For surgical team, Iraq deployment like starting over
MIESAU ARMY DEPOT, Germany — They’re home again, again.
After nine months in Iraq and Kuwait, 17 members of the Army’s 67th Forward Surgical Team touched down in Germany on Tuesday, returning from a place that some soldiers thought they’d never see again.
The team, which is still waiting on three members to return from the deployment, was among the first American units to head back into Iraq last year after the country’s government requested assistance fighting the Islamic State group.
“We’re pretty much starting all over again,” said Lt. Col. Ernesto Raymundo, a nurse anesthetist who last deployed to Iraq in 2009. “It’s a different type of operation. It’s not like the one we had before.”
The 67th, which consists of surgeons and other personnel who aid in trauma care, deployed to provide damage-control surgery to U.S. and other forces battling the militants.
“They pretty much refer to us as the insurance policy that nobody hopes to use,” said Spc. Andrew Taylor, 25, a practical nurse.
After a few months in Baghdad, the 67th split up and redeployed half of its personnel to al-Asad Air Base in Iraq’s restive Anbar province, while the rest went north to Irbil. Soldiers described finding living and working conditions that were nothing like what they were at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom, when a network of relatively well-appointed U.S. bases dotted the country.
Now, “it’s early entry operations, so there’s not much built,” Taylor said.
At al-Asad, personnel bathed from buckets of water. Communications with loved ones back in Germany and the U.S. were almost nonexistent. There were no laundry facilities.
Capt. Louis H. Smith, the team’s executive officer, had five previous deployments under his belt, including time in Iraq. Going back, “it was like going into an Old West ghost town, everything just where people left it and going in and setting ourselves back up,” he said. “Just kind of weird going back after having left back in 2010, not thinking I was ever going to go back, you know?”
This time, however, it’s Iraqi forces, not U.S. troops on the front lines, Smith said.
“Thankfully, where we were at … there were no U.S. casualties.”
Of the roughly three dozen surgeries the unit performed, all the patients were Iraqis, unit members said.
The conditions, while hard on the soldiers, were trying for the families back home, too.
“I think the challenging thing about this particular deployment is that we had a period of time where we had very little communication,” Katherine Smith, Capt. Smith’s wife, said. The lack of communications infrastructure resulted in “a long stretch of this deployment with very little communication. That was definitely creating a little more angst.”
Brittany Schaeffer said spending the holidays away from her husband, Staff Sgt. Brandon Fitzgerald, was the hardest part. The communication difficulties added to the anxiety. But after she’d gotten the news that the team had touched down in Germany on Tuesday, she was feeling more serene.
“Honestly, I’m just thankful the team is making it back safe,” Schaeffer said moments before the unit marched into a gymnasium filled with welcome home signs and their friends and families. “That’s all that matters. Everyone’s good. I’m sure they did some really wonderful things that he’ll tell me about.”