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Mechanical Santa, decorations try to cheer combat hospital

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The orders Staff Sgt. Miguel Medina received Friday were strange, even to a soldier in Baghdad who thought he'd heard everything:

"Come get Santa. We're taking him to the hospital."

So Medina dutifully lugged a singing, jiggling mechanical Santa to the emergency room of the 31st Combat Support Hospital, where wounded soldiers and the medics who treat them posed for pictures and, for a moment, forgot they were spending Christmas in the most dangerous place in the world.

Santa's rendition of "Walking in a Winter Wonderland" drowned out the clip-clop of soldiers on crutches, the whir of a Medevac helicopter landing, the beeps of life-saving equipment.

The visit, soldiers said, was a scrap of Christmas cheer for a place that typically isn't very cheerful. As many as 15 wounded troops are treated here on a routine day; more violent days push the number to 30.

Soldiers tried to ignore the fact they were far from family dinners and football.

"I'm not even Catholic and I'm going to Mass tonight," said Spc. Jeanie Manibusan, a laboratory technician from Miami. "You just have to celebrate and live life to the fullest because it's good knowing you're protecting something worthwhile."

The 31st CSH is probably the gloomiest place in Baghdad's so-called Green Zone, a reminder of the dangers American troops face when they step outside the compound's heavily fortified gates. There are bloody boot prints in the trauma ward. Nurses try to shield severely wounded soldiers from seeing their dying comrades in the next beds.

For the holidays, however, hospital workers strung tinsel in the hallways, hung paper snowflakes and displayed Christmas cards sent from Girl Scout troops. One ward's staff won $260, all spent on pizza, for the best decorations. They'd built a chimney with red-suited legs sticking out. Their Santa wore combat boots.

"It's depressing being here, but we do what we have to do," said Maj. Cynthia Sveine, head of the outpatient clinic. "Soldiers like the decorations, the way it feels in here. When they come in, they remember that it's Christmas."

Spc. Benjamin Malave's patrol in Baghdad recently came under small-arms fire from Iraqi insurgents. His Humvee flipped into a slime-filled ditch and Malave's knee was crushed. That attack was the reason the Brooklyn-born soldier spent Christmas Eve in the hospital waiting room, watching a television update of the suicide bombing at a U.S. base near Mosul.

"I've seen legs gone, guts open," Malave said. "But Mosul was worse. It's so disturbing. I feel so sorry for the families."

"Christmas is ruined for them forever, it's a black mark on the calendar," added Malave's friend, Sgt. Jack Martilotta, of Long Island, N.Y. "Everybody's working hard and missing home, but as hard as it is for our families, they still have us coming back to look forward to. Those other families don't."

The hospital admits American and coalition troops, Iraqi security personnel and Iraqi civilians injured by U.S. troops. Then there are the special cases, such as "Little Una," a 16-year-old Iraqi girl with terminal brain cancer who is back in Baghdad after receiving treatment at a Boston hospital. Sympathetic doctors and American administrators arranged the trip.

On Friday, grim-faced soldiers waiting for checkups broke into smiles in the hospital corridor where Steven Madrid, a State Department employee, surprised Una with a teddy bear.

"As people come and go, caring for Little Una is almost like passing a torch," Madrid said. "When I gave her the bear, her eyes lit up like sparklers."

Missing loved ones was the worst part of Christmas Eve in Iraq, several soldiers said. Italian-American soldiers dreamed of traditional seafood spreads, Puerto Ricans reminisced about pigs roasted on spits in their back yards. Calls home are heartbreaking, with children demanding they come home or parents worrying about the violence they see on the news.

Pvt. 1st Class David Perkins said his family in North Carolina sounded suspicious when he told them the truth: that he was in the hospital because of a spider bite that caused his arm to swell and ache.

"My mom told me to swear to her I wasn't shot," Perkins said with a grin. "She thought I was lying about the spider bite."

More than 1,300 American troops have been killed in action in Iraq since the war began. Dr. Danny Jazarevic, the military's top doctor in Iraq, said that figure would be far higher if it weren't for improvements to body armor and medical technology that were not available in Vietnam and other wars. Soldiers have better survival chances now, he said, but they often end up amputees or with debilitating injuries.

Even for the most seasoned doctors, Jazarevic added, the string of broken, young soldiers transported to the 31st CSH takes a toll, especially during the holiday season.

"Sometimes demons come at night. Every one of these kids could be my son or my daughter, and they are somebody's son or daughter," he said. "All I can do is make sure these kids get the best care by the best-trained, best-equipped and best-educated professionals America can give. That's my promise."


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.