Nov. 4, 2008
Dear TJP Readers and Jewish Community,
I hope that my letter finds all well with you.
It is not every morning when you wake up in the middle of a war zone, turn on the TV, and watch historic events unfold 7000 miles away, on the other side of the world. And that is exactly what I am doing this morning. As an officer in the United States Army presently deployed with the 345th Combat Support Hospital in Tikrit, Iraq….I am watching Barack Obama deliver his acceptance speech as president-elect of the United States of America. Even though I am far, far away from home, I can easily grasp the history of what is now being written on many levels. I will have a new commander-in-chief, the first African American commander-in-chief in the history of our great, democratic republic. Of the millions of American soldiers that have served our great nation over 222 years, from the hoary mists of the American Revolution, through the agony of the Civil War, from the crucible of fire on the beaches of Normandy in WWII, to the ferocious Battle of Fallujah fought recently just a few miles from where I now write to you, I am one of the very few and privileged who will now take orders from a president unlike any we have ever had. Seeing all this happen half a world away allows one the perspective of clarity. From my perch here in Iraq, America is once again illuminating the world with a new hope and the promise of a better world.
As a reserve officer in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, I have once again been called to active duty. My orders sent me to support the 345th Combat Support Hospital, 332nd Medical Brigade, 44th MEDCOM, at Camp Speicher, just outside of Tikrit. Since joining the Army on Sept. 12, 2001, this was to be my third deployment. It would be my second to Iraq, as I had initially served with the 67th CSH in Mosul back in 2003–2004.
I left home on Oct. 4, 2008. My wife Julee drove me to DFW, and with a simple kiss good-bye, sent me on my way. I was amazed and proud of her composure. The brunt of my deployments falls squarely on her, and she shoulders that very heavy load with her usual quiet strength and patriotism. She is an “Aishes Hayil,” a “Woman of Valor”! She remains the cornerstone of my life. I simply could not do my mission without her support and love. For 34 years, she has been, and continues to be, the best thing in my life!
The first leg of my active duty deployment began at Ft. Benning, Ga. This military base is an essential cog in the defense of our nation. It is a very serious place, known as the “Home of the Infantry,” where all day long one hears the sharp crack of machine gun fire from the weapons’ ranges, the blasts of artillery in the distance, the war cries of our troops as they practice airborne jumps from tall, steel towers. It is from such bases where the country ramps up to go to war, where we sharpen the “tip of the spear,” where we hone our warriors, where we initiate the process that insures the complete destruction and utter defeat of our enemies. While at Ft. Benning, I met the other doctors and nurses tasked to the 345th CSH. Together, we were subjected to intense, pre-mobilization training. Our days were long, often starting at 4:30 a.m. and finally finishing at 10 p.m. This training included weapons qualification, convoy training, and a Humvee escape exercise where we were strapped into a simulator (actual Humvee) and turned upside down. We then had to practice egress from the vehicle. This is not easy, as one becomes disoriented after rolling over, making it hard to find the door handle. Not to mention the fact that the Humvee armored doors weigh over 300 lbs. each, and are difficult to push open, particularly when you are upside down! This exercise is not a waste of time, as soldiers have died when their Humvees have been blasted over by IEDs, and then caught fire. Therefore, you need to be able to get out quickly! We were also given a multitude of briefings, on every imaginable topic relative to Iraqi security, culture, weather, insects, diseases, etc. Finally, we were ready. We shipped out and headed to the Middle East two days after Yom Kippur.
The first leg of our flight took us to Bangor, Maine where we arrived after midnight. To our amazement, we were welcomed by a huge crowd of flag-waving local citizens, forming two long greeting lines on either side of us while we de-planed. It was a warm welcome, much appreciated by all of us.
From Maine, we then flew to Leipzig, Germany and from there on to Kuwait. Once in Kuwait, we were transported by convoy to an isolated military base in the north of the country, near the southern Iraqi border. There, we were once again bombarded with three more days of briefings, more weapons training, finally crammed into the cargo bay of a C-130 Hercules, and flown into Tikrit, Iraq.
On the outskirts of Tikrit lies COB Speicher, a large, sprawling military base which will be my home for the next several months. It is located in an area which was once the heart of the insurgency. In fact, Tikrit was Saddam Hussein’s home town! If you remember, he was captured, hiding in a hole, not too far from here. Speicher has been the launch pad for American combat and civil affairs missions that have finally brought the insurgency, in this area, under control. There is a considerable amount of firepower here, including up-armored Humvees and the massive, new MRAPs (mine-resistant ambush protective), armed with everything from 50-caliber machine guns to 20-mm cannons. If you are al-Qaida or an insurgent, and you run into such firepower, our warriors will make sure that you have about a zero percent chance of survival. In addition, these vehicles have all kinds of new electronic warfare devices for defeating IEDs. Even though things are quieter in this corner of Iraq, you can still see daily convoys fan out into the surrounding villages, towns and countryside to maintain security and build the peace.
