AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Saving lives. These two simple words sum up one vital endeavor for the sailors of the Al Asad Surgical unit here.
Whether it’s injured U.S. service members, Iraqi Security Forces or civilians from the local populace, this medical unit in western Iraq is fully prepared to provide treatment to those in need.
Al Asad Surgical is usually the first stop for Marines who are seriously wounded fighting insurgents in places like Hadithah, Husaybah and Al Qaim - towns in the northwest corner of Iraq that continue to be hotspots of insurgent activity.
Since they assumed command in late February, the unit has handled nearly 200 patients including members of the ISF and several insurgents.
The majority of injuries the unit has treated have been from improvised explosive devices, said Lt. Cmdr. Ben A. Powell, an en route care nurse with the unit.
In the surrounding area, Al Asad Surgical is the primary provider of extreme and timely care, said Powell, a 38-year-old native of St. Libory, Neb.
If Al Asad Surgical was not here, a patient’s chances of survival would diminish exponentially, he said.
There are five levels of medical care for service members in Iraq, beginning with level one, which is provided by battalion-level aid stations and ending with level five care that is provided back in the States.
Al Asad Surgical provides level two medical care, the highest level of care outside of the Combat Army Surgical Hospitals at Baghdad and Ballad.
The flow for such vital care was uninterrupted as the current crew that just arrived in Feruary had a seamless transition with the staff they replaced, said Navy Lt. Joseph A. Gomez, a critical care nurse with the unit.
Even with the guidance from those who have been here for the past seven months, and their intense medical schooling, the new medical personnel here know they still have much to learn.
“Nothing prepares you for this environment; experience is what is getting us through,” said Ensign Maria G. Kennedy, 29, who recently helped a 10-year-old boy from a near-by village who had suffered a serious head trauma.
With each additional case the nurses are getting more proficient at providing care not only on the ground, but in the air as well.
Al Asad Surgical provides a service that no other medical unit in the surrounding area can offer – patient stabilization during helicopter medical evacuations from Al Asad to higher-level medical facilities elsewhere in Iraq, Powell said.
Every nurse assigned to the ‘Forward Resuscitative Surgical Suite’ has handled multiple cases of en-route care, said Kennedy, a native of San Diego.
To date they have performed 17 medical evacuation flights.
Sailors like Petty Officer 2nd Class Keith J. O’Brien, an operating room assistant, find a sense of satisfaction in their role in this conflict.
O’Brien also works in the FRSS, which works hand-in-hand with the shock trauma platoon to stabilize patients, prepare them for flight and provide in-flight care.
Unfortunately, that sense of satisfaction only goes so far; the trauma that O’Brien has seen will linger in his mind for a long time to come, he said.
“I’m not going to lie to you, some of the stuff that I have seen here, just in the past month, still haunts me,” he said.
O’Brien’s father, a physician’s assistant and former corpsman, has also seen the horrors of combat and has spoken with his son about what he would see in Iraq.
“He’s been doing it a long time, and he’s told me how to cope with it,” he said. When his father returned from Iraq, O’Brien saw his father cry, a rare occurrence.
For father and son, dealing with the emotions of handling trauma care is something they work on together.
The best thing corpsmen can do is talk it out; getting the experiences off their chests helps the sailors deal with the burden they all carry, O’Brien said.
One Iraqi civilian O’Brien helped treat was a two-year-old boy who had been badly scalded after falling into boiling water his family was using to wash clothes.
The family brought the boy to Al Asad Surgical; his father saying, 'Help me, please,' O’Brien said.
“That’s our job, to help people. We treated and saved his son,” said O’Brien, who has a son roughly the same age.
The child was returned to the family better off than when he arrived, but O’Brien wasn’t sure if the child survived after leaving the base.
“I’d be surprised to hear that he didn’t make it,’ O’Brien said. “The health-care providers here are phenomenal.”
A seasoned operating room assistant, O’Brien said that in light of what he has experienced in Iraq, he feels as if he just arrived out of the Navy’s Field Medical Service School.
“It’s a really different task that we do out here,” he explained, comparing what he does stateside to the care they provide here.
Back in the states, O’Brien was in charge of training for the unit, making sure all the Marines and sailors in Alpha Surgical were properly prepared for their deployment.
One particularly useful course the sailors experienced was the month-long Naval Trauma Training Course with one of the busiest hospitals in the U.S., the Los Angeles County Hospital.
Although it’s next to impossible to truly prepare for experiencing trauma firsthand, the wounds the sailors saw at L.A. County were an eye-opener, O’Brien said.
“A lot of the stuff experienced at L.A. County really equates to what we see here,” he said.
For these sailors, providing such necessary and urgent care is a mission that is never thankless; even if they never get the chance to hear their patients thank them personally.
“There is a lot of self satisfaction and a lot of pride in what everybody does here,” Gomez said. “To see someone leave here in a better condition than they were, it’s a feeling no one can ever explain.”