Signs of compassion, signs of hope

  • Published
  • By Maj. Damien Pickart
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
Major Pickart, chief of the wing public affairs office, recently deployed from Mountain Home Air Force Base to Balad Air Base, Iraq, as part of a regularly scheduled deployment. The following are some of his initial thoughts after his first few days at the base.

I'm making the most of it here at Balad Air Base. I truly love my job and the people I work with and for here at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing. I must say that what I'm seeing and experiencing sure is a new experience for someone who grew up in small town Iowa.

We're in the rainy season here, so despite the beautiful blue skies, 40-degree nights and 60 degree (Fahrenheit) days, we've had some rain spells, and it's been quite muddy. The water has no where to go after a rain squall, so we end up with wide lakes of muddy brown water. We "hop scotch" from place to place on haphazardly placed sandbags, old wood pallets and the occasional raised sidewalk. It feels like I'm living in an episode of "M.A.S.H."

All the facilities are "hardened" to protect people from the periodic mortar attacks we have. It appears everything, even the toilets, are surrounded by concrete barriers reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. While much of the place is bleak and gray looking with concertina wire and drab green sandbags everywhere, the amenities of life here help us see past the colorless war motif, namely a new gymnasium, recreation center and wonderful dining facilities and food. It may sound tough here, but it's even tougher out at the forward operating bases, so I'm certainly not complaining.

The base is roughly 15 square miles with more than 23,000 Army, Air Force, third country nationals and contractors working and living here. There are a lot of aircraft and flying operations ongoing. The inventory includes Black Hawk, CH-46 and Pave Low helicopters, Predator unmanned aerial vehicles armed with Hellfire missiles, C-130 cargo transports and F-16 aircraft. We also have A-10s providing close air support west of us at Al Asad Air Base.

Fighters take off at all hours to provide air support to troops in trouble or simply to provide cover for ongoing missions around Iraq, day and night. We certainly live up to our mission statement here, "combat air power for America, right here, right now."

When the call for a scramble goes out, as it did when I was visiting the control tower the other day, a pair of our F-16s was airborne within minutes. I had to wonder if the pilots are living in their cockpit with response times like that. When they scream off into the dark sky on afterburner, the ground reverberates and the sky seems as if it's splitting open. The ear shattering noise reminds me of home at the Gunfighter Ranch at Mountain Home.

Medical evacuation helicopters continuously pass overhead; inbound with seriously wounded troops and Iraqis.

Yes, we treat both here.

Our doctors are compassionate to all who suffer. Wounded good guys, bad guys and innocent bystanders all pass through the same door to the "100-yard dash" from the emergency room to the operating room.

This "dash" is the central corridor of the enormous Air Force Theater Hospital -- a 63,000 square foot maze of tents, soon to be replaced by a permanent structure. I've spent quite a bit of time there already for media visits and seen things unlike anything I've seen before in my life.

I've stood on the helicopter pad watching Black Hawk helicopters land and medics race their bicycle gurneys to collect the wounded, usually several per chopper. The wind blast and "thump thump" of the chopper blades is deafening as they hustle the patient down a flag-draped sidewalk known as "Hero's Highway." Wounded patients wheeled through there to the ER clearly see it as they pass beneath.

My first visit to the ER was an eye-opening experience. As hospital leadership escorted me through the ER doors to tour the facility, a young Soldier lay there with two shattered legs from an improvised explosive device blast. It's awful how much damage a blast can do to muscle, flesh and bone; a life forever changed in a blinding flash.

Never have the wounded been as fortunate as those who pass through the AFTH. The specialists here are truly gifted. The many before/after-surgery pictures I've seen clearly illustrate how well they can reconstruct the shattered human body and put lives back together.

Two Iraqis came in yesterday. I watched the team of medics and specialists stabilize and prep them for surgery. The man appeared to have been targeted because he had bullet holes in both arms and legs. Nothing seemed random about their placement and the tears on his cheek clearly conveyed his pain. I found myself praying for an absolute stranger.

Despite my perception that he was very bad off, the medics said he would be an easy save, indicating they'd seen far worse cases. Scenes like this go on 24-hours a day, seven days a week. I expect it may be the same when I leave here in four months, but with a 98-percent survival rate, it is comforting knowing most visitors to the AFTH will go on with their lives, simply one with a different path.

We have seven key missions at the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing, including air power with precision weapons and battlefield Airmen supporting Army missions. My job is to get the word out on the thousands of great things these Airmen are doing every day for their nation's defense. It's not just about making America aware of what Air Force is providing to the fight, it's also an opportunity to make their families, loved ones and friends proud of their contributions in the Global War on Terror.

Americans may not agree on why we went into this war or why it's being fought, but having seen the human suffering and carnage the anti-Iraqi Forces are inflicting, not only on our troops but also innocent bystanders, it certainly strengthened my belief this is a fight worth fighting. These people simply want to live in peace, raise a family and go to work like you and me.

When I see a father doting over his wounded daughter in one of our wards, I quickly realize how much we have in common and find myself thinking of my own little girl. When he smiled at me and offered his attempt at a salute, my preconceived notions that these people don't appreciate our presence simply evaporated. Never have I felt more committed to winning this war than at that moment. The people who cause this premeditated suffering must be defeated so they can't spread their brand of hatred beyond Iraq.

We had our first real mortar attack today -- the first one since I arrived. A distant boom shook the ground slightly, and then we got the "all clear." I'm sure there will be more attacks, but I feel pretty safe based on the defensive measures we have in place to mitigate or prevent mortar attacks, in addition to the concrete shells in which our living quarters and work centers are encased.

I often think about life in Mountain Home and the days and memories I'll be missing while I'm over here. I owe my wife and children a lifetime of family vacations and gifts for their patience and support while dad is away. It is nice to know how supportive Mountain Home is of the many military families dealing with a deployment. I can't wait to see my family and friends again. I've already imagined the reunion at the Boise airport and the hugs, tears and kisses that will be shed when dad comes home from war.

Signing off from Balad Air Base.