Baghdad Hospital

Editor's note: Staff photographer Cheryl Diaz Meyer has returned to Iraq to cover rebuilding efforts. In a personal journal, she reflects on the chaos she encountered at a Baghdad hospital. There, amid the disarray, watching women give birth in bare-bones conditions, she also found that life goes on. In March, she covered the war with Marines of the 2nd Tank Battalion. This report is based on an e-mail she sent to family, friends and colleagues.)  December 2003.

 

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Their bright, intelligent eyes studied me, their stained white robes blending in with the dirty fingerprints on the walls. Midnight had come and gone... Then it was one... two ... three...four o'clock in the morning.

It was dark for miles around, and we were huddled in Kadhamiya Hospital, a safe haven in a city where gangs of criminals have been perfecting the art of ambushing unwary victims. It wasn't always this way. Certainly not during the time of Saddam Hussein, who was captured last weekend.

We were huddled in a bright, fluorescent-lighted room. And this time, I was a journalist from the Philippines. Yesterday, I was in Najaf, one of the holiest cities in Iraq for Shiite Muslims, and my translator decided I was Azerbaijani. Each day, he gets more and more creative. When I wake up in the mornings, I never know who I will be that day.

"Where are you from?" asked one of the doctors. I looked at my translator inquisitively.

"Where am I from, Saleem?"

"You are from the Philippines, of course, " he said with conviction.

We have come to Baghdad to do a story about the security situation in Iraq. We had planned to follow the ambulances around for the night. But the hospital wasn't dispatching the ambulances. There is no working phone system in Baghdad, and the injured would never make it to the hospital if they waited for an ambulance.

So I gave up on that plan around 9 p.m. and decided to focus on the patients already in the hospital, one of only two in Baghdad with an emergency room.

Hours passed. The doctors were supposed to be sleeping during their night rotation. But they found the presence of a journalist a welcome respite from their daily routine. They kept me company during my overnight vigil waiting for victims of violence.

But the only patients who came in were women – robed in long, black, billowing abbayas – pain etched on every inch of their faces. They were in labor, and the doctors couldn't be bothered to get up. Instead, they waved the women on to the third floor, the obstetrics department, which had one female doctor for most of the night.

The obstetrics department handles an average of 30 births per day. Once a woman is dilated, she has about 20 minutes to give birth before the next woman is shuffled onto the birthing table. A gloved hand and a pair of scissors expedite the process.

 

The downfall

"Greed will be the downfall of Iraq, " said one doctor in clear, concise English.

The simplicity, eloquence and truth of that statement made me want to cry. Looting during and after the war was so widespread that not a person was left unaffected.

But I have found that in this country of great paradox, one sees the most despicable deeds and the most inconceivable acts of honor. In such extreme circumstances, humans are pushed to their limits, and the truth of character is revealed.

The hospitals in Baghdad are a pathetic mess. They have a shortage of medicine, medical equipment and supplies. The stench is a combination of blood, pharmaceuticals and human excrement.

But the problem is not simply a shortage of supplies – it's the greed of a staff that has been pilfering the hospital's supplies of medicine and equipment, alleged Dr. Esam, who is the brother of my translator.

Under Saddam, Iraqis learned to be creative in supplementing their meager wages by stealing the supplies in their care.

So when the doctor blew the whistle on the hospital's director after the war, he says he was offered a nice car and $20,000 to shut up. It would take 15 years to earn that sum on a doctor's salary in Iraq.

He declined and instead led a rebellion to oust the former Baathist – and succeeded. He didn't consider this particularly heroic in light of the fact that he had stayed in the hospital at the height of the war and fought off looters for several days. It's mainly because of his efforts that Kadhamiya Hospital is one of the better hospitals in Baghdad today.

"Don't trust anyone, not even my brother, the doctor, " whispered Saleem. But the doctors were educated enough to know that my Patagonia fleece top was probably not from the Philippines, my manner not quite of the Far East and my American accent came too easily.

I don't like this business of half-truths. But in Iraq today, it is a matter of life and death.

When asked, all the other U.S. photographers who are working in Iraq just laugh and say that they haven't been Americans in months.

 

Anger and antagonism

It's my first time back to Iraq since I covered the war in the spring as an embedded journalist with the Marines and then as a unilateral journalist in Baghdad. It's a very different place from the Baghdad I remember. The energy is different – both the energy of the U.S. military and that of the Iraqis.

The military has closed much of its book to journalists, my colleagues and I believe. Many in the public, meanwhile, believe that the media has told too many negative stories that scare people back home.

And the Iraqis have become angry at America and downright antagonistic toward Americans. The United States is the world's superpower and they believe it should be able to fix all their problems – quickly.

But here we are, eight months after the war's end and still they are suffering from shortages in fuel, sporadic electricity, garbage and sewage in the streets, high crime and, in their view, anarchy.

