Medic Saw Horrors of High-Tech Warfare
They arrived in handcuffs and blindfolds under heavy guard. Many suffered horribly from burns and shrapnel wounds inflicted by the most intense aerial bombardment since World War II.
Without interpreters and using unfamiliar equipment, Capt. Jay Bruhl and his five-member medical crew repeatedly flew Saudi C-130 air evacuation planes to the front lines and treated hundreds of Iraqi prisoners of war.
While the brief battle with Iraq resulted in relatively few Allied casualties, the war was hell for Iraqi soldiers who died by the thousands. And Bruhl saw that side of the war.
Far away from the television cameras, Bruhl and his crew transported wounded and dying Iraqis from the battlefield to Saudi Arabian hospitals, stacking them five high in the cramped cargo planes.
“Many of them were very young, 17 or 18, and they were a mess,” Bruhl, 38, said Friday, reclining in a chair at Capistrano by the Sea Hospital, a mental hospital in Dana Point where he is a head nurse. “I saw the opposite end of the terrible price of war and I don’t think I’ll be forgetting what I saw out there.”
But for a while on Friday, war was forgotten. On his first visit back to work after returning home to Oceanside on Tuesday, Bruhl was surprised by about 75 co-workers, who lined the hospital’s winding driveway, cheering loudly and waving American flags.
It was a hero’s welcome for a man who said Friday that he didn’t “feel much like a hero.”
“But I’m very proud of the fact that we provided a service that saved lives,” said Bruhl, a seven-year veteran of the Air Force’s 146th Air Medical Evacuation Squad, part of the California Air National Guard based near Oxnard. “That they were EPWs (enemy prisoners of war) made no difference--they were lives that needed to be saved.”
Bruhl and eight units assigned to the 146th were originally supposed to transport wounded Allied soldiers. But when Allied casualties remained light and the Iraqi military began suffering heavy losses, Bruhl and his team were handed the task of saving enemy soldiers.
Iraqi casualties grew so great that the Air Force had to press into service a pair of the Saudi C-130 cargo planes to handle the flow of enemy wounded.
“I couldn’t tell you how many the whole squad treated--thousands, I guess,” Bruhl said. “The numbers were overwhelming.”
Slow but mobile, the aircraft flew at low altitude to the front lines to avoid radar detection. After the plane landed on whatever flat area could be found, the medical crew leaped out and began loading patients.
The injured soldiers, surrounded by a colorless desert, waited in handcuffs and blindfolds, accompanied by armed guards.
“Most of the patients I evacuated were very frightened and very young,” Bruhl said. “Sometimes, they were as old as their late 40s. They were usually ill-dressed, with their clothes worn and torn. Their chemical protection gear and gas masks were a mess. And they were always hungry.
“There was rarely any anger in them,” Bruhl said. “They were glad to be with us because we gave them food and medical treatment. There was usually an enormous sense of relief there.”
The wounds many suffered were terrible, he said, including “a lot of double amputees. There were gunshot wounds, bomb-blast victims, quite a bit of shrapnel in these men.”
The most severely wounded were loaded last, so they could be the first transported to a Saudi medical center or an Allied-run field hospital.
There was rarely time to talk with the prisoners on the plane ride to Saudi Arabia. They were packed 40 or 50 at a time into stacking beds on the airplane. “I can remember looking at my watch and wondering just how much longer it would take to reach the field,” Bruhl said. “Sometimes, it seemed to take forever to land.”
In-flight medical treatment was an exercise in controlled chaos. Flying low at 5,000 to 8,000 feet, the plane usually encountered severe turbulence that made the simplest medical tasks difficult.
“Even getting an IV into a patient could be tough,” Bruhl said. “It was like trying to tie your shoes while bouncing on a trampoline.”
But the crew’s efforts weren’t lost on their Iraqi patients, who often grabbed the hands of their benefactors in appreciation or give them a thumbs-up sign.
However, not all the soldiers were that demonstrative, Bruhl said. About a third of the wounded were seasoned troops, some of them belonging to Iraq’s elite Republican Guard.
“The Republican Guard didn’t talk to us,” Bruhl said. “They were the most badly injured and if they felt pain, they still wouldn’t say anything.
“But most of them were scared kids. Some of them told us the reason they had surrendered was because they were threatened with assassination and told that their families would be killed if they didn’t fight.”
Bruhl thought he had two months of service left in the Gulf when he received orders to return home this week.
“I had 1 1/2 hours to pack and go,” he said. “I didn’t get the opportunity to say goodby to a lot of people I developed close relationships with--people that I shared a lot with.”
Bruhl said he will remember the times that he was concerned about flying with untested Saudi pilots but that he soon grew confident of their abilities. Also remembered will be the Scud missiles lobbed toward his base almost nightly, along with the tension of flying over Kuwait on the first day of the Allied ground attack.
And then there are his continuing dreams of disfigured men and their pain and suffering. “The transition (to civilian life) has been difficult,” he said.
It was also abrupt. Tuesday morning, Bruhl was in Saudi Arabia. Tuesday night, he was in the arms of his wife and three children in a San Diego airport. But he said the adjustment has been made easier by the positive attitude of Americans towards Gulf War veterans.
“Everyone has rallied around the fact that we were successful out there,” Bruhl said. “I wish Vietnam veterans could have received this kind of homage because it makes all the difference.”
“I think people understand what happened over there (in the Gulf) was difficult,” he said. “It takes a little time and understanding to heal and just the fact that people are more supportive makes that possible.”