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    Operation Iraqi Freedom – two decades after from Naval Hospital Bremerton

    Operation Iraqi Freedom – two decades after from Naval Hospital Bremerton

    Photo By Douglas Stutz | Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman (Fleet Marine Force) Cameron Wink (then as a hospital...... read more read more

    They were there - slogged and sutured - at the very beginning.

    They were also there during the surgeries and surges in the battle-scarred years to follow.

    At the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 20, 2003, to the final days of Operation New Dawn in 2011, Naval Hospital Bremerton staff members continually deployed for medical support inside and out of Iraq.

    From the Kuwait/Iraq border on up to cities along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, from Baghdad’s Green Zone to the western desert of Anbar Province, and a host of contested locales in between, NHB doctors, nurses, hospital corpsmen, and support staff were there.

    They embedded with various units which included Marines 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Medical Battalion, Special Warfare Group Iraq, 20th Seabee Readiness Group, Civil Affairs, Warrior Transition Team, 1st Marine Expeditionary Forces, 3d Marine Air Wing, 1st Marine Logistic Group and 1st Force Service Support Group, and 28th Combat Support Hospital.

    NHB sent nearly 300 staff members to augment Fleet Hospital Eight at U.S. Naval Base Rota Spain in early 2003 to gear up for Operation Iraqi Freedom, and also deployed approximately 200 additional staff members to help run Expeditionary Medical Facility Kuwait that rendered support to the ground mission just north of the Kuwaiti border inside Iraq through 2011.

    NHB staff members were directly involved in assisting with caring for the almost 3,500 American troop fatalities and the approximately 32,000 service men and women wounded throughout OIF and OND.

    Yet the decade for many NHB staff members, some who did multiple deployments, produced more than simple statistics and accumulated data. The time spent brought many to the forefront of their chosen Navy Medicine profession, in ways that forever remain etched in their professional bearing and personal mindset.

    At the Beginning
    “I don’t recall exactly when I knew that Fleet Hospital Eight would play a major role, but soon after 9/11, we knew something was ramping up,” recalled retired Hospital Corpsman Chief Steven C. Jackson, who deployed from March to September 2003 as leading chief petty officer for Fleet Hospital Eight Surgical Services. “We were materially ready thanks to good preparation and training, but we had no idea what to expect or how it would affect our own lives.”

    NHB received orders February 2003 to allocate, ready and deploy personnel to stand up and support a 116–bed Expeditionary Medical Facility (EMF) to Rota in support of Operations Enduring/Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) and possible future contingencies. NHB’s Operational Readiness Department coordinated all logistics to marshal, ready and deploy 274 NHB personnel and others from nine other gaining commands around the country to form Fleet Hospital Eight.

    “Our first group set up the EMF on a vacant lot next to the flight line and by mid-deployment we had built the 250-bed fleet hospital,” said retired Hospital Corpsman Senior Chief Timothy D. Stewart, who was assigned to Inpatient Services as the ward leading chief petty officer. “It seems like so long ago, and we probably weren’t prepared for what was to be done. My fellow corpsmen erected a quality structure and cared for our wounded warriors to the best of their abilities. It was a pleasure to serve with them as they did all the hard stuff.”

    Stewart noted that they treated almost 1,700 patients with 78 hospital corpsmen running seven wards and worked port to starboard [12 hours on, 12 hours off] shifts nearly the entire time deployed in 2003. “I was extremely proud of how well my corpsmen completed their duties. We received accolades from the soldiers and Marines we were treating,” he said.

    Jackson attests to the mettle and resolve of the fleet hospital staff to deal with the influx of incoming injured from the battlefield.

    “Seeing some of the ‘miracles’ performed by our surgeons and nurses was truly memorable. They handled facial reconstructions, avulsed limbs, severe eye injuries and more. Watching our junior corpsmen step up to effectively and efficiently handle the support challenge turned them quickly into seasoned professionals,” Jackson said.

    At the start and then back again
    Senior Chief Hospital Corpsmen Cameron Wink served through two Iraqi War deployments.

    As a Fleet Marine Force ‘doc’ he was part of the Marines 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion which made the initial thrust across the Kuwait-Iraq border March 20, 2003. Their push took them north of Baghdad and included Saddam Hussein’s hometown of Tikrit.

    During that time, he dealt with battlefield wounds and injuries, along with rendering first aid to civilians.

    “We really saw more Iraqi civilians for medical needs than Marines during that time. There were shrapnel and bullet wounds. But the Iraqis were coming to see us for just about anything because they knew we would treat them,” recalled Wink.

