2005 | Afghanistan

Do No Harm

Medical ethics on the front lines of the Iraq War.

Hello All,

I have another extraordinary mission we went on to share with y’all. Some time ago I actually pondered this type of thing happening and wondered how I might deal with it. Just know once again we acted so that others might live. I don’t say this to brag but others this time was the enemy. You see, beyond the so-called top stories that make the news—of aggressive attacks on enemy forces, fighting and more fighting the United States is doing—is the rest of the team. This was quite the ironic Medivac mission. So as you may know, our mission is to provide evacuation and medical treatment to American and Coalition forces, to the civilian population and even to the enemy. It’s actually part of the Geneva Convention that we treat all the same. I hope I can paint the picture enough for you so it hits you like it did me.

Outside of FOB ABAD (Forward Operating Base, Asadabad province) a young man (enemy) was attempting to plant an IED (improvised explosive device). These IEDs are responsible for so many lives taken here. The intent obviously was to plant the IED hoping troops would pass by and many fatalities and injuries would result. Well, this man failed in his attempt, as the IED detonated near him. It caused tissue damage to his chest, face, and one eye. It completely amputated one hand and all but three fingers of the other. I tell you this not to gross you out but to understand the extent of his injuries. This man had a task to kill/maim American troops. The hate for us must have been there, too. Imagine though this man’s next actions. He knew that if he came running to the front gate of the FOB unarmed that U.S. troops would accept him as a casualty and treat his life-threatening injuries—which is exactly what happened. Even though the enemy hates us they also trust us to be obedient to the laws that govern us.

I received the patient which the on-scene medical folks did a great job of packaging, along with two armed guards. He was now a prisoner under control of the U.S. Army and for me, my patient. It was something how there were no hateful feelings bursting out of me, not even an impulse to yell at him for what he did. It was just time to go to work and stabilize him for transport to our hospital in Bagram, where he went to immediate surgery. En route to the hospital this man felt enough peace to gesture to me he was thirsty, so I cleaned his lips that were stuck together from the blast. I put a moistened four-by-four bandage over his mouth to at least wet the inside for him and bring some comfort. The look in his eyes I won’t ever forget. Thankfulness I saw in him. I then sedated him somewhat to relieve the pain he was in and to help ensure an uneventful transport.

About This Text

Travis Powell, from a letter reprinted in Letters from the Front Lines by Stuart Franklin Pratt. Then Staff Sergeant Powell was serving in a U.S. Army Medivac unit when he wrote this letter.