"Ah, what is this democracy?" my driver once screamed as we nearly collided with yet another car driving in the wrong direction.

I've given up on gasping every time we have a near fatality, because I can't stand the exhaust that gets sucked into my lungs from the thousands of vehicles vying for every inch of space on the road. Most vehicles spewing fumes here were made in the '70s and '80s, before the sanctions were imposed on Iraq, halting the country's progress for the last two decades.

 

Democracy?

Should Iraq have a democracy or a dictatorship? That was the question I posed to doctors in the Kadhamiya Hospital. Iraqis insist that they don't want a dictator. But a democracy will never work in Iraq either, the doctors said.

Because Iraqis are verry, verry different, they said, their bushy eyebrows flickering with meaning that I wasn't sure I grasped. How so? I asked, hoping to be enlightened.

Years of war have damaged the Iraqis, the doctors said. You can see it clearly in the children who will welcome a foreigner one moment and throw stones the next.

There is a deep and odd violence that characterizes the people. The lack of motivation and laziness is tantamount to a national illness. It will take several generations for this to change, the doctors said. Iraqis say they need a blend of democracy and dictatorship because the people are too uneducated to make decisions for themselves. They don't know the meaning of democracy.

To illustrate their point, the doctors told me a story. A woman was interviewed on a prominent TV network.

"Do you think Iraq should have a democracy, voting for a new president every four years?"

"Yes, democracy is great," she replied. "We could loot every four years."

I understood the doctors' complaints, because I have lived them these past 10 days in Baghdad. It is a verry, verry strange place.

 

Bad luck

In the hospital that night, I met a 22-year-old patient by the name of Mohannad. I only sort of met him, because he was actually under a blanket, his leg sticking out, wrapped in bloody gauze.

He was comatose, drugged with Valium. He still had a bullet lodged in his leg, because it was Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and the surgeons were on vacation.

"Such bad luck to be shot during Eid," my translator remarked. "I fear that he might lose a leg because gangrene will develop in the bullet wound."

Mohannad was shot by a cousin. The cousin explained that Mohannad was being very bad. He had killed a man, and looted and robbed him.

Mohannad's family is financially comfortable. They own four cars. The problem is that all his criminal activity reflects badly on the family, and in a tribal society, this could bring some nasty results if a victim's family decided to exact revenge on Mohannad's family.

So the family decided that in order to save the family honor, Mohannad should be killed. The cousin, a policeman, was designated to do the job. But the cousin decided to shoot him in the leg instead, because Allah prohibits killing, he said.

And so now he watched over his cousin, hoping his recovery would take a long time.

Eventually, the doctors caught on to me, and I let Saleem weave the final touches to the tale of my identity. It's great to be back in Baghdad.

The courageous and the insane

ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - I'm sitting in the back of an amphibious assault vehicle, and my stomach is turning, over and over. The cracking of the machine guns being loaded with magazines and the chic, chic, chic of pistols being cleared of dust is seeping into my thoughts.

I look around with deliberation, and my eyes rest on the stretchers hung behind me and the many boxes of ammunition. Infantrymen are lined up on a makeshift bench with half their bodies poking out of the hatch of the vehicle.

Finally my eyes focus and I read, silently, "100 Cartridges, Cal 50, LC 92D621L437, " and I keep reading those words and letters and numbers over and over again, just because I can. I can do that. Of that, I have control. But of the situation I have put myself in, I have none.

I may have joined a suicide mission.

As dawn emerged that day, I found myself in a hurry for no apparent reason. As soon as I packed up my sleeping bag and my belongings, I found out that the infantry division attached to the 2nd Tank Battalion was leaving on a mission into central Baghdad.

Word had filtered in that Fox Company 1/5 had faced terrible adversity in Baghdad with a number of casualties, and Fox Company 2/5 was asked to come to Baghdad to help.

The sergeants were yelling orders, and the men hurried to pack their meager belongings and prepare their weapons. The air was full of dust and pulsing with tension.

I was trying to glean information about the mission when my pal, Rob, of CBS Radio, encouraged me to go on the mission. I asked whether he was going, and he said, "No! Do I look nuts? Go!"

Rob has been my second eyes on this trip and has often been the source of many of my photos. It's occurred to me that it's the people around me who make me a better journalist. I somehow find myself surrounded by people who care, who look out for me, who share information with me.

Serendipity plays a large part in my life, and I have learned to listen to the signs that clarify the path. They are subtle, and they require me to let things happen with only mild guidance. Not an easy task for someone who likes to be in control.

But in the end, I am always surprised by how right and clear the path appears. Serendipity brought me to the 2nd Tank Battalion so that, as an embedded journalist, I was one of the first to enter Iraq. I have also been one of a handful of women covering the war from the front lines.

