Intercepted Letter From Iraq

(08/04/2009)

Editor's Note: Urlin Matthews was a Physician Assistant at Minnie Hamilton Health System until last fall. The employees sent two care packages to him recently and this is his letter of response.

Dear friends and employees of Minnie Hamilton Health Service

It is with great thanks and enthusiasm that I write to report that two very large and very heavy boxes arrived today. Contained within those packages were enough "goodies" to last a couple of tours. I couldn't possibly eat all of it so I am most definitely going to share the bounty. Of course, I believe you all intended that to happen anyway. I also found and have hanging on my aid station walls the wonderful words and colored pictures that were included. Please extend a special thanks to all the daycare children for the CD. It was very thoughtful.

This has been an arduous but rewarding journey. Only one percent of the American population will make this journey and I, for one, am happy to have made it. As you may recall I left MHHS and was called to duty on December 1, 2008. I reported to Bluefield, WV, joined the 1-150th Armored Reconnaissance Squadron and within a day was down in Fort Pickett, VA. I took a slightly different path than my fellow cavalry troops. I went further south and west to Fort Sam Houston for more trauma training. It is amazing how war tends to push the envelope of trauma resuscitation. I know the Advance Trauma life Support (ATLS) is changing its course syllabus to reflect the strides the military has made in keeping patients alive. After a couple of weeks I returned for Christmas break and was able to see my wife Renee' and my daughter, Georgia Faith for a couple of days.

Then the 150th was off to its next destination of Camp Shelby, MS. There we spent a little over a month training specific tasks we would need to survive in Iraq. Our next stop was Fort Bragg, NC to make final checks and pack for our overseas travel. During the entire time I saw patients twice a day which ran many times into the night. Unfortunately, we didn't have a doctor assigned so I spent every night on-call just in case one of the troops became hurt or acutely ill.

I left the United States in April and arrived in Kuwait. The plan was to acclimate and adjust for jet lag. Some .of us had to go advance to Iraq and so we left four days later. My first couple of days in Iraq was spent just moving around on Forward Operating Base Stryker (formerly known as Camp Stryker). Only a year ago this whole area was a bunch of smaller camps. Due to the "surge", however, some of these smaller camps expanded their borders and joined up against each other and now are part of a larger Victory Base Complex. This "complex" surrounds the Baghdad Airport and is about the size of Morgantown (very large). I experienced many "brown outs" that would blow you away. Everything was brown from the sky to the ground. Each of these days I couldn't see more than twenty feet in front of me. It made it very difficult to breath and I had to treat a number of soldiers for breathing disorders. I'll probably be coughing up this dust for a couple of years after I return.

Well I was wrong if I thought that would be my final home for a year. As it turns out they were building a smaller post call JSS (Joint Security Site) Yusafia or JSS YUS for short. This JSS is joined by the Iraqi Army on the other side of a concrete barrier. We don't trust them much and I'm sure the feelings are mutual. Still we have to work together if we're ever going to get out of this country. To give you a picture of the size of this JSS, the entire perimeter is one third mile in distance. The aid station is actually the largest building and at least it has steel beams. We've been lucky thus far because no one has launched any rockets into our little JSS (knock on wood).

As Julie Garrett has probably informed you, the creature comforts here are lacking to put it mildly. Yes,we have been using "wag bags" to police our excrement (best word to use) and then burn it. Just recently we got three port-a-jons but they are filthy. Believe me the wet wipes you sent will come in great use. Chow is served hot for lunch and dinner and is cooked from a MKT (mobile kitchen trailer). The three cooks we have do an outstanding job. Meals are at least palatable but I'm losing weight. Luckily you all sent chocolate to counter.

Since we are so isolated medically, they sent me out with a Forward Aid Station (FAS) and I have five medics. Mostly I only work with two because the others are constantly out on missions. We see some minor trauma and normal illnesses. We are equipped, however, with Advance Cardiac Life Support (ACLS) and ATLS drugs/equipment. I even have a compact ventilator just in case I need to sedate someone. The quickest way for me to evacuate patients out of here is by helicopter (MEDEVAC). Since I've been down here at the JSS, which is about thirty days, we've had ten of those in a "black" status. That means no helicopter movement. On those days I have to prepare to hold on to ill patients. Luckily, no one has died here in this command. North Carolina boys can't say the same.

My hope is to return to WV for two weeks leave in November. I won't know until it gets closer whether to get my hopes up. If things go well we'll return to the US sometime in January or February and will demobilize in Fort Stewart, GA. That part is sketchy.

Again, I want to thank everyone at MHHS and Glenville office. Your kind words and scrumptious candy will make a positive impact on all our morale. Thank you.

CPT Urlin D. Mathews II
West Virginia Army National Guard
Serving in JSS Yusafia, Iraq