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thedrifter
07-21-03, 07:00 AM
Article ran : 07/20/2003
Facing human cost of war
By ERIC STEINKOPFF
DAILY NEWS STAFF
Memories of Iraq still haunt Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital nurse Lt. Estella Salinas. Sometimes, when she talks about them, they make her cry.

"One Marine had to have two fingers amputated, and I had to explain to him which fingers they were," Salinas recalled, tears streaming down her face.

"He started crying. I started crying. He said, 'You know I have a girlfriend? What is she going to think of me now?'"

Salinas, 37, told him that if his girlfriend was a keeper, she would be there for him.

"I think about him a lot," Salinas said. "About him and others with bad injuries."

During the fast-paced assault by U.S. forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Salinas was among a crew of medical personnel who followed troops into battle, treating those they could before moving them to more permanent hospital care.

Nearly 300 people in her Bravo Surgical Company made their way from one temporary location to another, by truck, helicopter or plane.

Sometimes the journey would take as long as 12 hours. A couple of hours after their arrival at sunrise, they would spend a full day setting up the new camp and start treating military and civilian casualties.

"The thing that sticks out in my mind is how incredibly busy we were for 2 ?? three days," said Salinas, of Shelton, Neb.

"I remember a young mother with her three kids. They were in surgery even before we could finish setting up."

Some medical sections were in standard general-purpose tents, while the pharmacy, X-ray area and operating room were in semi-sealed Eureka tents.

The seal was never enough to keep out the powdery charcoal-like dust that was everywhere. Keeping the operating room clean was a constant battle. Bandages and surgical instruments were pre-packaged, but dust had to be swept off the surface of packages before they were opened.

Everywhere people trudged about in bulky chemical protective suits like moon-walking aliens in the desolate landscape.

"It was just a little strip in the desert," Salinas said. "There was absolutely nothing. Our camp moved with the progression of the war. People were sent to us; we stabilized them and sent them to the rear."

A shock trauma platoon would move ahead of Salinas' unit doing what it could to stabilize patients to send them to the rear. Each successive echelon would do a little bit more to treat patients and pass them down the line, but war and weather conditions were nearly unbearable.

"At first there was a threat from snipers, so we had to keep the tent flaps closed, and we had to move them (patients) from the operating room to the helicopter in complete darkness," Salinas said.

"There was no air circulation and it was about 120 degrees inside. It was so incredibly hot that the digital thermometers wouldn't work. They would read 104.6 when it was 106 in the air. Basically, we had to go by touch, except when the temperature dropped at night."

Patients came by ambulance, truck, bus, helicopter and C-130 transport planes. Treating their injuries was just one thing staff had to keep in mind.

About half of the 600 people treated in one short period were U.S. military and the other half were Iraqi civilians, and they had to be separated.

"You don't want to put a Marine whose friend had just been shot next to an Iraqi," Salinas said.

Danger had to be expected in the most unexpected places.

While prepping a Marine for surgery, Salinas tried to work around some of his equipment but kept bumping it under the gurney. Just before he went into the operating room, he pulled a grenade out of his gas mask carrier and handed it to her.

"Here, I've been kicking his gas mask all this time to keep it out of the way," Salinas said incredulously.

And there were things to worry about back home.

A single parent of 15-year old Nick and 13-year old Carmen, Salinas had to find someone to care for her children while she was away. The family she had made arrangements with backed out just four days before Salinas deployed to Kuwait.

Although she found a place for her children to stay, the separation was still difficult. She was able make just one three-minute call after 30 days in Kuwait.

"We were there about six weeks and then we went to Camp Guadalcanal with the 2nd Medical Battalion, 2nd Force Service Support Group," Salinas said. "We got on seven-tons first and went to Camp Iwo Jima, then we got on a C-130 where we were packed in like sardines. There were no seats, so we just sat on our rucks."

Miracles, such as a bullet that only went part way through a Marine's helmet, helped keep the 18-year military veteran's morale up. And even with all the drama, Salinas said that it was an incredible honor to care for troops.

"It was hard to see the little kids who were injured," Salinas said. "The troops were so young - 19 or 20 years old - and they kept asking if there was anything they could do to go back to the front. They are so incredibly brave."


Contact Eric Steinkopff at estein kopff@jdnews.com or at 353-1171, Ext. 236.


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