So I approached Capt. Terry Johnson, commanding officer of the Fox Company 2/5 Infantry Division, asked if I could join his men on their mission, and he agreed.

I went through my minimalist mental checklist: two cameras, batteries, flashcards, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, protective vest, water bottle, toilet paper. Check. Good to go, as Marines say.

There have been times in the past few years of being a photojournalist that I have asked myself whether I am crazy for doing what I do, and this was definitely one of those times.

If this were my last day, is this the life I wanted to live? I could die around men who know nothing of me. I am as anonymous to them as they are to me. They are in their camouflage uniforms; I am in my newfangled journalist khakis, custom-sewn by the finest military tailor in Kuwait. They call me "the Reporter."

These men refer to themselves as grunts. Their uniforms are ripped from digging fighting holes. They are wild. They are trained to clear buildings, combat the enemy at close range, flush out enemy combatants and secure the perimeter of encampments. They work like dogs. These men are courageous and insane.

A sergeant announced from under his communications helmet that we were taking sniper fire.

"It's starting, " said Navy Corpsman Cesar Espinoza, who promptly yelled "Snipers!" to the grunts.

I watched every movement of these camouflaged men in the hatch, memorizing each glance passed from man to man, each movement with a weapon that is so purposeful and practiced.

The tension was evident in every limb, the acute awareness of their surroundings. Every gesture seemed so full of meaning, and I felt somehow every moment should be recorded for posterity, because if this mission went bad, any one of them might not make it. The words Black Hawk Down were whispered among them.

* * *

We drove through Baghdad and were met by cheering crowds.

Families positioned themselves in the doorways to wave, smile and give us the thumbs-up. Women stared in disbelief and pointed me out to other women, waving excitedly. In the past, during other advances through villages, Iraqi women seemed very relieved to see me, a woman, in the midst of all the camouflage. I suppose they figure the Marines must be civilized if even one woman is present among them.

Despite severe casualties the day before, Marines from the Fox Company, Fifth Marine Division, were met with wild cheers as they entered Baghdad, Iraq, on April 10, 2003.

Despite severe casualties the day before, Marines from the Fox Company, Fifth Marine Division, were met with wild cheers as they entered Baghdad, Iraq, on April 10, 2003.

© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

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The chances of an attack were high in an urban environment, where any tall building might have had snipers or rocket launchers. The men remained on high alert until we arrived at the campus of Baghdad College.

Hot tea in a kettle was discovered, two brand-new, looted diesel generators were parked near an office, and a puppy was found sleeping under a desk. The men also discovered showers, bathrooms and running water, of which many took advantage for laundry and bathing.

At this stop, I ran into Letta, the Newsday reporter who still had her hair in cornrows from before she left the camp in Kuwait. She was in a big, bad hurry to find a bathroom.

Our conversation led to topics such as how she fared in the field regarding privacy needs. She, too, had been embedded with several hundred Marine men. Since we left the camp in Kuwait, she apparently had suffered, trying to restrict her needs until nighttime.

But half the battalion was equipped with those pesky night-vision goggles. She said she was simply trying to "minimize the collateral damage."

I shared with her the secret of the poncho, for which I must credit Master Gunnery Sgt. Frank Cordero, who took pity on me my first day in the field. So with some embarrassment, I have been the Poncho Queen of the 2nd Tank Battalion. Once, we were in a convoy receiving enemy fire, and I successfully fulfilled my mission.

The other day we made a five-minute service stop. The area was entirely flat, so I picked the real estate to the front of the vehicle because only seven other vehicles were in sight, instead of 12. As I went under the poncho, I caught a glimpse of three men lined up about 20 feet to my right. As in a choreographed scene, they glanced back over their shoulders in unison, and when they saw I had picked my spot, they collectively agreed to settle in, too. These men, so tough, tiptoeing because there's Cheryl, armed with her poncho.

 

"The poncho never left my side throughout the war," said Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a photojournalist for The Dallas Morning News who posed for an honorary photo while she was embedded with the Second Tank Battalion's 1,000-man Marine unit during the Iraq invasion.

"The poncho never left my side throughout the war," said Cheryl Diaz Meyer, a photojournalist for The Dallas Morning News who posed for an honorary photo while she was embedded with the Second Tank Battalion's 1,000-man Marine unit during the Iraq invasion.

© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

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* * *

One very long, impenetrably dark night, I was in a Humvee with Staff Sgt. Joseph Foster (nicknamed "Staffie"), 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett ("Big Joe") and Cpl. Ryan Jarreau ("Gyro.")

After days and nights of sitting for hours in the vehicle weighed down by our Kevlar helmets and protective vests, the topic of conversation kept wandering to diaper rash.

For me, those long days and long nights of convoys are over, for today I am leaving the 2nd Tank Battalion to settle in central Baghdad, where I will finish our photo coverage with stories of peacekeeping, policing and restoration efforts.

