Saturday, February 09, 2008

Life in Balad, aka Mortarritaville

Excerpts of a note, reprinted with her permission, from Major Kristin Messer, one of our nurses on duty providing medical care to the wounded in Iraq:

Hi Everyone,

Well, we've been here for about three weeks now and I think I'm finally "settled" in and trying to get used to things. For those of you who don't know where I am, it's at Balad Air Base/LSA Anaconda. It's about 20 miles northeast of Baghdad, right in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. Its nickname is "Mortarritaville" because it's mortared on daily basis. Luckily for us, the bad guys have lousy aim!!

When we first arrived, I didn't think I'd make it. There were four of us in about a 10 x 10 room, all working different shifts, so not much sleep. Then there was the noise of the constant Black Hawks, Chinook helicopters (those are the huge Marine helicopters), F16s, C17s, etc. that literally rattle your room as they go overhead. I'm sort of used to that now and I can sleep through some of it. The bathrooms and shower (called "Cadillacs") are about a 300 yard walk from the room. So there you are in the middle of the night, having to go to the bathroom, up on a top bunk, with no ladder. Not wanting to slither quietly out of the top bunk and then have to don your PT (physical training) gear for the 300 yard walk out in the cold, you lie there debating with yourself, "Should I get up, can I hold it until I get up?" Ultimately, the bladder always wins. After a couple of those nights, I've decided to cut myself back to just three-four liters of water a day and to stop drinking liquids by 7 debates with myself since!! When the two other people in our room finally left (about a week later) and we were able to unpack and have a little more space it was much better.

Since the moment we arrived, we were put to work, 12 hours/day for about a week and a half without a day off. We're now able to take some time off. We work four 12 hour days, have a day off, work four 12 hour days and then on call for a day...and then the schedule repeats itself. When we walk back and forth to work, we have to wear our kevlar gear or IBA (individual body armor) that weighs 43 pounds, along with my trusty 9mm weapon at my side. At first it felt as though it weighed a ton, but you sort of get used to it feels like about 10 pounds. My goal when I got here was to do at least one push up by the time I leave here with the IBA on...I'll take pictures to prove it!! This place is probably a bit like a minimal security're only allowed to wear two outfits: either your regular uniform or your PT gear and that's it! And you get three lousy square meals/day...actually I bet real prisoners get better food! Our housing units (there like the worst trailers you've ever seen), are lined with sand bags on the outside and then surrounded with 20 foot concrete barriers around the different sections of trailers. Surrounding the entire housing area is a security fence with razor wire on top. We get in and out of the complex through a security gate with a we let ourselves out and then we let ourselves back into the 'prison' after our shifts. The base itself is quite large. It's Air Force, Army, Marines, civilians and third country nationalists. There are about 35,000 of us here.

Our water supply here is fed by the Tigris River and apparently all the pumps/filter systems that feed the base are ancient and in desperate need of major repairs. So in part of letting the Iraqi's take their country back, they are fixing all the equipment. The down side of this is that they didn't warn us when they were going to start and they work slowly. The result?? Four straight days without water for 35,000 people. That means NO SHOWERS! It's now back in small amounts so we are allowed to shower on "even" days. However, those showers are "3 minute combat showers." In other words, get wet, shut the water off, lather up, rinse off...that's it. The shower stalls themselves are probably about a foot square in diameter. Now there is truth behind "don't drop the soap." If you do and then try to bend over and pick it up, you knock your against the wall and your butt hits the faucets. You can't even put your arms up to wash your hair without your elbows hitting the walls! From what were told, this repair could take 3-4 weeks! I can't wait to be able to take a shower without shutting the water off, being able to move, not wear flip flops, stay in there for more than 3 minutes and not have to walk a quarter of a mile to get there! But that's not going to happen until I get back.

It's especially picturesque around here when it rains. This time of year is considered their rainy season, but honestly, it really hasn't been that bad. When it does rain, even drizzle, it is miserable. The terrain here is just dirt and rocks and since there's no drainage/sewer system, the dirt turns to thick, sticky mud. When you step in it, it's like quick sand with suction cups, it sucks your foot right in. Then when you try to walk on the rocks to get rid of the mud, the mud then becomes super glue-like and all the rocks stick to your shoes. So you're walking around with all kind of rocks on the bottom of your shoes trying to balance yourself...not too safe. I've already twisted both ankles by snapping them on rocks I never saw. One resulted in a fall...I went from an upright position to flat on my face in an instant...thank God the ground was dry and no one witnessed it. My first thought? Dear God, I hope I can get up with this flak vest that weighs 43 pounds!! I think it was the thought that someone might see me and I popped right back up!

