1. Hagstad, David RN

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When I consider all the excruciatingly important decisions made within the canvas walls of the Air Force Theater Hospital (AFTH) in which I work in Balad, Iraq, I'm bewildered by the difficulty I'm having making a far simpler one: Should I fly the American flag I've purchased at full- or half-mast?


The flagpole behind the AFTH is a makeshift structure, as are many non-mission-essential niceties here. It's fashioned from a tall aluminum pole left over from a camouflage support structure used to hide vehicles or tents.


I abruptly stop the flag as it reaches the halfway point on the pole, thinking about why I'm here-why we're all here-and about the dying and suffering, and many other things I've witnessed in Iraq.


Not too long ago, I spent more than an hour combing through a mix of bloody combat gear and clothing that had arrived in three MedEvac helicopters along with wounded, dead, and dying soldiers. These were the belongings of 14 Marines who were killed August 3, 2005, when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb, one of the deadliest attacks on coalition forces. Field medics and MedEvac personnel try to keep a soldier's belongings together, but on the battlefield, when speed and saving lives are priorities, neat piles of gear are a distant consideration.


Someone has to sort through it all and try to find names written on body armor, helmets, and clothing. Pockets and pouches must be rifled through for personal effects and clues about who the owner is. Often that someone is an air force major from Wisconsin who is in charge of patient admitting and disposition at the AFTH from 7 PM to 7 AM. She's a nurse by trade but doesn't participate directly in patient care. Instead, she diligently catalogs belongings and tries to identify owners. The task was overwhelming on that day, so I offered to help.


Clues often come in the form of letters from home or those waiting to be mailed. We didn't read the letters, but we looked for envelopes that could provide us with names and addresses. The job was more difficult when we found only a letter, with the salutation "Hey Sweetheart" or some other term of endearment. Then there were the photographs-one showed a young woman, happy and smiling. A wife, perhaps? Maybe a girl-friend? In an ammunition pouch, alongside M16 rounds and cigarettes, a military identification card was found. We discovered the picture of a child in the breast pocket of a uniform shirt, near the heart of a marine.


We grouped the belongings into several piles by name: Wightman, Reed, Fraser. In another pile, larger than any of the others, were personal effects we couldn't link to anyone. Someone who knew the marines personally would need to sort through these.


I stood up after surveying our work and saw my friend Trina returning from the ED. She tracks every patient who comes and goes through the AFTH and often helps prepare the bodies for transport to the morgue. We looked at each other but said nothing; it was a hard day for everyone.


Today, I watch as the brand new flag unfurls. A light breeze has come up, and shadows lengthen across the desert. The corners of the flag flap in the air a bit, then settle back against the aluminum mast.


Hardly a day goes by that another coalition soldier isn't killed in battle. I am proud of my country, proud of my fellow soldiers, and stand in respectful awe of those who have fallen. I raise the flag to the very top of the pole.