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1st FSSG surgeon helps ailing Iraqi children take first steps toward healing hands in states

27 May 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

A reserve Navy doctor here is working with a children's charity to help young Iraqis with serious health problems receive treatment in America that is not available in Iraq.

Cmdr. Joel Hardin, a pediatric cardiologist in Chicago moonlighting as a surgeon with 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, has seen three girls from villages in the Al Anbar province to assess their conditions and determine if they should leave Iraq for care in the United States.

Hardin gave each child an examination and reviewed their medical history before recommending their cases to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, a non-profit group based in the United States dedicated to trying to save the lives of ailing Middle Eastern children by providing them with free care.

One 7-year-old girl has a neurological disorder that causes fluid to collect in her brain. The other two girls, 10-year-olds Hardin saw at Camp Al Asad, have congenital heart disease.

The Marine Corps doesn't normally deploy with doctors to care specifically for children, so word of Hardin's expertise has spread beyond the 1st Force Service Support Group, under which two companies of the reserve infantry battalion fall. It was top leaders from the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing who brought all three girls' plights to his attention.

Children here lack many medical resources because the Iraqi health care system, once the hub of the Middle Eastern medical community, has slowly deteriorated over the last decade, said Hardin.

The Gulf War, he said, left numerous facilities demolished and the surgeons ten years behind the rest of the modern world.

He expects that humanitarian missions led by coalition forces, coupled with medical training and supplies donated by charities, will help return the system to its former glory within three to four years.

"It's poor now, but it has great promise, and it had a great history," he said.

With no pediatric hospitals in Iraq, the ailing trio makes up only a small percentage of children in need of overseas medical attention, said Steve Sosebee, the head of the charity.

"Consider the fact that Iraq has over 20 million people, and there are over 2,000 babies born a year there with congenital heart disease, if not more," said Sosebee in an e-mail interview. "There is not a single center there to treat them. So they are all dying, eventually, from a disease which in the United States or Europe is treated without too much trouble."

The organization has helped more than 400 Middle Eastern children since it was formed in 1991.

Hardin's referral of a case to the charity, though only the beginning of the process, is where the military usually steps aside.

Even after treatment has been arranged in America, family concerns can halt the process.

Current rules prevent fathers from accompanying their children to the states. According to Hardin, this stems from fears that they will take up illegal residency when treatment is done. Mothers are encouraged to go, but none of the three children's fathers have yet blessed a trip to America without their attendance.

Although working with children is a far cry from his military job as a combat surgeon with an infantry unit, it is what he feels more comfortable doing, said Hardin, who joined the Navy on a whim five years ago "for the experience."

Children here have the same innocence as the ones he treats at his clinic in Chicago, he said.

"There is nothing different about them; that is why I like them," he said. "They remind me of the kids back home. They smile despite some very difficult situations."

He noted how one girl he examined remained calm and cheerful while Marine artillery fired from a nearby position. Meanwhile, doctors and Marines were jumping with every burst.

"That's just the way she grew up," he said. "When all of the military personnel are flinching and this child isn't fazed, it kind of puts things into perspective. She was treating it like it was thunder."

Hardin, 42, said his experiences meeting Iraqi villagers with the Marines during some of their civil affairs visits have helped him see more of the population's similarities to Americans.

"Unless you go to the villages and talk to the people, you haven't seen Iraq," he said. "I've found out that Iraqi fathers remind me a whole hell of a lot of any father I've met in Chicago."

He claims the Iraqi people have won his heart and mind by demonstrating how similar they are to Americans, and he hopes word of such positive military involvement will spread through the villages as family members talk about it.

"We're willing to help in a way they didn't think we would," he said about the cooperation between the Iraqis and the military. "It makes this one world again."
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