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Iraq diary offers gritty glimpse

Kevin Horrigan St. Louis Post-Dispatch

T he Pentagon reported last Tuesday that the number of U.S. troops wounded in the Iraq war had passed 10,000. Of the 10,252 wounded since the war began in March 2003, about half — 5,396 — were hurt so badly they couldn’t return to duty. The rest were patched up and sent back to work.

Also on Tuesday, in a not completely unrelated event, someone in the Army’s chain of command ordered Maj. Michael Cohen to shut down his Web log, Maj. Cohen, who grew up in Bucks County, Pa., is the chief emergency surgeon at the 67th Combat Support Hospital at Forward Operating Base Marez, south of Mosul in Northern Iraq.

If FOB Marez sounds familiar, it should: It’s the base that was attacked in the mess hall suicide bombing of Dec. 21. Twenty-three troops and civilians were killed in the attack, including a Saudi citizen believed to have walked into the mess tent wearing a vest packed with plastic explosives and ball bearings. An additional 72 troops and civilians were injured in the attack.

Many of those 72 wounded were injured critically and might have died without the work of Dr. Cohen and his colleagues at the 67th CSH. Indeed, many of the 5,396 wounded soldiers and Marines who survived owe their lives to combat medics, doctors, nurses, technicians and medevac pilots. Our troops are surviving horrible wounds that would have killed them in any previous war.

Which makes it all the more baffling why the Army would order Dr. Cohen to close down his blog. His accounts of the casual, almost day-to-day heroism of American men and women were riveting; a real-life M*A*S*H complete with humor, profanity and a deep pride in military and medical professionalism.

“Sometimes a blog might contain subtle nuances from which you can put together a complete picture of our operations, which insurgents can use to attack us,” a coalition spokesman told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We definitely don’t want to impinge on somebody’s free speech. We’re out here defending that. But it can cross a line.”

Yes, but it didn’t take a computer genius to notice a big white mess tent filled with soldiers lining up for chow.

The rest of today’s space will be devoted to short excerpts from Maj. Cohen’s blog. If you want more, Google “Michael Cohen and blog and iraq” and find pieces scattered elsewhere on the Web. Or you can e-mail him at and say thank you:

Friday, Nov. 12 — Around 1030 this morning, a Stryker (military vehicle) came rolling up, and they pulled a seriously injured infantryman out of a very bloody vehicle. He had a wound on the side of his neck. … We have two kick-ass surgeons. They opened his neck and were a bit surprised at what they found. The bullet or fragment had entered the left side of his neck and lacerated the external and internal carotid arteries. The carotid artery is often referred to as Big Red, because it is big, pulsatile and full of blood. Injuries to the carotid artery are frequently fatal. …

They somehow managed to control the bleeding, just barely getting a hold of the upper part of the internal carotid. … Our surgeons had made another HUGE save. … He lost a lot of blood during surgery. … An announcement was made overhead for people with O-POS blood to report to the lab. Within three minutes, we had the four people we needed. …

Someone recently asked me what was the BEST thing I have seen here in Iraq. It was a good question. We are constantly talking about the bad things: the terrible injuries we see in our troops, being away from our families, the mortars, etc. …It is a pretty amazing feeling seeing all these soldiers come forward so quickly to donate blood for a wounded comrade. … Amid all these bad times, it still makes you proud to be here doing this job.

Saturday, Nov. 20 — Every morning when I wake up, the first thing that occurs to me is that I am happy to be alive. The next thing I think of is that I am one day closer to going home. Then I tell myself to have a great day. Here you have two options — you either make the best of this situation and get as much out of the day as possible, or you walk around miserable feeling sorry for yourself. The latter option is way too depressing, so I choose the former. …

Saturday, Nov. 27 — The real story of today is this full moon. If all goes well, we will only see one more full moon on this deployment. This full moon however was the best to date. … The illumination is incredible. You can see dark, crisp shadows. You can see colors clearly. … This place is generally a (expletive deleted), but I have to admit, sometimes the sunsets are pretty astonishing, and when the sky is clear, the moon and the stars are amazing. Sometimes when you are in this type of situation, little things like this bring you so much happiness.

Tuesday, Dec. 21 — I was the ER doc for the day. Around midday I heard a report on the radio … “the DFAC (dining facility) just took a direct hit. …” I looked at my watch; it was 12:15. All I could think of was the amount of people that would be in that DFAC, and I felt my heart plummet. I knew we were in big trouble. …

The first few casualties arrived one at a time. The first guy was an Iraqi soldier who was receiving CPR — not a good sign. He had an unsurvivable head injury. Another patient arrived dead. …This was not going well at all. We asked one of the newly arrived soldiers how many people were injured, and he said, “A lot. There are bodies everywhere. …”

We had just started to get a good grasp of who needed to be transferred and where the patients were located when there was a large boom. Sounded like a mortar. Boom. Another mortar, a little closer. Boom, yet another, sounding even closer. The fourth boom landed on the roof of the hospital and it was really … loud. …

“Get the patients inside. Get the patients inside!” people started yelling. … So now the hospital was full of people and patients and the halls were jam-packed. It was incredible. I thought to myself, “How are we ever going to treat all these patients?” One at a time, I guessed.

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