Following last week's hatchet job entitled 'Our Heroes Betrayed' S-M yesterday:
[Some name changes FTHOI]
4 February 2007
OUR M*A*S*H HEROES
EXCLUSIVE: DODGING BULLETS AND MISSILES.. THE MEN & WOMEN WHO SAVE OUR TROOPS
By Rupert Hamer in Basra
THEY are the unassuming and unsung heroes and heroines of the seemingly endless conflict in Iraq... men and women who put their lives on the line every day to save those of their comrades.
And our air ambulance Incident Response Teams - like the mobile army surgical hospital units in the M*A*S*H TV series - are finding themselves under pressure after an upsurge in violence in Basra following a crackdown by British forces on Shia death squads. In the last four months IRT teams have saved the lives of nearly 100 soldiers, dodging mortars and small arms fire as they swoop in low in their Merlin helicopters to evacuate the wounded.
"It's when you see a photo of a soldier who has died flashed up on the TV screen on one of those 24-hour news programmes that it really hits home," says Sergeant Chris Heathland , 27, of Halifax West Yorkshire, gunner on one of the four IRT teams.
"The picture was usually taken at their passing-out parade when they were all smiles, a fresh-faced recruit with their whole life in front of them.
"Sadly, you can't help thinking, 'You weren't like that the last time I saw you.'"
Squadron Leader and doctor Sarah Parlour , 38, from Waddington, Lincolnshire, has only been in Iraq a few weeks, but she has already treated dozens of casualties after flying into Basra.
"It is emotional work and can be draining," she says. "Some of the troops you are treating are just 18 or 19. Often they talk to you as you tend to them. They ask, 'Am I going to die? Am I going to make it?'
"Many have shrapnel in their legs, arms or stomachs. Others have bullet wounds. You just have to get them medically stable as soon as possible, stop the bleeding and reassure them.
"Of course you are aware of the dangers when you are flying in to treat a casualty on a Merlin. The helicopters have flares which are used to confuse surface-to-air missiles. The trouble is the flares are very sensitive. Even the heat from a car engine can set them off. You hear a "crack" every time they are deployed so you always wonder if there is something coming up at you or whether it is a false alarm.
"But once you are treating a wounded soldier you just shut all that out and concentrate on what you have got to do."
RAF Sergeant Vickie Zimmerman, 31, of Mansfield, Notts, a nurse and IRT team leader, says the violence is continuing to escalate. "We're being called out to pick up the injured nearly every day," she says. "All you have to do is look at the casualty figures. What the troops on the ground are going through is horrendous.
"A T1 case is where the casualty has an immediately life-threatening injury and in the last four weeks we have airlifted eight such cases to hospital.
"A T2 case is where a soldier needs urgent medical treatment within two hours to prevent them dying and we have had 10 of these cases in the same period.
"We are also treating a lot of burns injuries. The bombs the Iraqis use against armoured vehicles cause the inside of the vehicle to heat up, burning the troops caught inside.
"What is also incredible is the work the soldiers do looking after their own comrades. Every fourth soldier is trained as a medic and they often do an amazing job before we get there."
The IRT teams sleep just yards away from the Merlin helicopters at Basra Air Station, which is often mortar bombed by insurgents. Each Merlin can be in the air within seven minutes of being "warned off" or scrambled, flying low to reduce the time insurgents have to fix on their target.
Every member of the IRT team is armed, and undergoes regular training in the use of pistols and rifles in case they have to fight off the enemy while trying to rescue wounded soldiers.
"When you're coming down to land you see lines of tracer fire coming towards you," says Merlin pilot Sam Arrowman, 26, from Oxford. "Fortunately we train very hard in evasive flying... and they haven't hit us yet."
Sgt Zimmerman adds: "Bringing down a helicopter is a huge prize for the insurgents and we know they have the weapons to do it."
One operation rear gunner Sgt Chris Bird , 27, will never forget is dropping off a doctor at Old State Building in Basra city centre, the most heavily attacked site in southern Iraq. "We had to take off again quickly because the casualty was not ready to be carried on board and we would have been sitting targets," says Sgt Bird, who comes from Leicestershire.
"The Iraqis knew there was a helicopter in the area and of course when we came back they were waiting for us.
"As we took off we could see gunmen on the roof of a nearby building so we had to fly around for 10 minutes while troops on the ground made the area safe.
"But we eventually got a radio call to say it was OK to fly back in.
"In the end it was fine and we got the casualty out. He was badly injured but survived. But going to OSB still gives me a bad feeling."
He adds: "Being stationed in Basra is tough, but it is the most rewarding job I have ever done in the RAF. Yet I would never be able to go through what the troops on the ground do. They are incredibly brave."
