CAMP IDAIRI, KUWAITThere was a time not so long ago that the siren scream presaging any chemical or biological attack would have sent doctors and nurses scurrying to grab their gas masks, hazmat suits, and thick rubber gloves. But not anymore.
Here, about an hour's drive into the desert near the Iraqi border, rests a new military hospital unlike any that have ever been previously deployed. Needing less than 15 minutes' notice of any possible chemical or biological attack, the 86th Combat Area Support Hospital can be sealed and pressurized against the threat by powerful air generators that will keep clean air flowing into its emergency rooms. This would enable medical personnel to continue saving lives without donning cumbersome protective gear.
The hospital can hold up to 296 patients and can conduct up to eight operations simultaneously. Although patients would still have to be decontaminated before being brought inside, the new safe-house design of the hospital is an important achievement, says Maj. Steven Toft, 44, the hospital's chief executive officer, noting that "you lose a lot of capability and can lose lives when you are forced to wear all that [protective] gear." Picture surgeons attempting to perform delicate operations on soldiers shot, dismembered, or near death while wearing heavy-gauge rubber gloves and vision-impairing gas masks. "Before, we had to wear all this stuff to do the job," he adds. "We would have never been able to be this effective in the past."
The trick will be staying ready, because if there is no notice the hospital will have to conduct work the old-fashioned way. But doctors here say the unit will likely often run in pressurized mode as a precaution, and the repetition of drills has made its staff nimble in dealing with such a threat. "This is a whole new dimension for us to deal with, but we all have great confidence that we are up to the challenge," says Maj. Kathleen Groom, a radiologist at the hospital, as she looks over an X-ray of one soldier's fractured arm.
The hospital, which from the inside looks like the inside of a cavernous moon-walk or Habitrail of connected rooms, has never had a real-world test. And Major Groom added that her family remained skeptical and concerned because the threat of a chemical or biological attack is something they have never had to deal with before. "When you have a loved one over here, 1,000 miles away in a hostile environment, it's hard for family not to worry," she said.
For now, the medical staff is dealing with more predicable problems. Concern about how any war will shake out in Iraq and depression about being so far from home are some of the chief maladies affecting soldiers out here in the desert, according to Capt. Mark Reinhardt, 34, the hospital's head nurse. Doctors have seen their share of broken bones and even a few gunshot woundslive-fire exercises, after all, use real bullets. And the hospital has even been visited by one soldier who was bitten in the behind by something, or someone. "We still don't know what," says Reinhardt.
But so far, many of the hundred or so soldiers who come here each day have been more in need of someone to talk to than someone to operate on them. "They miss their families and are facing the unknown," explains Captain Reinhardt.
Soldiers are coming to the hospital in increasing numbers to discuss psychological issues. And both fear and frustration have become staples of the scribes jotting their thoughts on the port-a-potties outside-full of prayers to Jesus and some questions, like, "How many here think this deployment is a joke?"
The hospital's ability to withstand chemical attacks will be unlikely to dull these quiet concerns as time continues to drift. War, if it comes, will bring its own horrifying dimension. "When you see your buddy blown up beside you, it is a big deal," says Captain Reinhardt. In the end, "the psychological issues, the post-traumatic disorder and the like, will become the biggest issue we face here."