WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq—The number of dead and wounded from the expected battle to retake insurgent-controlled Fallujah probably will reach levels not seen since Vietnam, a senior surgeon at the Marine camp outside Fallujah said Thursday.
Navy Cmdr. Lach Noyes said the hospital here is preparing to handle 25 severely injured soldiers a day, not counting walking wounded and the dead. The hospital has added two operating rooms, doubled its supplies, added a mortuary and stocked up on blood reserves. Doctors have set up a system of ambulance vehicles that will rush to the camp's gate to receive the dead and wounded so units can return to battle quickly.
The plans underscore the ferocity of the fight the U.S. military expects in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim city about 35 miles west of Baghdad which has been under insurgent control since April. More than 1,120 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in Iraq since the war began, more than 860 of those from hostile fire.
The deadliest month was April when fierce fighting killed 126 U.S. troops largely at Fallujah and Ramadi before a cease-fire virtually turned Fallujah over to the insurgents. Even then, the death toll was far below the worst month of Vietnam, April 1969, when the U.S. death toll was 543 at the height of American involvement there.
U.S. forces have been building up outside Fallujah for weeks in preparation for taking the city back, and many here believe the assault is likely to come soon.
Military officials say they expect U.S. troops will encounter not just fighters wielding AK-47s assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but also heavy concentrations of mines, roadside bombs and possibly car bombs.
"We'll probably just see those in a lot better concentration in the city," said Maj. Jim West, an intelligence officer with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force.
West said he thinks there are some 4,000 to 5,000 fighters between Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, and they may try to draw troops into cramped urban areas in Fallujah that have been booby-trapped.
The toll in human suffering has already been grave.
Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict was on a convoy heading to the Fallujah camp last Saturday when a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into the truck Benedict and his platoon mates were traveling on. A few minutes later, mortars and rifle fire rained down on the survivors. As he rolled toward the safety of a ditch, Benedict saw one of his friends crawling on all fours, with blood pouring from his face.
"You've got to expect casualties," said Benedict, 28. The fight for Fallujah, he said, "is overdue."
Eight Marines were killed in the bombing. Benedict is now recuperating in the field hospital with burns to his left hand and the side of his head.
In the six weeks Noyes has worked at the Fallujah camp, his team has operated on Marines with eyes gouged by shrapnel and limbs torn by explosion. A rocket strike outside the hospital killed two staff members and left deep pockmarks across the white concrete walls.
Noyes said some bodies have been so badly mangled that they had to be shipped home for DNA identification.
As Noyes was speaking Thursday, two Marines and a female American photojournalist were rushed into the hospital. A roadside bomb had hit their vehicle. The Marines had shrapnel cuts and burns, and the photographer's teeth had been pushed back into her mouth. The bomb was attached to a tank of gasoline, meant to create a fireball that didn't ignite.
Capt. Melissa Kaime, another Navy surgeon at the hospital, said that seeing trauma wounds in medical school is one thing; seeing them come off the battlefield is something altogether different.
"To treat a patient when (his) brain is coming out ... ," she said, before her voice trailed off. "There are things that I will never understand. It's beyond my comprehension; a higher power will have to explain why these things have happened."
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ-FALLUJAH