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Prisoners also patients get care aboard USNS Comfort

ABOARD USNS COMFORT, Persian Gulf—The Army helicopter carrying the wounded comes into sight, banks right, and settles onto the ship's flight deck where attendants wait to take the injured.

Four workers carry them in, one by one, on stretchers. They are under blankets, bare feet dangling. Some have IV drips. Of the five, one is female.

All are Iraqi. They are the latest of roughly 50 Iraqis aboard the Comfort, including women and children. The soldiers among them are EPWs—enemy prisoners of war.

Other men fall into that gray category called detainees. All are wounded, afraid, usually speaking only Arabic. (The ship has three translators.)

The Iraqis share the hospital with roughly the same number of U.S. troops. As coalition forces push toward Baghdad, hospital workers expect many more Iraqis.

And they will take them. The hospital accepts all injured, no matter their loyalties.

The first two people treated were Iraqi.

"Your training teaches you to be blind to that stuff," said Lt. Commander James McLoughin, 38, an orthopedic surgeon who treats both Iraqi and coalition soldiers.

For recuperating American soldiers and some who care for them, it's not that simple.

Some injured by enemy fire don't like to think of Iraqi soldiers a few floors away, eating the same food and receiving the same treatment.

"We bring them here and give them the best medical care in the world," said Marine Pvt. Jason Keough, 26, of Buffalo. Keough survived the March 23 Nasiriyah attack in which Iraqis captured 11 of his buddies, shot most and left them in shallow graves. "It's kind of b------t they get treated well," Keough said.

Cmdr. Terri Lavoie, a nurse, cares for the American soldiers. Thursday, the same aircraft that brought in the five new Iraqi patients took out to Kuwait five Americans she'd helped nurse. She expects to work with Iraqis before too long.

"I'll just sort of build a wall emotionally and provide good care," she said.

Iraqis—who can't be interviewed or photographed identifiably—are cared for in two wards, one for civilians, another for soldiers and detainees.

No pens or belts are allowed; they're considered potential weapons. Nurses tally knives and forks after meals.

Iraqi women and children are in the civilian ward. A boy, roughly 5, is in a bed at the far end. Next to him is his uncle. On the other side, behind a screen a girl is getting her bandages changed. The girls aboard are older than 10 but younger than 20, officials said.

Their injuries include burns and shrapnel, but workers don't know or won't say how they were hurt. One woman is an amputee. The International Red Cross will try to reunite the children with their families.

The staff brings them chocolate.

And they are teaching the boy to count in English.

"Some of the staff are really attached," said Chief Petty Officer Cesar Salicrup.

In the soldier's ward are eight Iraqi men in clear view. A security officer walks the length of the room.

Most of the men are under white hospital blankets. None has visible bandages or wounds, but doctors said several are amputees. They look to be younger than 25, for the most part.

One Iraqi sleeps with the blanket over his head. Another is in wheelchair. When a translator explains it is time to exercise, and attendants move to help him, he screams. On a lower bunk nearby, another man, turned on his stomach, watches.

Iraqis, when they arrive, are typically disoriented from medication and helicopter trips. They often pull out their IV and nasal tubes. Their injuries are usually more extensive than those of American soldiers. They are often weaker. And like American soldiers, their injuries sometimes require multiple surgeries.

"They've been to two hospitals, on three helicopters, they have no idea where they're at," said Cmdr. James Dunne, 38, a trauma doctor.

When the first Iraqis arrived, the Comfort's captain asked Radio Officer Abdul Memon, 44, how to make them feel welcome.

Memon, who is from Bombay, speaks no Arabic. He said to tell them "Salamu Aleikum"—Peace be with you.


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): patientpows