I arrived at COB Speicher on Oct. 15, and immediately settled into my work schedule with the 345th CSH (combat support hospital). Normally a CSH consists of about 88 beds, but our unit is split, with 44 beds being deployed at Al Asad in western Anbar Province, and the other half of the hospital being here, just outside of Tikrit. Our hospital is housed in a combination of tents and hard structure. We have an eight-bed ICU, 12-bed ICW (intermediate care ward) and 10-bed ER, along with fully equipped pharmacy, lab and X-ray departments consistent with what we call level III care. An integral part of the CSH is the LZ (landing zone) that can handle up to four helicopters simultaneously. All of this allows us to function as a high-speed, state-of-the-art hospital which can handle not only severely and critically wounded soldiers, but also serious medical illnesses such as pneumonia, asthma, kidney stones, etc.
Compared to my last Iraq deployment in 2003–2004, the level of violence is way, way down. In fact, this past month saw the lowest number of combat casualties and wounded since the war began. The difference between the level of violence then and now is dramatic! I attribute this dramatic improvement to strategic changes on the ground.
First of all, the Sunni Awakening Councils have come over to our side, and are not only providing us with valuable intel, but actually taking the fight to the enemy themselves, as they now serve in front-line units which directly engage the bad guys. As a result, our own soldiers provide backup with air support, communications, etc. and are no longer the guys spearheading many of these combat missions. Also, a lot of al-Qaida and insurgents have been killed, arrested, or fled to Afghanistan. These bad boys are, to say the least, quite unpopular in this corner of Iraq! Another factor perhaps adding to the new calm and stability is the simple fact that the local population has become sick and tired of all the killing and violence.
Even if we are seeing far less combat trauma, we continue to be moderately busy in the hospital as soldiers still get sick with flu, diarrhea, kidney stones (from intense heat causing dehydration), lacerations from playing softball, broken bones from falling out of trucks, and psych issues. Although these maladies don’t have the panache of inserting a stent into a coronary artery during a heart attack as I normally do in my civilian practice back home at the Baylor University Medical Center, they are nonetheless important because treating them makes our soldiers better, ultimately contributing to our fighting strength.
Although the overall level of violence is down, Iraq still remains a very dangerous place. It may be slow today, but things can change in an instant! All it takes is a single IED, or a sudden firefight to wound, maim or kill several of our combat jocks. In a heartbeat, we can find ourselves in a mass casualty situation where our combat hospital becomes inundated with critically wounded soldiers. Such is the nature of combat. It has been quiet. Yet we know that a mass casualty will eventually happen, that we will be tested. It is not a question of “if,” but “when” that test will come. None of us want to face the horrors of combat wounds, but if it is to happen, then I say: “BRING IT!” The 345th is mission trained and ready! We will kick ass!!
A few words about Jewish life here in Iraq. I was able to celebrate both Sukkot and Simchat Torah on base. A sukkah was built, and we were able to eat in it several nights. Michael Ackerson, a fellow reservist and Modern Orthodox rabbi from Baltimore, brought a beautiful Sefer Torah to Iraq. Not only were we able to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah, but we also read the appropriate parshiyot for both Shabbat and the Yomim Tovim. Regarding my diet, it has not been difficult to maintain my kashrut, as the Army has provided canned tuna fish, fresh salads, kippers, kosher MREs and yogurt. On a more personal and difficult note, I have been unable to say Kaddish for my father, who passed away this past April, as there is no minyan here at COB Speicher. I try not to let this get me down. Thankfully, my rabbi, Mendel Dubrawsky, and our ususal Shacharit “minyanaires” at my shul back home (Chabad Lubavitch of Dallas) are saying Kaddish for my Dad on my behalf, until I return home.
Well, I will close for now. I will send you a follow-up “Iraq Update” letter in the near future. In that next correspondence, I will introduce you to some of our amazing doctors, nurses and staff. Their stories are fascinating, uplifting and make for very interesting reading.
Until then, may you all go “from strength to strength.” If any of you wish to contact me, my e-mail address is:
Jerrold M. Grodin, M.D.
United States Army Medical Corps
345th Combat Support Hospital
COB Speicher, Iraq