By Steven Donald Smith
WASHINGTON, Aug. 24, 2006 – Iraq's military medical system is not equal to its U.S. counterpart, but is improving on a daily basis, the surgeon general of Iraq's armed forces said here yesterday. "We are in the process of building this system," Iraqi army Brig. Gen. Samir A. Hassan said. "We have expanded more and more to meet the expansion of the armed forces." Samir is an orthopedic specialist by training who became surgeon general in June 2004 at the age of 38. His staff of fewer than 80 people serves more than 160,000 Iraqi soldiers, sailors and airmen.
Samir attended the annual Advanced Technological Applications to Combat Care Conference last week in St. Pete Beach, Fla., and is meeting this week with U.S. defense officials here. While in Florida, Samir gave a presentation on Iraqi battlefield medicine and met with American military surgeons general to exchange ideas about how to better treat his wounded troops.
He met this week in Washington with various U.S. defense officials, including Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Samir also visited several military medical facilities here, including Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Iraq has an amputee center in its medical system, but it does not equal the level of care at Walter Reed, he said. He said he was impressed by the advanced technology of the prosthetics and the expertise of the hospital's staff. He said he would like for some of his doctors to come to Walter Reed for training.
Samir also visited Fort Detrick, Md., home of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, where large-scale biomedical research and development is done. "I don't know of other people who are doing this massive research just to support medicine," he said. "It's huge facility. It is very important to take care of your soldiers. This affects the morale of the soldiers during fighting."
He explained that the Iraqi military medical system gets help from the United States, but is a completely separate system. "We are doing our own, but with their help," he said. "We tell them what we need, and they try to facilitate our mission." Iraq's military has good Level II medical centers, which provide basic emergency care, he said. But the military depends on the country's civilian Ministry of Health for sophisticated Level I trauma care, like major surgery, he said. However, by the end of 2008, Iraq will have its first full-scale military hospital, he said.
A shortage of doctors joining the Iraqi security forces is one of his biggest challenges, he said. Another challenge is Iraq's government bureaucracy. "I don't like it (his job) sometimes because of many obstacles," Samir said. "You might have many things in your mind and heart to do, and you find silly people for silly reasons obstructing the progression of the country."
The rigors of his job caught up with him in September 2005 when he was hospitalized after vomiting blood due to stress-related issues. He was given a transfusion with American blood. "I have U.S. blood in my body; you see why I speak English so well," he joked. Samir is the oldest of seven children born in Baghdad to illiterate parents. He went to medical school and joined the former Iraqi army to help take care of his family, he said. He was the first medical officer to join the new Iraqi army. He said he volunteered because he was eager to serve his country. "It's my country," he said. "If I don't go and the others don't go, who will build the country?"
An area that needs to be improved among his medical corps is its response time to wounded troops. He said the U.S. responds very quickly when its troops get wounded, but Iraq loses many wounded soldiers because they don't have the same lightning-fast capability. About 40 percent of Iraq's wounded troops die, he said. "In your system, I saw reports that 95 percent survive," he said.
The general said he felt confident about the long-term prospects of Iraqi military medicine and his country as a whole. "The country will be the unique example in the Middle East as a country of democracy and freedom," he said. He said no other Muslim country outside of Turkey and Iraq has had truly honest elections. This bodes well for Iraq's future, he said. "No country in the world has had free elections and failed," he said. "All Western countries and Japan and others progress because they have democracy and freedom."