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Army surgeon, team jump into Iraq and set up surgical tent

BASHUR AIR BASE, northern Iraq—As a sophomore at St. Joseph's Prep School in Philadelphia, Harry Stinger saw the movie "The Longest Day," about paratroopers jumping into Normandy, France, on D-Day in World War II.

From that point on, he said, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life: "I wanted to become a trauma surgeon for the U.S. Army paratroopers."

Last month, Lt. Col. Stinger, a Chestnut Hill, Pa., native and board-certified Army surgeon, commanded the first forward surgical team to parachute into combat since World War II.

He and eight other medical personnel from the Fort Lewis, Wash.-based 250th Forward Surgical Team jumped out of C-17 airplanes as part of the 173rd Airborne Brigade's insertion into Bashur air base in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

"I had to keep reminding myself that I was actually in Iraq, not on a training drop zone back in the states," said Stinger, 43, a veteran airborne officer and the father of four young children.

Immediately after landing on the muddy drop zone, Stinger scrambled to his assembly point with one other surgeon, two nurses and five combat medics. The team quickly began treating paratroopers who had been injured on the jump, including one with a concussion and one with a broken leg.

Then, special forces troops in all-terrain vehicles sped them around the drop zone to where they were needed, or brought the injured to them.

The surgical team had brought along two Humvees loaded with a surgical tent, a generator and a variety of life-saving equipment. Those were parachuted ahead of the jumpers. By the next morning, a working operating room was assembled and ready for surgery.

None was required. Though the operation was called the largest combat jump since World War II, there were no life-threatening injuries among the 1,000 solders. And the airfield was in the hands of friendly Kurdish forces, so no fighting ensued.

In the week that followed, more equipment and personnel from Stinger's team came in by air transport, and they set up a full trauma center in tents just off the airfield. Two days after the jump, they treated a special forces soldier who was injured during a night operation when a flare blew up near his face. On Thursday night, they monitored the condition of a BBC reporter who stepped on a land mine in northern Iraq and was flown from the Bashur air base to a U.S. Air Force hospital in Germany.

Forward surgical teams, created by the army in 1997, trace their origins to the familiar Mobile Army Surgical Hospitals, or MASH units, of World War II and the Korean War, Stinger said. The difference is that they are smaller and more easily deployable near the front lines.

Two others with Philadelphia connections are with the 250th in northern Iraq: Maj.. Benjamin Starnes, a vascular surgeon, who graduated in 1992 from Jefferson Medical College, and 1st Lt. Marc Welde, the team's operations officer, who has relatives in Northeast Philadelphia.

Stinger joined the army at 22 after receiving his bachelor of arts degree from Franklin and Marshall College in 1981. He volunteered for Army airborne school while a first-year medical student.

After medical school, he volunteered for the job of battalion physician for the elite 2nd Ranger Battalion in Fort Lewis.

Stinger's mission has a humanitarian facet. On Thursday, he met with the Kurdish Democratic Party's health minister to work out details for treating and evacuating wounded Kurdish fighters. Once northern Iraq is secure, Stinger said, his team will provide medical care to civilians as needed.

"I think this is a great mission," Stinger said of the war in Iraq. "If something were to happen to me on this mission I would have no regrets at all. I believe this is stopping a second World Trade Center attack."


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

PHOTO (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): usiraq+medic