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Volunteering in Iraq an eye-opening experience

SWYMOUR JOHNSON AIR FORCE BASE, NC -- If you talk to enough people who have deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq, they will paint you a picture about a location where a lot of your time is devoted to responding to mortar and rocket attacks, and donning your flak vest and helmet as part of your daily routine. While this may be an accurate description, many people are surprised to hear about other ways people manage to fill the void between attacks and elevated FPCONs. Now don't get me wrong, I was awoken by thundering explosions several times and was forced to take cover behind bunkers to avoid incoming mortars on many occasions, but nothing stirred me more or provided me with a closer view of joint-force operations than the experience I gained by volunteering at the base hospital.

After hearing the personal accounts that my roommate had to offer regarding her own experiences while volunteering at the hospital, I decided to give it a try myself. So, the first time I got a 24-hour break from the mind-boggling world of air traffic control, I made my way over to the hospital and saw right away what my roommate was referring to. What an eye-opening experience. I have to admit that my initial impression of what to expect was far from what I actually experienced. I imagined I would see a few patients with the flu or an occasional shrapnel wound from a mortar attack, and I also prepared myself to handle a negative reception from disgruntled Iraqi soldiers, but I can now tell you I was completely wrong.

I was originally assigned to "the PAD," an area designated for removing patient litters from helicopters, however, there wasn't any activity there, so I was sent directly to ICU #1 and quickly thrown into action. I was administered an impromptu "class" on how to take vitals and immediately rushed over to "Pepper's" bed. Pepper was a nickname aptly given to a gentleman who had more than 100 bullet holes after being shot by an insurgent. Since nobody knew the man's name, Pepper seemed to be an appropriate label, and the name just stuck. After taking Pepper's vitals, the next thing I knew, I was taking vital signs on everyone in the room--from American soldiers who were missing limbs to Iraqi soldiers and citizens who were barely clinging to life. Next, I was hurried off to the recovery ward where volunteers were asked to sit with patients and try to help them keep up their spirits. This is where I met Julian.

Julian was a four-year old Iraqi boy who had suffered third degree burns over 75 percent of his body. He was the unfortunate victim of a roadside car bomb that killed his mother. His father, who only experienced minor injuries, stood by Julian's side day after day. I made a point to spend at least 20 minutes a day with Julian, and over time I watched him progress from not being able to walk or talk to leaving the hospital on his own two feet. It was a very exciting day for him and many others when he finally left, for he had touched many people's lives, including the military members, inspiring them with his courage and strength.
Next, I made my way to the ward for recovering Iraqi soldiers. At first I did not know what to expect, but my worries were soon calmed when a man with an ankle injury in the first bed motioned me over to him. I hesitantly made my way towards him when he grabbed my hand and said "Thank you much" in the best English he could speak. Although he was not well-versed in the English language his words still sent chills through me.

Later that day while serving a brief stint in the X-ray laboratory, we received the call advising that helicopters were inbound to the PAD with patients who needed to be unloaded. When I arrived I was paired with a male staff sergeant, and we waited for the signal to approach the helicopter to retrieve our first litter. The first patient we unloaded was a Marine who was missing his right leg and parts of his fingers. I knew these patients were coming to us straight from battle, so I swallowed hard and headed towards the emergency room. We made several trips back to the helicopter and off-loaded several more patients including one who had a sheet draped over him. I quickly realized that I was carrying a fallen comrade, and a tear came to my eye. The doctor in the ER asked us to take the patient to the designated area, after which my first day at the hospital came to an end.

The next day I was informed about a Patriot detail where deployed members salute our fallen heroes as they are loaded onto a plane for their last journey home. I readily seized the opportunity to participate in this dignified event. When I arrived, I found willing people of all ranks, officer and enlisted, who selflessly dedicated their time to honor those who gave their all to secure our freedom. It was an extremely heart-lifting experience.

To volunteer is to perform, or offer to perform, work of your own free will. It is not something that one does simply to satisfy an EPR bullet. The volunteers that I worked with at the hospital at Balad AB performed their duties of their own free will and without hesitation. If you ever get the chance to deploy don't be content with just doing your job and returning to your pod at the end of the day. Go out and volunteer--not for a bullet but for those who need your help. I promise you will gain an entirely new perspective and appreciation for the joint, expeditionary force our military has evolved into and experience first-hand the tremendous job that everyone is doing to win the war against terrorism.