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Baghdad child flown to Comfort to save war-injured eye

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Staff Sgt. James Mattwig has seen too many children wounded by war, but there was one little girl he couldn't shake from his mind, and he couldn't sleep Saturday night.

Mattwig, 31, a D-Troop scout with the 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, had escorted civil affairs officers earlier that day to conduct war-damage assessments inside Baghdad.

That's when he saw 3-year-old Aya.

She could see him with only her right eye; an oversized patch covered her other one. Her parents explained that an artillery round about two weeks ago had blown out windows and some glass had lodged in her eye—possibly blinding her in the left eye.

Aya (pronounced I-AH) is shy. But Mattwig, the father of three children, noticed that he could make her smile. By the time the officers were done with their assessment, Aya was laughing, poking him in the nose.

"She's such a pretty little girl that I just had to help her out," Mattwig said.

He told his commanders about her when he got back to headquarters. They made a few phone calls.

On Easter morning, Mattwig and his two-man crew escorted an ambulance to her house—a ground-level flat squeezed between two-story apartment buildings.

She emerged from behind a metal gate, overwhelmed by the soldiers and the 10 or so neighbors they attracted. The patch was gone, her left eye was closed. She got in the ambulance with her mother and another woman.

Army doctors examined her at the brigade hospital. Nurses and other soldiers surrounded her, showering her with candy.

Doctors said they were optimistic they could make her see. But they didn't have an ophthalmologist, and the only one around was in Kuwait.

Kuwait, however, does not permit Iraqi nationals in for temporary visits. More phone calls. A flight was arranged for Aya to go to the hospital ship USS Comfort in the Persian Gulf.

"It's only the right thing to do," said Lt. Col. Brad Waddell, 39, of El Paso, Texas, surgeon for the brigade's forward-support team.

Aya, her mother and friend returned home to pack an overnight bag. The girl's father wanted to make the hospital trip with her. Mattwig and his team returned to the brigade hospital with Aya and her father.

When they arrived aboard ship, Aya's father told doctors he wanted to pay for his daughter's treatment. He opened his suitcase, revealing his life savings.

"You don't need to do that, we will take care of her," one doctor, 33-year-old Maj. John Yelton of Columbia, S.C., said through an interpreter.

It will take a couple of days before it is known whether Aya's sight can be saved. Mattwig is anxious to hear about it.

"Every time I see one of these kids I want to do as much as I can," he said. "This time I had an opportunity to do something."


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ+CHILD