By Sgt. Mike Pryor, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
March 19, 2007 – March 17 was a hectic day inside a makeshift clinic in the desperately poor Sadr City neighborhood here. In classrooms converted into treatment rooms, Iraqi and U.S. medics attended to a constant stream of patients, from white-bearded old men to babies only a few months old. They spent much of the day dispensing pain medication and antibiotics for colds, fevers, viruses, infections, and other simple ailments. Other cases were more severe. In a few heart-breaking instances, parents entered the rooms cradling crippled or blind children, their eyes pleading for a magic cure.
Despite Sadr City's reputation as a bastion of anti-American sentiment, once people entered the treatment rooms there were no politics - just mothers and fathers seeking help for their sick children.
The day-long medical operation was the first large-scale humanitarian aid project conducted in Sadr City since coalition and Iraqi security forces entered the area weeks ago as part of the overall effort to improve security in Iraq's capital.
The medical operation came at a time when coalition and Iraqi forces in Sadr City are beginning to transition from purely security-focused operations to projects providing the people with essential services, said Lt. Col. Richard Kim, commander of a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team based in the area.
"This shows that the government can not only protect the people, but also provide the services they need," Kim said. The unit treated 453 people, including 153 women and 122 children, during the operation. Residents turned out in droves for the event, forming a line stretching around the block outside the schoolhouse-turned-clinic.
There is a huge need for medical services in Sadr City, which has virtually no public health infrastructure. The goal of the operation was to provide basic, short-term medical attention to residents who have few health care options.
"We were just trying to take care of the immediate issues," said Capt. Rose Smyth, of San Pedro, Calif., commander of Company C, 407th Brigade Support Battalion - known as "Charlie Med" - the 2nd BCT's medical company.
Besides offering something for the pain, there was little the medics could do for patients with chronic, severe illnesses. As trained healers, it was something they all found frustrating.
"You want to offer more but you just can't," Smyth said. Even so, the patients seemed to appreciate the medics' efforts, said Sgt. Sunde Douglas, an X-ray technician with Co. C, 407th BSB.
"They all seemed really happy we were here, and most of them would say 'thank you' and shake your hand," Douglas said.
Iraqi police from the 8th Brigade, 2nd Iraqi National Police Division, provided the bulk of the security for the operation. The police officers moved through the crowd outside, causing mini-riots as they distributed bags full of toys and soccer balls to the neighborhood children. They also provided medical personnel to help with treatment inside.
"Of all the medical operations I've been on, this one has had the most Iraqi involvement," said Maj. John Bride, battalion surgeon for the 407th BSB.
In one room, medical officer Maj. Charles Nealand Khuder Abbas, the Iraqi brigade surgeon, spent the day treating patients together. They managed to find a rhythm, despite not being able to speak the same language.
As Abbas examined one boy, he communicated symptoms to Neal by hand signals. When he was finished, Abbas turned to Neal. They had both reached the same conclusion about the treatment the boy would need.
"Doxycycline," Abbas and Neal said simultaneously. Neal and Abbas, like the other medics, continued to treat patients until late in the afternoon, when the supplies had run out and the schoolhouse was piled high with empty packages of medicine and drugs. Then they began packing up to leave.
As the schoolhouse started to clear out, an officer from the Iraqi police stared out the window at the crowd that was still gathered three and four people deep outside. The operation had gone well, he said, but there was still much more work to do in Sadr City.
"The people have been with us since we started the new security plan," he said, "now the government has to show results."
(Army Sgt. Mike Pryor is assigned to 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, Public Affairs.)
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