    There were no improvised explosive devices which would become a signature weapon of choice against Coalition forces by July. There was unexploded ordnance, anti-personal mines, mortar attacks and small arms injuries. There were also preventive medicine concerns such as infectious diseases like malaria and environmental issues like tainted water.

    “We had shrapnel wounds from mortar rounds landing near-by, as well as gunshot wounds. There were also the typical cases of being in the field and dealing with dysentery,” said Wink.

    On the Field of Battle
    It was at Al Fallujah, in December 2004, when Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Richard Vaughn was dealing with an insurgent prisoner and about to have his immediate world explode.

    Assigned to 1st Marine Division, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine with Kilo Company, 2nd Platoon, 3rd Squadron, Vaughn, then a hospitalman, was involved in Operation Phantom Fury, a two-month battle - considered by many to be the bloodiest of the Iraq War - fought in the ravaged cityscape against a determined enemy.

    Vaughn and a Marine from his squad were each escorting an insurgent from a dwelling across a courtyard when a sudden explosion brought a sudden rush of searing shrapnel, concussive noise and hot air filled with swirling debris.

    “The whole place just seemed to blow up. I didn’t know what it was and, to this day, still don’t know what caused that blast. A hidden projectile? An improvised explosive device? An RPG?” related said Vaughn, currently a hospital corpsman 1sty class assigned to the Mental Health Department as a Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program (SARP) counselor. “All I know is that at that time I had a hold of the insurgent in my right hand and was carrying my medical kit and weapon in my left. We were propelled forward. I didn’t let go of either the insurgent or my gear.”

    Vaughn’s pressing concern centered on his Marine who sustained a leg injury from the blast which tore into his pants and severely injured the limb. There was also still the responsibility to deliver the insurgents to their designated staging area.

    “We got out of the courtyard, around the corner, and dropped off the prisoners. I then cleaned up the leg injury of my Marine and got him off to a Surgical Shock Trauma Platoon. We weren’t too far from that unit,” Vaughn said.

    Vaughn then finally took a moment to examine himself.

    “When the explosion went off, it felt like someone had taken a baseball bat to my left shoulder. There was numbness in my arm. I remember I could feel blood seeping down inside my uniform top. My Marines were on the radio all saying, ‘Doc Vaughn has been hit!’ But after I looked at myself, I thought it really wasn’t that bad. It really could have been a lot worse. To this day I have a hard time telling this, but it really was amazing that it wasn’t worse. I chalked it up to prayer that there was no gaping wound. Several weeks after I was asked about the injury and I said it was really nothing,” said Vaughn.

    Upon returning to Camp Pendleton from deployment, Vaughn’s chain of command took exception to his own assessment. He was presented with the Purple Heart.

    “Everyone was wounded to some degree in Fallujah, physically as well as mentally and emotionally. We lost a lot of Marines, and the wounded were too many to count. I don’t think what I did was anything special. I was just doing what I had to do,” stated Vaughn.

    Compiled statistics note that there were 71 U.S. fatalities with the Marines suffering 40 killed in action during that battle.

    His time spent in Al Fallujah included Vaughn engaged in running firefights which lasted three to four hours as his Marines were confronted by a host of insurgents operating from rudimentary – but effective – tunnels and underground bunkers.

    “We fought those guys. Our Marines were right there in those battles. It was rough. If I focus, I can still remember little details like sounds and smells and sights. When you spend seven months wondering if each new day might be your last, your attention to detail can be amazing,” Vaughn shared, adding that as harrowing as it was, there was a special affinity he felt for those he cared for as their ‘doc.’

    Vaughn does get queried at times about his Purple Heart. His response is typically just one word that needs little elaboration.

    “I usually just say ‘Fallujah,’ and that seems to be enough,” stated Vaughn. “There were a lot of Purple Hearts where I came from with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine. Being included with them, I am humbled and honored to wear it.”

    Retired Navy Capt. William Coger was also assigned in 2008 at Fallujah as officer in charge of the Shock Trauma Platoon with [Marine] Combat Logistics Battalion 1.

    “It was the Anbar [Province] surge period, slightly less kinetic overall compared to earlier years,” related Coger, NHB Urgent Care Clinic physician. “As with most deployments, it was periods of boredom with episodic bursts of activity.”

    The most challenging aspect? “Probably adjusting to the summer heat. Temps were in the 120 range,” said Coger, noting it was gratifying to get all his people home safe. He also has memories of those who didn’t make it back.

    “They all involve patients that didn’t survive,” mentioned Coger.

