Abu Ghraib Rx

Minnesota nurse Deanna Germain describes serving at Iraq's most notorious prison.

Most of the time in my life, I love challenges. I love living on the edge. I may not look like that type of person, but I do. But I wasn't so sure about Abu Ghraib.

When I got there, there was just no room to live. The medical group had all lived right in the hospital, so you lived within feet of your prisoners and your patients. So the first couple of nights I literally slept on a cot in the hospital. And then one of the sergeants said, "You know, there's some space opening up in these prison cells, would you want to live in this other area?" Well, I had no place to go, and it turned out it wasn't so bad.

The hospital itself was a regular tent hospital in a building, but things were very cramped for patients as well as for us. You couldn't keep the place clean. We had windstorms that would come in, and the dust would filter into anything and everything, all of your equipment.

We ran out of things like clean sheets, blankets, and colostomy bags. And we had so many gunshot wounds to the abdomen—a lot of people needed colostomy bags, Americans and our detainees. So we learned how to be creative. We made them out of lunch bags. People would send us things in baggies, and we figured out a way to make colostomy bags out of them.

Probably one of the most important moments for me was the incident involving the Marine and Mohammed. It was about six o'clock in the evening, and the Marines brought in one of their buddies, and he was just terribly injured. In fact, a good part of his head was gone in back. The thing is, he looked so normal. He was still in his uniform. But by the looks of his injury, even if he was at Johns Hopkins, he wasn't going to survive.

We called in the helicopter to get him to Baghdad and get him to a neurosurgeon as soon as possible, and it wasn't maybe 15 or 20 minutes later that they brought in the other gentleman, who was in the traditional Arab garb. He had been shot in the abdomen. And it just seemed so coincidental. There were a lot of people on the side who were asking, "Do you think this guy had anything to do with the Marine we just sent to Baghdad?" Because we all knew he was going to die.

The honest answer is that there were people who didn't want to take care of Mohammed. I ended up caring for him more than just about anyone. Do I think he was innocent or not? I don't know. Maybe he was just a farmer out there. I don't know. None of us knew.

I was at Abu Ghraib for several weeks before any news came out about the prisoner abuse, and I found out through an email from my sister. She said, "What is going on?" I said, "What are you talking about? What do you mean?" Then word spread. Everyone was getting phone calls and emails saying, "What in the hell is going on?"

Interestingly, nobody from the command brought us together and said, "This is what's going on." We didn't sit down and talk about this news.

My first reaction was: How could that have happened? We were in the hospital, and the prison was not very far away—it was sort of a mystery, most of us never had the opportunity to go in. Then I started wondering: What is that place really like? Because just down from there was the old torture chamber, and the gallows, and the execution wall. I thought that was part of Saddam's history—all that torture was part of Saddam's history.

And then it was very quickly that all the news media started coming. Our camp changed overnight. Where once it was very quiet and austere, all of a sudden there were buses of reporters and every night you'd flash on the TV and every channel you'd put on was Abu Ghraib.

The demoralizing part was getting the reaction of all the different reporters who came. We'd have these hordes of reporters walking through our hospital, and you could see the nametags from Japan and England and Italy, and they're looking at us, and I felt their disgust. They'd look at you like, because you wear the uniform, you're part of the whole problem.

We also wondered: What's going to happen to us? Is somebody going to try to blow this place up? Are people outside the fence going to get real serious and start saying, "Let's kill everyone who's there"? So I think people there got really scared that we would be attacked.

It was hard coming home, because you feel so misunderstood. People really want to reach out or try to understand what you're going through. Some people would be blunt and ask, "How many dead people did you see?" Some people would just ask, "What was it like?" And you'd start talking about it, and then you'd realize they don't have a clue.

We all kind of fight this feeling of floating between two worlds and being part of neither. You've dreamt of green grass, and flushing toilets, and all these things—it's what keeps you going day after day. And then you get here, and you love it all, but you're missing...how could you miss Abu Ghraib? And of course, it was the people you missed—people who understood you.

 

Deanna Germain's memoir, Reaching Past the Wire: A Nurse at Abu Ghraib, is available from Borealis Books

As told to Kevin Hoffman

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