1. Mack, Major Karen (Ret.), MSN, FNP
  2. Reisman, Anna MD

Article Content


As a reservist, once the war in Iraq started I had heard persistent rumors about deployment during our weekend trainings. So when I returned from a Labor Day picnic and there was a message on my answering machine calling me to active duty, I can't say I was surprised. In the military, "always be ready" is the motto. But I wasn't ready for my 13-year-old son to be the one to pick up the message and break the news to me.



The flight from Fort Bliss to Kuwait was 22 hours. We slept for four hours in a terminal where we were issued live ammo and then completed the last leg to Baghdad in a blacked-out air force C-130 in the middle of the night. Traveling with more than 100 people gave me a certain sense of security-until our plane started doing quick up-and-down drops to avoid rocket-propelled grenades over Iraqi territory.


My first four weeks in Baghdad, I stayed with 40 other women in a tent on the front lawn of Saddam Hussein's grand palace in the Green Zone (the heavily protected area that sheltered Iraq's transitional government, multitudes of civilian contractors, and the headquarters of all allied forces). The tent smelled musty; rats, ants, and stray cats were everywhere. One night, a nurse woke to find a rat digging through her duffle bag. Some of the youngest women cried or wailed through the night when there were frequent mortar attacks.



After a few days to adjust, we began our work. We were very optimistic and were considered heroes by some Iraqis who worked in the Green Zone. We had arrived to rebuild the health care system and believed we could help form a safe and democratic nation. I worked in an office with air force, navy, and army nurses; hospital administrators; and the Iraqi surgeon general and his team of military medical officers. The Iraqi physicians and translators took some time to warm up to the women and at first wouldn't look us in the eye. Our mission was to train Iraqi civilians, police officers, and military personnel in basic medical care and to supervise the building of medical clinics throughout Iraq. My specific assignment was to develop a series of courses that would teach Iraqi police and special commandos to be medics.


After a day's work, I would usually go back to my two-person trailer in the trailer park behind Saddam's palace, where I'd moved after my stay in the tent. Our living space was 9' x 10', with two cots, a small refrigerator, an air conditioner, and a television that had no reception. We brushed our teeth with bottled water but washed with gasoline-tainted water; the same tankers brought in our water and our fuel. The BBC radio came in a couple times a day, and we got Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, a day late. For entertainment, we bought and shared DVDs. Iraqi children sold them on the street for $3 each. I would watch comedies or romances such as The Notebook, The In-Laws, and Sex and the City episodes. I was amazed at the number of people who wanted to watch horror or war movies.



Since our row of trailers was closest to the Euphrates River, we felt more vulnerable than everyone else-most of the mortar fire came from directly across the river, downtown Baghdad, the so-called Red Zone. On a sunny day, though, the view was beautiful from our roof: sparkling water, palm trees, a mild breeze. But you'd also see rubble, blown-out buildings, trash spewed everywhere, burned vehicles, both within the Green Zone and all over Baghdad. And always there was the drone of helicopters transporting either wounded soldiers or reporters.


Ice Cream, Body Armor, and Golden Bidets

Every day, meals catered by private firms were served to us in the palace's main dining room. We ate amid Waterford crystal chandeliers, Italian marble, spiral staircases, and domed ceilings on which paintings depicted Saddam, winged horses flying around the globe, and-Saddam's favorite, people said-eagles with spread wings. We had steak and Alaskan king crab legs on Sundays. Sometimes the lines were so long that I just ate ice cream.


To get there-to get anywhere-we'd put on our full battle gear: loaded pistols, helmet, 35-lb. body armor. My body armor became my second skin and my gun my most valuable possession. Before leaving the palace, I always tried to make a bathroom stop. Each bathroom was roughly the size of a small house, with gold-plated bidets and faucets, marble and brass private stalls. If they were too crowded, we used the trailer bathrooms or portable toilets. In the trailer bathrooms, you sometimes ran into Iraqi men mopping the floors or taking quick showers. In the portable toilets, my greatest fear was that my pistol would fall into the pot.



After the first few months, the members of our unit started to question our mission. Our newly built clinics were being bombed at night, and Iraqi physicians and translators wouldn't show up for days for fear of retaliation. One of our friendliest gate guards was beheaded because he was working with Americans. The Iraqi physicians wore civilian clothes to work to avoid being seen in uniform on the streets of Baghdad. Gradually, after working together six days a week, 12 hours a day, we became close. But our enthusiasm was fading.



I prayed each night before bed that we wouldn't have mortars. One night there was a mortar blast over our trailer park while I was in the shower. When the sirens went off, I heard the standard announcement: "Take cover, take cover, secure your gear, more incoming expected." Usually you'd run to the nearest bunkers, which are basically cement squares with sand bags around them. That time, I just dove under my cot. Lying under the mattress, I could hear the helicopter gunships rumbling out to spot the insurgents. A few weeks later, a 36-year-old soldier was killed in the Green Zone when shrapnel flew into his neck. Three contractors were killed as well.



If you hear incoming mortars, you're lucky. They say those you don't hear are the deadly ones. They would go off so frequently that when they sounded more distant, my roommate and I would just look at each other. And then we'd make excuses, like it must have been a car backfiring or a door slamming. The longest period without mortars was four days. I kept my fingers crossed and said my prayers. But forget about sleeping-the stray cats under my trailer cried all night. It was the first time in my life I wanted to hurt a cat.