Dec 13, 2013
The Body Baggers of Iraq
Posted on Jun 15, 2011
Truthdig Radio airs every Wednesday at 2 p.m. in Los Angeles on 90.7 KPFK. If you can’t listen live, starting on Wednesday nights look for the podcast and transcript of each week’s show right here on Truthdig.
On this week’s episode of Truthdig Radio in collaboration with KPFK: Unconstitutionally crowded prisons, battlefield medicine, a very special segment on the Marines who collect their dead in Iraq, and just a little bit of Jesus. Plus: Reese Erlich reports from Egypt.
Click to listen to the show, or continue reading the full transcript below.
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Reese Erlich: [Tahrir singing] A group of protesters sing and clap enthusiastically on the outskirts of Tahrir Square. They praise the success of the Egyptian revolution. Standing nearby, Shimaa Helmy, a biotechnology student, says the large turnout to this rally shows the Egyptian revolution has ongoing support.
Shimaa Helmy: “We feel like our revolution is being taken over by other people who didn’t take part in it, and we feel like there’s something wrong going on. So we’re kind of trying to push the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Around 10,000 civilians—most of them are youth—are facing military trials, which is something totally against what we are calling for.”
Reese Erlich: Khalid Shalid is a medical doctor who helped form a hospital committee to support the revolution.
Khalid Shalid: “Forty percent of Egyptians are living below the poverty line, less than $1 per day. They haven’t anything … four months after the revolution, they haven’t felt any change. And that’s why they are here today. We are looking for a minimum wage for the Egyptians of 1,200 pounds for everyone; it’s about less than 200 U.S. dollars.”
Reese Erlich: Protesters acknowledge, however, that while they have significant support, they have also alienated some in the broader society. Shimaa Helmy explains.
Shimaa Helmy: “We’re trying to raise awareness in the streets, because people are starting to hate the uprising. The prices are getting high, and people think that the reason is the revolution. So we’re trying to convince people that what we are doing is for you, not just for us.”
Reese Erlich: And you don’t have to go far to find some of those alienated people. [Call to prayer mixed with traffic sounds] The conservative Islamic group, the Moslem Brotherhood, exercises considerable influence among peasant farmers, the urban poor, and sections of the middle class. Interviewed after Friday prayers at a local mosque, truck driver Ahmad Fathi reflects that conservative viewpoint.
Ahmad Fathi: “We should give the government some time. We shouldn’t have sit-ins and demonstrations every day. We need time for things to get back to normal.”
Reese Erlich: [Copt rally chanting slogans] In another part of town, Coptic Christians gathered several weeks ago to protest the burning of two churches by extremist Muslims. Father Antonius, a Christian leader, complains that so far, the military government has not arrested and prosecuted the arsonists.
Father Antonius: “We want to open all the Christian churches and put on trial all the perpetrators who have attacked us. We want justice.”
Reese Erlich: [Tahrir Square chants] The overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship in February has unleashed a volatile mix of political, economic and religious forces in Egypt. Tarek Shalaby, a Tahrir Square leader, says the very future of the revolution is at stake.
Tarek Shalaby: “If we give up now, we might end up at a worse position than we were pre-January 25.”
Reese Erlich: For Truthdig, I’m Reese Erlich—Cairo.
Peter Scheer: Reese Erlich received a travel grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for his reporting in Egypt.
Peter Scheer: This is Truthdig Radio. Narda Zacchino and Josh Scheer in studio speaking with Dave Hnida, who is the author of “Paradise General: Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq,” now available in paperback.
Narda Zacchino: Hi, Dave. This is Narda Zacchino. I wanted to ask you, why did you leave your life as a physician in Colorado to go over to Iraq?
Dave Hnida: Well, I actually joined the army at an age when most people are retiring from the army. I was 48 years old, it was back in 2004. And the reasons for joining—actually, there were several reasons. I think first and foremost there was a need for physicians to help in the military during the war, and certainly you want to be an active participant in life; you want to help when the need is there. But from a personal standpoint, one reason is my dad was in the army in World War II … he was a lieutenant, and went through some very hard times. And so I grew up with a dad who carried the scars of war for my entire childhood, and then wound up trying to find release through alcohol. So I lived with an alcoholic dad growing up. And then he finally quit drinking and told me the stories about war, right before he died. And when that happened, I went down a road where I always felt as if I needed to experience what he experienced, to find out why he was the way he was. That’s one reason. Another reason is I was a school physician at Columbine High School. Most people have heard of Columbine, which in 1999 had the shootings. And nine of the 13 who died were at some point patients of mine in my practice. And so you go through a period where you just cannot get out of your head that you let them down; you let the other students and teachers and community down by allowing something like this to happen. And so you feel a sense that you need to give back somehow, repay, perhaps even going as far as using the word penance—you want to somehow make up for what you feel your failings are. So those are a couple of reasons for joining the army at, once again, an age when most people are actually leaving the military.
Narda Zacchino: Right. Now, so you were a trauma chief at one of the busiest combat support hospitals during the surge. And your hospital had an astounding survival rate of 98 percent. But I wanted to ask you a question that might sound controversial. It’s that this war is different from all other wars in that, in terms of the injuries—very, very severe injuries, but because of medical advances and whatnot the survival rate is greater. However, a lot of the victims come back in a much worse state, you know. And I remember seeing on the cover of a magazine, I think it was The New York Times magazine, an Iraq veteran who had, was a quadruple amputee. Amazing that he survived. So is this—when you’re working, struggling to save someone’s life, does this occur to you, what kind of life they’ll have afterwards?
Dave Hnida: Not while you’re doing it. In the time after leaving Iraq, those are the types of things that you have time to think about and ponder. But you also have to come to some position where you actually realize that you were given an impossible task: What do you do? Do you save someone who is going to lose multiple limbs? The way we worked is, our job was to not ask questions; we just needed to work to save the patient. And we really tried not to get involved in the ethical dilemmas of what is the quality of life going to be for this person? You know, if you really think about it, we often looked at it this way: Would you rather have someone come home without a limb, even three limbs, or would you rather have him not come home at all? And so your job was to try to get everyone home. And certainly, there are times where … and the group of doctors I worked with at this hospital, we still talk. And we still, I think, are haunted in some ways when we talk, see, communicate with veterans who have been seriously disabled. And we sometimes wonder, was this a good thing or a bad thing? It wasn’t our decision to make. We worked.
Josh Scheer: And in the book … it’s very tragic and everything else, but you also have a lot of gallows humor and talk about the other doctors you worked with, and how you were meeting them and describing them. Can you describe what’s it like? I mean, are they all 48, are they all…
Dave Hnida: We were a mix. We—you know, the Army stuck its computerized hand into this big jar and pulled out a bunch of names. And we lucked out; there were eight of us, and we were black, white, conservative, liberal, in the middle; youngest was 35, the oldest was 56. So we were across the spectrum, and we came from different backgrounds. I was new to the military; one of the other physicians was a West Point grad. And so we all brought different things to the table. But the key thing was, is that we all were reservists; we were civilians. We were the doctors who basically take care of you when you have to go see your doctor, and we volunteered to go over to serve. We were lucky in that we all got along and knew that we had to not just take care of our patients, we had to take care of each other. And that’s why I think we did well. We brought something to the table in terms of maybe a little piece of skill that maybe one of the other folks didn’t have. No one was ever afraid to ask for help; no one was ever afraid to take help. No one was ever afraid to admit that they needed assistance. We were a good group, we liked each other; and once again, we still talk. We—I just had a long conversation with my battle buddy. It was his birthday the other day, and we talked for an hour and a half on the phone. We still love each other; we still keep in contact.
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