The hospital here is fairly new, with out 360 people working here. The majority of our patients are Iraqi's...both good and bad. It's tough taking care of the insurgents! The hospital has a helipad right outside where I work (it's actually 4 pads in one area) and we have Black Hawks and Chinooks landing all day long. From the helipad, you can see the perimeter wall about 200 yds. away. I am still wondering what genius in the military thought to build a hospital that close to the perimeter!! Now that it's been here for two years and they're realizing its close proximity to the "wire," they're building a double, reinforced, steel & concrete roof over the hospital!

I began this e-mail yesterday, but was unable to finish, so hopefully I can finish today...yesterday was a bad day. We've had some good days and some bad days and I'm praying that yesterday was the worst. Unfortunately, we had three American troops come in, who were killed in action. When they were entering a home, it was booby trapped with IED's and three of the eight men were instantly killed. I will never be able to erase those images. When a fallen troop is bought in, they have a beautiful ceremony here in the ER that is called "Fallen Angel." The first time I witnessed it was on our second day here and I was praying that I'd never have to see it again. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. In the middle of the Super Bowl, we had 3 KIA's come in and instantly, it puts everything into perspective, the game didn't matter, the water shortage didn't matter and neither did the lack of communication that we've become some reliable on. None of it mattered. What mattered was the reason we're all here. When we lose a troop or a KIA comes in, everyone gets in a big circle around the body in the ER, the Chaplain says a prayer and then a huge American flag is unfurled by an honor guard. The flag is then tucked around the body, then everyone stands at attention and salutes as the body is taken out. No matter how many times you see this, it doesn't get any easier and there's never a dry eye in the place. When it's three at once, it's even more difficult. I pray that we don't have any more of these.

I hope and pray that this note finds you all well and please keep praying for our troops.

Talk to you all soon.



Anonymous said...

Our soldiers are very blessed to have nurses from the BIDMC caring for their lives. Thank you Kristin !

Dayna said...

Wow, Kristin's discription of soliders KIA literally made me cry. I'm so glad their are dedicated people showing such respect to the soldiers who protect our freedoms.

An eye opening letter to us all.

Kevin said...

Paul, Thank you for sharing. I am so grateful and humbled by these brave men and women who serve our country. God bless. -Kevin M

Anonymous said...

Good luck and thank you for serving. May you find some solace with your fellow comrades in arms.
God bless.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. And a big thank you to Kristin & all of the professionals who are so graciously and selflessly serving our troops.


Anonymous said...

Hi Kristin
After reading your article, I emailed my niece who is also working at the Theater Hopital in Balad to see if she knew you. WHAT A SURPRISE REPLY.........YOU ARE ROOMATES!!!!!!!! What a small world. Will keep you both & all our solidiers in our prayers.
Deb's Aunt Betty

Anonymous said...


As a BIDMC co-worker and a USN Corpsman veteran who served with the USMC in the "other" Asian War (Quang Tri Province, RVN), I am very touched by your narrative.

That you are caring for insurgents, as well as our troops and our Iraqi allies is no surprise. I remember providing care in villages to people I was pretty sure were VC. But a patient is a patient is a patient, and pain knows no politics.

Your stateside friends and co-workers who have never worn a uniform will find it difficult to grasp your "Fallen Angel" ceremony, but no veteran will read of it without tears of gratitude that people like you are caring for people like them.

I (like many Corpsmen) still, almost 40 years later, still refer to my USMC comrades as "My Marines".

May God bless and speed you in your ordeals and endeavors.

Scott D. Campbell
BIDMC Radiology
Fmr HM1/E6 SW/FMF, USN (8425/8404)

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for posting this. My wife's brother is on a CCATT team at Balad and had told us his experiences on Super Bowl Sunday. Your post gave us a second view into your days and an appreciation for our heroes who fall and their heroes who lift them up in both life and death.