    Non-Combat Support Command Ops
    For Legalman 2nd Class Debra M. Crawford arriving in Iraq, November 2006, became a reality check every day assigned to Task Force 134, Detainee Operations with the Magistrate Cell at Camp Cropper, a coalition forces Theater Interment Facility in western Baghdad.

    Crawford spent the majority of her time supporting Navy JAG corps officers with multiple levels of file review ensuring each detainee received due process.

    “Our work was important. Having a supportive command, understanding family and a good group of people to work with made a difference,” shared Crawford, current Medical Corps and Dental Corps coordinator and secretary for Surgical Services, Public Health and Branch Clinics at NHB/NMRTC Bremerton.

    There was constant gunfire in the surrounding area, helicopters landing and departing, even controlled detonations providing the almost continuous background noise of a war zone.

    “There were mortar rounds that we could feel shake the surrounding areas. At one point one of the dining galleys was hit. I was so worried because I knew my friend was there eating. However, she had just left. But until I heard from her it was hard to deal with,” related Crawford.

    Some of Crawford’s vivid memories center on the minutia of an overseas deployment.

    “One day one of the interpreters brought in a rose and the scent caught my attention. To this day I love the scent of roses,” recalled Crawford. “I remember going to get something to eat one day and a couple that worked at the galley had their children with them. I didn’t realize how much I missed hearing a child’s laughter. One of the JAG’s had his wife send him some seeds to plant. He planted and watered them all the time. When he left, I continued to water them and watched them grow. That is when I realized how much I missed seeing the green trees in Washington.”

    Behavioral Health to the Fore
    Wink was back in Iraq in 2009 assigned to a Warrior Transition Detail where he worked directly with wounded personnel. He helped assess servicemembers before, during and after their deployment for signs of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), traumatic brain injury, concussions and depression.

    “So much changed between that first time and when I was back,” recalled Wink, who became a psychiatric technician after the first deployment. “We could treat the physical wounds in 2003 but didn’t pay as much attention back then to their mental trauma as we do now.”

    Wink affirmed that those wounded on the field of battle during his time benefited by improvements made within military medicine from the point of injury to triage to surgery.

    “If they’re hurt, there’s a 90 percent chance that they are going to survive. These are young, healthy adults,” said Wink, adding that saving lives also came with emotional as well as physical scars to address.

    “Maybe they had ambition to go to college and play football. Now they have no legs. It’s hard to be 19 and think you can’t accomplish some of your hopes and dreams you had before you went to war. But because of the medical advances, I’d give up all my arms and legs to come back and see my family again,” shared Wink, who applied his mental health expertise to work hand in hand with other specialties to help facilitate a total treatment regime for servicemembers from the battlefield to the home front.

    “Many personnel have co-occurring issues that may not arise until after treatment programs are instituted,” explained Wink. “Identifying the issue is step one. Once they identify these problems, many times after only a few sessions, the treatment team moves into action. The communication and cooperation between the separate departments allows for the individuals to achieve coping skills, life skills and overall better mental health.”

    Wink found himself going wherever needed to provide care to Sailors and Marines.

    “It was really rewarding and much different than a combat deployment. It was a great experience keeping hearts and minds in the fight,” said Wink, noting that his previous ’03 deployment provided him credibility in relating to others because he knew the reality of what many were going through having already been there, done that.

    Towards the End
    Retired Master Chief Hospital Corpsman Tom Countryman’s one-year deployment from 2010 through 2011 as command master chief at Expeditionary Medical Facility Kuwait covered a time when the drawdown of troops in Iraq went from 90,000 to 50,000.

    The war-time violence had abated, yet still flared.

    “It didn’t mean that our workload got any easier and it didn’t mean we stopped doing what needed to be done. We continued to provide urgent and emergent expeditionary medicine and primary care, as well as combat force health sustainment. Those were our main missions,” Countryman explained.

    EMF Kuwait served as a Level III hospital with top-notch resources for emergency room needs, surgery requirements, Intensive Care calls, clinical providers on call, and vital laboratory and blood bank concerns.

    “One of the goals I reminded our Sailors was to continue to get better than they were when they came here. My primary personal goal was the same as any other CMC that has ever been on deployment, and that was to take care of our troops and get every one of them home safely. That goes double for our patients,” Countryman said.

    After the final withdrawal from Iraq ended Operation New Dawn, December 15, 2011, NHB’s support for ongoing contingency operations primarily shifted to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. For over a decade, a steady stream of NHB personnel helped man the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield, as well as isolated camps, forward operating bases and counterterrorism operations. Another retrospective for another day.


    Date Taken: 03.17.2023
    Date Posted: 03.17.2023 10:04
    Story ID: 440635

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