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Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Best of Us

This memory running around in my head is a man I met briefly in 2003; a nurse named Salvatore who worked in the Italian Red Cross hospital located in a deserted lot in the middle of Baghdad. We were there for the second time that year, the previous time in February, now in July after the invasion had started. The temperature was a balmy 130F; a bottle of water taken from a cooler in the hotel and put in the car brewed tea in record time. The initial invasion was over, but the war was still on, settling down into the pattern of insurgent hit-and-runs that would eventually become the all-too-frequent norm. Coalition soldiers on endless patrol, fingers on triggers. Extremely nervous, paranoid fingers.
The attacks on the troops were mounting steadily. A squad of American soldiers in Mosul was guarding a bridge across from our hotel when we left for dinner one night, and when we returned three hours later there was nothing left but a burning jeep and transports. We never found out, of course, what happened to our soldiers. The perception of our troops inside Iraq as liberators had been slowly but steadily changing—not for the good—and would continue to do so. Roadside bombs were becoming more of a recurring danger and snipers and suicide bombers were a part of daily Baghdad life.
Whole neighborhoods were destroyed, mortars (many of them still live) and .50 caliber bullets littered empty lots where kids played. I freely admit that from the second we crossed over the border into Iraq from Jordan until we returned I was on a constant physical alert I had never experienced before. I’ve never served. I’d never been to war. What did I know? I’m a white kid from The Bronx; lower middle class upbringing, and the most I ever saw of death and violent injury were city incidents that happened few and far between, usually in the subway or on a dark street. City muggings. Homeless people who’d expired from lack of health care. A few gunshot incidents. But a war zone?? Are you kidding me?
You couldn’t travel anywhere without an Iraqi, not least for translation, but for safety. You needed an Iraqi to get you credibility; without that human passport, you didn’t get to talk to anyone. Americans were especially suspect. And unembedded Americans like us were suspect from both sides. Communicating with anyone had to be done efficiently and intelligently.
I was pretty much petrified from beginning to end of the trip. I think having and using my camera gave me a purpose and kept me at a manageable emotional stasis, and by the end of the trip I had (I told myself, anyway) grown somewhat used to the frequent firefights, sometimes four or five a day, that happened relatively close by. These firefights all proceeded the same way: first were the RPGs exploding, sending great BOOMs through the air and solid shock waves through the ground for blocks. Following that was automatic gunfire, sometimes lasting a long while. And during this, the helicopters swooped in, just over the rooflines, always in pairs. Apaches or Blackhawks I was told. More gunfire. Sometimes it was ridiculously close.
There were stories everywhere of people wounded by ordnance that had fallen and not exploded yet. You couldn’t walk in many places until someone had made sure there was no live ordinance waiting to be tripped by an unsuspecting civilian or soldier. And it wasn’t the job of the liberating forces to collect the potentially harmful mortars, daisy-cutters, and bullets. It was done by the Iraqi civilians in their own and nearby neighborhoods. There literally five-foot high piles of mortars along the streets, some deactivated, many still live.
Back to my point: the Italian nurse, Salvatore.  He was a cheerful, friendly man, and if it weren’t for the big red foam ball he wore on his nose you might not notice him at all amidst the crack Italian Special Services and the many medical personnel always on the move. Through our translator we found out he was on his third trip here. Third??? Hell, it was the end of my first week in Iraq and I’d already had enough. He saw my somewhat shocked expression and pointed to the nose on his face; his colleague told me he was the nurse for the children’s ward. Okay, I thought; that answers that. Actually no, no it didn’t, really.
Bear in mind this was not a proper hospital building we were in, with floor and corridors and patient room and operating theatres, but a series of quonset-like put-up-take-down army field structures. There was air conditioning, but it was only used sporadically, as the electricity grid had been bombed and subsequently kept off for most of every day (as it still is in sections). Everything, therefore was run on gasoline-powered generators.  Did I mention it was 130F?
Upon his initial arrival, Salvatore had taken personal charge of the kids who came in for treatment. Treating a critically sick kid is bad enough, as anyone with a working heart will tell you, but in Baghdad many of the kids in the hospital were not bomb or bullet injuries, but burn victims. A huge problem was that here was almost no electricity anywhere in the city. Without it, Iraqi women were reduced to cooking on makeshift heaters with gasoline. Gasoline was the universal commodity, being used for whatever it could: cooking fuel, cleaning fluid, primary power via generators. It permeated the air 24 hours a day. You never got away from it. Gasoline is pretty unstable, especially when you try to light it in a homemade burner. And since it was mostly mothers who cooked the meals, mothers who had no training with highly flammable substances, when the burners were mishandled, you got injured families.
So. A perpetually overfull children’s ward. So overfull, they had to cram the beds together side-by-side. And Salvatore made the rounds, 18 hours a day, treating and clowning. Keeping a cheerful face, teasing, tickling, laughing. And treating burns, some of them extensive. Laughter, you see, is the universal language. Everybody knows it. And when you have kids in pain, lonely, scared, some orphaned, you need this man and his ridiculous red nose. The kids loved him. He brought us to one small ten-bed wing and you could see the effect immediately: the kids’ faces lit up. He started talking to them in Iraqi and you could tell the effect he had was transformative. The kids smiled, one or two laughed when he spoke with them. He changed dressings, checked wounds, and made funny faces.
The children’s injuries were much more than just physical; some of them had lost their parents. They were injured, sick, in pain, and suddenly without family in a war zone. I described the frequent attacks above, these happened every single day without fail, sometimes five or six times within a couple of miles. And these kids heard them. They felt the shock waves. And every time that happened, people wondered how close it would get to them. Hearing it and wondering where to run is one thing, but not being able to run, to move, to escape has to be more than terrifying.
Salvatore was a major and primary source of sanity and comfort for these kids. And he stayed there in that compound for six weeks at a time. They’d ship him back to Italy to recover for a while, and then he’d come right back.
And when a child died, as they did much too frequently, he went off—somewhere in the compound and not for too long—and did whatever he did to make himself come back. And then he did it all over again.
I only met this man once, for five minutes at most. We shook hands, his eyes were bright and a little tired and red, his easy smile made me grin. His red nose, however, among the dim, gloomy green interior, the oppressive heat, and the dark blue uniforms of the Italian Special Forces that were everywhere, stood out bizarrely, an absurd anachronism.  Our group was gathering information, talking through the translator to doctors while the Special Forces stood watch. Questions of numbers, how many treated a day (over a hundred every day on the waiting line), what kind of injuries (burns mostly), what resources they had (never even close to adequate), length of tours inside Baghdad. He saw me focusing on the nose, gave me a quick smile. That smile was the first I’d seen in that compound. Bear in mind there were 20-foot towers in every corner, with Special Forces riflemen on constant guard, waiting for what they thought would be the inevitable attack from insurgents. The place ran like clockwork; doctors and nurses in constant motion, processing the seemingly endless people on line for medical attention. Everybody did their duty and moved on to the next problem. And he and his red nose were part of it. And that’s what hit me when he smiled; that ridiculous red nose had a place; it was one of the few things that didn’t remind everyone around him of all the danger they were all in.
We live in a society that manufactures heroes all the time. We endow them with guns, power, bravery, and machismo . . . whatever it takes to kill or frighten off the boogie man. This nurse willingly walked into a day-by-day increasingly dangerous war zone armed with only a smile, a good heart, and a ridiculous red ball of foam. 

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