
Said Blazosky: “I had never seen anyone die before till I got there.” He said he has dealt with it by not thinking about it. By blocking it out.
Hammersla also saw death for the first time. “You have to get past it,” he said. “If you let it get to you, then it takes your mind away from helping the surgeons and the patients.”