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Reserve docs reflect with pride on experiences caring for detainees at Abu Ghraib

31 Aug 2004 | Sgt. Matt Epright

A handful of hospital corpsmen, trained to treat combat casualties for a Marine reserve infantry battalion, instead found themselves caring for sick and wounded detainees at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison for the past six months.

As they now get ready to return to the United States, the 11 docs from K Company, 3rd Battalion, 24th Marine Regiment, said they feel they made a positive impact.

When they arrived at Abu Ghraib in March, the Navy corpsmen, working with medics from two Army units, began assessing the general health of the prison's occupants. Though they were available to treat the K Company Marines that guarded the outer perimeter of the detention facility, their primary duty was to be on call 24/7 for the prisoner population.

"We were taking care of over 7,000 when we first got there," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Travis R. Neher.

The corpsmen ran a daily "sick call," the same as they would do at any military unit, to give the detainees the opportunity to come to them about any health problem and get medication for illnesses. Prisoners who spoke English translated for those who could not.

"You got to see a lot of different types of problems," said Petty Officer 3rd Class David A. Saunders, a 27-year-old native of Denton, Texas. "It makes you think on your feet a lot of times."

During their six-month stay at Abu Ghraib, K Company's docs conducted about 20,000 appointments.

"We made a huge, positive difference," said Petty Officer 1st Class David A. Lintz. "I'm very glad I did it."

The corpsmen gave the same quality of care to the detainees that they would normally give to American service members. The Army doctors they worked for even went out in town to purchase medications that they did not have on-hand, said Neher.

There was a separate section of the prison for those with chronic health problems, such as diabetes, arthritis or kidney failure, which the docs treated, said Neher, 29, and a native of Jasper, Mo.

"Some of these people have had these illnesses for multiple years," said Neher, who added that the lack of quality medical care in Iraq had the corpsmen "trying to play catch-up."

Chief among the complaints, in the general population, were symptoms directly related to dehydration, including kidney stones, said Neher.

The docs had to constantly remind the detainees to drink more water to avoid such problems.

The corpsmen also performed health assessments for incoming prisoners, who sometimes arrived with injuries from battle or from mistakes made while attempting to plant explosives.

Some of the docs found treating the enemy emotionally difficult.

"We were dealing with detainees that the day before were possibly blowing up or killing Americans," said Neher. "You were staring that person in the face and you knew what they had done because sometimes they would tell you."

Nevertheless, the docs still had a job to do.

"You had to go around that ... and actually treat them as a human being instead of looking at them as the enemy," said Neher.

They were successful at altering many perceptions.

"I can't say we didn't make quite a few friends here and there," said Neher.

In April, the line between enemy and friend was further blurred when the prison was hit with insurgent-fired mortars.

After each of the two large-scale mortar attacks the corpsmen leapt into action, performing triage and trauma care on the detainees as they would on any battlefield.

"We seemed to get along better after that," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert W. Merz, a 39-year-old native of Pompano Beach, Fla.

Some saw the work as familiar territory.

"I found it close to my civilian job as a paramedic, having the same kind of problems, the same challenges," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Thomas M. Moore.

Even with the docs' efforts, the mortar strikes devastated the facility's occupants, killing more than 30 and wounding almost 250.

When they began treating the victims of the second mortar attack, the medics started a logbook, in which they recorded any combat-related injuries that the detainees suffered from. They documented wounds received both during the mortar attacks and before incarceration, as well as what they did to treat the injuries, said Lintz, a 44-year-old native of Sacramento, Calif.

"There's over 950 individual treatments here," said Lintz. "Navy medicine made a huge difference down there."

Elements of the Army's 115th Field Hospital, from Fort Polk, La., are replacing the corpsmen. With the Army's arrival, the Navy docs are on their way home, returning to their civilian jobs as paramedics, firefighters and nurses. They look back on the last six months with pride.

"We were doing a lot of good there. We were making a difference," said Moore, a 39-year-old St. Louis resident. "I went to work every day just knowing, 'I'm going to help someone today.'"
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