June 19, 2013
The Body Baggers of Iraq
Posted on Jun 15, 2011
Josh Scheer: I just want to reintroduce you as Dave Hnida, author of “Paradise General”—now in paperback—“Riding the Surge at a Combat Hospital in Iraq.”
Narda Zacchino: I’d like to ask you, Dave, did you ever treat Iraqi victims, or children, and if so, how did that go about?
Dave Hnida: I actually had a couple of deployments in Iraq, and depending on what was going on, there were times when you did take care of Iraqi citizens, the people of Iraq. But one of the biggest problems, especially in 2007, is we were so busy taking care of American soldiers, we knew that we could not be overwhelmed by the Iraqis killing each other. There was one day I remember in particular when there was a huge bomb blast in northern Iraq where more than 300 people were killed. We didn’t have the capacity to take care of everyone in the Iraqi medical system, or those who needed to get into the system; we needed to save our beds and our facilities for American soldiers. Now, if we had civilians who came to the gate, it was tough to turn them away. If we had civilians who got perhaps caught in a cross fire, we took care of them as well—and probably most, the biggest dilemma we had was taking care of the Iraqi insurgents, those who were trying to kill us. If you had someone come in who was an insurgent, who perhaps let’s say was shot after planting an IED, you might have three Americans who were wounded by that IED, had lost some limbs, and then the insurgent was wounded after planting the IED and he was in worse shape—your job was actually to take care of the insurgent first, because the rule was “the worst goes first.” That doesn’t mean the American soldiers didn’t get the best of care; they were not ignored in any way, but it was an ethical dilemma for us: How do you take care of the enemy? And that is exactly what we had to do more times than we felt comfortable with.
Narda Zacchino: I wanted to ask you about your visit to Abu Ghraib prison, and …
Narda Zacchino: … and ours, as well [Laughs] …
Dave Hnida: … well, you know, by the … I was in Iraq in 2004, when the story came out about Abu Ghraib prison and the abuses that had taken place in the months previous to that. And at that time, the strict change in the rules in oversight went into place, in terms of how insurgents or detainees were cared for. Unfortunately, the stuff that happened before I got to Abu Ghraib—it happened, and it was awful, and it shouldn’t have happened. And I mean, there’s not much you can say … it’s horrific things done by a small number of Americans. But that being said, the time that I spent at Abu Ghraib was only during times when we would be passing through. I was a battalion surgeon for a military police battalion; we would pass through Abu Ghraib, we would sleep there. And what was interesting is the soldiers who staffed that facility, the Americans there at the time, they slept in the cells, and the cells had hooks in them; there were still blood stains; it was a place that was haunted by ghosts. And it was a very bad place to go through.
Josh Scheer: I’ll let you get out on this, I just want to know, what’s the need for doctors? I mean, how many doctors do we need? I mean, are we short-staffed?
Dave Hnida: From what I understand, is we’ve been short-staffed for forever. And it’s just gotten continuously worse. When I went back in 2007, we were supposed to have 15 doctors at the hospital I was assigned to, and eight of us wound up going. So as a result, we all had to do more than what we were comfortable doing. And that’s why we all had to help each other. We all had to make sure that people weren’t overworked, people got their sleep, people got their food, people had the help they needed in terms of their care of the soldiers. It was a situation where you had no choice; the situation was, there wasn’t and is not enough physicians and medical personnel, so you make do with what you can. And you do the best job you can do.
Narda Zacchino: I have a question about your private practice now. Do you care for any soldiers who have come back, any veterans who are suffering from post-traumatic or any war-related injuries?
Dave Hnida: I don’t personally do that. Right now I do an urgent-care type of practice, emergency medicine type of practice, not a private family practice per se, where you wind up doing that type of care. But I am involved in a number of programs here in Colorado, where I live, and do have a lot of contact with veterans. And my role with them is to help in any way I can—whether that be emotional support, whether that be making sure that they get the medical care they need, making sure that they have a job, making sure that they get the psychological help that they need.
Narda Zacchino: You’re a person who had survived both Columbine and its aftermath as well as tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think you either have a very, very strong constitution or an excellent analyst, a psychologist. So how do you cope with all of this? Do you just sort of put it aside?
Dave Hnida: You know, I think all of us carry around a little piece of … war is a bad thing. And war is something that if you’ve ever been in there, I think it causes you to lose a little piece of yourself. Because it’s not what mankind is supposed to be doing. And even if you go over and are in a war with the best of intentions, you still wind up paying a price. And one of the things we always say is, who cares for the caretakers? When I came back from my deployments, first thing I did is I made sure that I was talking to … I went to a psychologist. I talked to my friends. I talked to my pastor. I kept in touch with the other physicians that I worked with. I made sure that I had a support system built up to where I was able to cope. Now, I don’t … I don’t have nightmares, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think about the war every day, and think about. … I can still see the faces of the people that I cared for. And this is years later. And I’m lucky, because I’m still here, and there are families who have an empty bedroom of someone who did not come back. Those are the ones that haunt me the most.
Josh Scheer: Well, thank you very much. We were talking with Dave Hnida, author of “Paradise General,” out in paperback now. I suggest you all read it. And thank you, Dave, again for joining us and telling your story.
Dave Hnida: Thank you so much for having me.
Josh Scheer: Have a great day.
Narda Zacchino: Bye-bye.
Dave Hnida: You too.
“We went through everything. We would get everything that the body had on it when the Marine died. Everyone had a copy of The Rules of Engagement in their left breast pocket. You found notes that people had written to each other. You found lists. Lists were common, the things they wanted to do when they got home or food they wanted to eat. The most difficult was pictures. Everyone had a picture of their wife or their kids or their family. And then you had the younger kids who might be 18 years old and they had prom pictures or pictures next to what I imagine were their first cars. Everyone had a spoon in their flak jacket. There were pens and trash and wrappers and MRE food. All of it would get sent back [to the Marines’ homes].
“We all had the idea that at any point this could be us on the table. I think Marines thought that we went over there to die. And so people wrote letters saying ‘If I die I want you to know I love you.’ ‘I want my car to go to my younger brother.’ Things like that. They carried those letters on their bodies. We had a Marine that we processed and going through his wallet he had a picture of a sonogram of a fetus his wife had sent him. And a lot of Marines had tattooed their vital information under an armpit. It was called a meat tag.
“Some things were not uncommon enough, like a suicide note. We had a Marine who was in a port-a-john when he blew his face off. We had another Marine who shot himself through the neck. Often they would do it in the corner of a bunker or an abandoned building. We had a couple that did it in port-a-johns. We had to go in and peel and pull off chunks of flesh and brain tissue that had sprayed the walls. We sent the suicide notes home with the bodies.
“We had the paperwork to do fingerprinting, but we started getting bodies in which there weren’t any hands or we would get bodies that were just meat. Very quickly it became irrelevant to have a fingerprinting page to fill out. By the time we would get a body it might have been a while and rigor mortis had already set in. Their hands were usually clenched as if they were still holding their rifle.
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