Before coming out to Basra, Corporal Hazel Quick, 26, a medic from Buckinghamshire, was handling paperwork.
Yet soon she was touching down in a Merlin in central Basra to try to find five wounded frontline troops after a Warrior armoured car had been badly hit by insurgents. " I had never experienced anything like this," she says. "It hits you hard when you see the injuries the men have got."
Corporal Jennifer Taken, 27, a nurse from Ayr, South West Scotland, adds: "Often it is not completely clear how seriously the men are injured when you take off.
"But while we are in the air we are getting updated information all the time so that we have some idea of how seriously injured the casualties are.
"It can be tough emotionally, but we talk about it together and support each other."
The IRT teams aim to get casualties back to the British Medical Hospital within an hour, but they are proud that the longest it has taken them so far is 45 minutes.
Surgeon Peter Large, a Royal Navy reservist who recently arrived at the 50-bed hospital, says: "Every minute is vital. If the response by the IRT teams wasn't so quick then a lot of young men and women would not have survived."
Peter, who comes from Edinburgh, usually replaces hips and operates on gall bladders at Sunderland's Royal Hospital.
Now he is trying to save the lives of young men who will never look the same again. "I've operated on seven or eight men with serious wounds who will be disfigured for the rest of their lives, he says.
It is cruel. These men are on a peacekeeping mission to help people, not to be targeted in this way by the Iraqis."
Peter adds: "I volunteered to come out here and do my bit. Let's just say that the armed forces don't have many surgeons. My wife fears for me but I am also pleased to say that she is proud of what I am doing."
Peter is part of a team of 100 doctors and nurses treating troops.
The worst cases, who face certain death without specialist treatment, are flown back to Britain within 24 hours. Others stay and recuperate before going back to their units.
Captain Tracy House, 39, a nurse, who is in charge of the two wards at the hospital, says: "We have had more injuries in the last three months than in the previous nine months put together.
"After operations the soldiers need to know that someone is there for them 24 hours a day. They need to feel safe and be around people who understand what they have been going through. Sometimes it is a case of just having someone to hold their hand and talk to rather than medication.
"Some will have dreams of what they have been through and cry out in their sleep."
Among the injured being treated is Lance Corporal Jeremy Tor, 24, from Nottingham, who was wounded by a mortar round on New Year's Eve.
He had been walking close to the British Forces main headquarters near Basra when mortars began raining down.
He dived for cover after hearing the first explosions - but was just too late.
"One mortar exploded just a few metres away and I felt a sharp pain in my leg," he says.
"I didn't think it was serious and I waited for the all-clear and tried to get up.
"Some soldiers carried me to the medical centre and an IRT team then loaded me on to a helicopter that flew me to the hospital.
"I can stand now and I'm on antibiotics for the wound which is infected, but I'm hoping to stay here in Basra and continue my tour.
"I'm getting good treatment and the ITR did a great job in getting me here. I owe the medical team a lot."
'After the blast they did a great job getting me here. I owe them' RESCUED SOLDIER JEREMY TOR
The soldiers ask 'Am I going to die? Am I going to make it?' as you treat them.. some are just 18
We've saved the lives of 76 in the last four months alone..it's the most rewarding job in the RAF
Bringing down a chopper is a huge prize for the rebels..we know they've got the weapons to do it
HOSPITAL ON FRONTLINE
THE British Field Hospital was moved to its new location at Basra Air Station just eight miles from the centre of the city last month.
The move from Shaibah Logistics Base 15 miles away means casualties reach the hospital much quicker.
The tented M*A*S*H-style medical centre has two main wards - one for troops suffering injuries sustained in battle and the other for service personnel with other illnesses. This is done deliberately to stop the spread of infection to the battlefield wounded. The hospital has never had a case of MRSA at Shaibah or its new location.
Each open-plan ward has 16 beds with a three-metre space between each one. It also has a four-bed "resuscitation" ward, which is effectively a short-stay intensive care unit.
This is where casualties are brought initially and seen by an A&E consultant to ensure they are stable.
There are also surgical rooms where the hospital's two surgeons operate, working together on serious injuries.
The field hospital has a total staff of 100 doctors and nurses and there is almost that number again on standby for serious emergencies.
The hospital also has a physiotherapy section where the long-term injured can recuperate.
The vast majority of the war wounded are evacuated back to Britain for further treatment in Selly Oak Hospital in Birmingham.
The whole hospital is tented with a "hard" roof exterior to stop the mortars or rockets which regularly rain down on Basra Air Station
[Some name changes FTHOI]