Camp has been pretty quiet since I returned two days ago, but today a rocket-propelled grenade landed in the midst of several Humvees. Fortunately, it did not detonate. A round of fire followed that, but no one was hurt.

Just when things seem to quiet down, more crazies come out of the woodwork. I think this will continue for at least another year.

I am sad to be leaving my pals at the 2nd Tank Battalion. Near-death experiences shared with others can be very bonding. They have given so much to me that I walk away from them feeling humbled and honored to have been a part of their efforts. They are brave men. Surprisingly sentimental men. Tough men. Gentlemen.

* * *

The transfer out of military life involved hours of waiting and being moved from one Marine installation to another. In each installation, I was less than 10 miles from downtown Baghdad but had no way of renting a vehicle on my own with any degree of security. After surviving so many adventures for the past few weeks, hasty choices didn't seem worthwhile.

I have arrived at the Al Safeer Hotel in downtown Baghdad today, a bombed-out fortress of a place that opened just yesterday to accommodate the hundreds of journalists pouring into the city and others exiting from weeks of being embedded with the troops.

My room overlooks the Tigris River and, on the opposite shore, one of Saddam's palaces.

Weeks of being around other people every single moment of the day has been feeding a desperate need for privacy, and the structure and routine of military life has left me wanting to reclaim my own rhythm and spontaneity.

 

EPILOGUE: 1st Sgt. Lew Dusett passed away on Feb. 1, 2016, at the age of 55.

Caught in hell

 
Navy Corpsman Pietro Christofoli cleans stretchers after a night of numerous casualties near Al Aziziyah as the U.S. Marines advanced on Baghdad, Iraq, on April 5, 2003.

Navy Corpsman Pietro Christofoli cleans stretchers after a night of numerous casualties near Al Aziziyah as the U.S. Marines advanced on Baghdad, Iraq, on April 5, 2003.

 

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© 2003 Cheryl Diaz Meyer. All Rights Reserved.

 

ON THE ROAD TO BAGHDAD - A sickening WVOOOOOM! accompanied by a desperate call of INCOMING!!! woke me from my battle-weary sleep.

In the fractions of a second that my poor, numb brain registered the sound of the 122mm rocket that landed 20 feet from our camp, I thought, "Where do you get off lighting those things up so close to sleeping souls?" We were lined up in our sleeping sacks, trying to erase the horror of the day's battle that left four Marines dead and another 17 injured, when the explosion awoke us.

We had traveled 31 miles yesterday on a highway controlled by Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard. Everywhere we went we were met with machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades. My writing colleague Jim Landers sank back at the end of the day mumbling something about having stepped into hell.

I had barely extricated myself from my cocoon, when another rocket flew over us. The lieutenant colonel said the counter battery was tracking the source of the rockets and would destroy them.

The men of the Bravo command amphibious assault vehicle (AAV), with whom we had made a home for the last two days, looked at each other, shaking. And then the third one hit.

I jumped out of my sack, barefoot in shorts and a T-shirt. I collected my chemical suit, gas mask, Kevlar helmet, hiking boots, glasses and backpack and ran to the AAV for shelter.

"Oh my gawd, it's a mermaid," a young lance corporal, Keith Chandler, had barely covered up his skivvies with his sleeping bag before I trampled over him and perched myself on top of an MRE box, cursing under my breath. Getting into the AAV with all my protective gear normally takes me about a minute of huffing and puffing, and Lance Cpl. Chandler watched in disbelief as I leapt forcefully into the 3-feet-high entrance, throwing equipment in all directions.

After about 30 minutes, we straggled out, shaken, ready to take our chances. I crawled back into my sack, whimpering small comforts to myself.

If it was going to happen, then it would happen, and hopefully it would be quick. 

I prayed as I waited for sleep to take me away from the misery and fear. I thought, I don't care what it takes – who gets hurt or who gets killed – just, please, make them stop. And with each explosion of our artillery, I cheered in my heart because it was one step closer to making me safe.

The following morning would reveal a minibus with a man, woman and two children lying in a pool of blood; a sedan with a man in the passenger seat covered in a blanket; a man lying prostrate in front of a delivery truck; two men lying next to a car, one of whom was believed to be a three-star general in the Republican Guard; and countless others at various checkpoints.

After weeks of waiting for action, we seem to have gotten it in full with the 2nd Tank Battalion. Each day is increasingly hectic as we race toward Baghdad, blowing through town after town, only waiting to resupply ammunition and to evacuate the dead and injured.

My stomach has been weak since last night's close call. Several journalists traveling with us have quietly begun talking about leaving. We are rattled and shaken. And the increasing violence to which we bear witness is taking its toll.

For myself, I can only say that I am determined to see Baghdad, if my will permits.