Archive for Thursday, September 16, 2004

Army nurse returns home — for now

September 16, 2004

It was while jogging with her mother Tuesday morning that Army 1st Lt. Deanna Steinmetz realized she was finally home. Here, the landscape features rolling fields instead of an endless sea of desert sand. At home, there are crickets chirping instead of camel spiders long as a man's arm lurking.

Here, there's no such thing as a mortar attack.

"It's wonderful," Steinmetz said while sitting in the living room of her parents' Bonner Springs home.

The thanks of an appreciative nation greeted Steinmetz as she returned to her native country this week. While getting off a plane in Maine, she and other troops were met by World War II veterans and their wives, who offered the soldiers use of their cellular telephones to call home.

The reception Steinmetz received later that day in Kansas was even more impressive. At Famous Dave's restaurant in Wyandotte County, the 24-year-old Army nurse, still dressed in her desert combat uniform, received a standing ovation from patrons. She was also presented with the warm embrace of her parents.

In a ruse, Steinmetz surprised her mother and father, Tom and Debbie Steinmetz, by meeting them at the restaurant. The couple wasn't expecting their daughter for another two to three days and thought they were going to the restaurant for a birthday party.

"I walked around the corner and said 'Hi, Mom,'" Steinmetz said. "Mom, Dad and Grandma started to tear up."

Since February, Steinmetz has been stationed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, working as a clinical staff and charge nurse, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. She said being home offers her the chance to catch up with friends and family as well as her two golden retrievers, Reggie and Gus.

It also affords her the opportunity to have dinner at one of her favorite haunts, Kelley's Bar and Grille in Basehor, and knock down a few cold Boulevard Wheat beers, something she'd been looking forward to for a while now and something accomplished at Famous Dave's Monday night.

"I changed out of my uniform so I could have a cold beer," she said.

Although for now, she is away from the danger, the brief reprieve for Steinmetz will be just that -- brief. After two weeks, she'll be rotated back to Iraq and away from the creature comforts of home, away from the embrace of loved ones. And, as she's seen before, anything goes in the Middle East.

For a glimpse into what may lay in wait in Steinmetz's future, it's best to know what she's seen in the past.

(Note: information and quotes used in the paragraphs below were taken from an e-mail interview conducted with Steinmetz while she was in Iraq. Because of military regulations, Steinmetz was limited this week as to what she could talk about publicly regarding her military service.)

Coming and going

Steinmetz said she was slapped with a cold reminder of what war entails when she arrived at Baghdad International Airport in February. Her unit had been in Kuwait, "where there wasn't much of a threat," and were not ordered to wear their "full battle rattle."

It would be one of the last times soldiers were allowed without the gear.

"When I stepped off the plane, I saw three caskets draped in an American flag being loaded onto the C-130 beside our plane, heading home to their final resting place," Steinmetz said. "It was a real eye opener for me and my unit. While witnessing the ceremony, there were helicopters flying back and forth overhead. It was as if I stepped onto the set of "China Beach" or "Tour of Duty."

Winner gets a Coke

During her seven months, Steinmetz said she's encountered many frightening moments, "too many to choose from here." After a while, things like a mortar attack became so commonplace that soldiers would wager on when the first round would come in that day. The prize: a Coca-Cola.

"Little things like this keep us sane and functional out here," Steinmetz said.

In April, at the pinnacle of the prisoner-abuse scandal that erupted at Abu Ghraib, "it seemed like all hell was breaking loose throughout Iraq." American forces walled off the nearby city of Fallujah, "so it seemed like the insurgents in this area targeted the next best thing -- Abu Ghraib," Steinmetz said.

"Anytime I walked outside, I would hear small arms fire and occasionally a 50-caliber machine gun firing. We were receiving reports that the insurgents were outside our gates, trying to overrun our prison. So many thoughts were racing through my mind. What will happen to our patients and us? Will there be any survivors? How do I dispel my parents' fears after watching CNN and MSNBC?"

Riding shotgun

in a Blackhawk

While some moments in a combat zone are terrifying, others provide an inescapable adrenaline rush. Steinmetz's flight on Blackhawk helicopter was one of them.

During a riot at Abu Ghraib, two prisoners sustained life-threatening injuries and needed evacuation to a combat support hospital in Baghdad. Steinmetz was ordered to "bag" or ventilate one of the prisoners to assist with his breathing. The task proved difficult aboard not only a helicopter, but one having to perform combat maneuvers so it could avoid enemy rocket fire.

"This experience really renewed my love of Army nursing and has inspired me to consider flight nursing," Steinmetz said.

A nod to their God

Steinmetz has seen just about every injury war has to offer and treated each patient just like they were children of old Uncle Sam. The prospect of a person brought into the hospital as an enemy, but one leaving as an ally because of the care received by Americans, is rewarding to no end, Steinmetz said.

"I've had multiple patients thank me for the care I've provided and tell me that they will pray to their God for me," Steinmetz said. "I always reply with a smile and a thank you.

"It is always a great feeling to know that you have touched another life in some way, which is why I love nursing, even caring for the detainees."

Hussein's House

of Horrors

Although many Americans affiliate Abu Ghraib with reports of the notorious abuse scandal that erupted from the prison earlier this year, Steinmetz said the prison was known for abuse long before Americans moved in. She said Abu Ghraib was the destination for most of former Iraqi boss Saddam Hussein's enemies or dissidents.

Evil lurked here long before a handful of less-than-intelligent soldiers neglected their duties and abused prisoners, Steinmettz said.

"I have toured the death chamber that Saddam used to execute prisoners during his regime," Steinmetz said. "There is a place for prisoners to be hung, a small gas chamber and a wall where prisoners were lined up to meet their death by firing squad. In a strange way, it reminded me of touring Dachau, one of the German concentration camps."

It's important to understand that the actions of those few U.S. soldiers who caused the abuse scandal is not how the military operates, Steinmetz said. Many soldiers, like Steinmetz, hope that justice is dolled out to their comrades because they strayed from the laws of military as well as the laws of man, she wrote.

It should also be noted that the treatment Abu Ghraib prisoners received at the hands of those few tormentors painted a false picture of what life is like at the prison, Steinmetz said.

"The detainees have better food and living conditions. They have air-conditioned tents, get cold water and there has been much improvement in the preparation of their food. They also have better protection."

There are many other things going on throughout Iraq, Steinmetz said, like the construction of new schools, electrical facilities and water treatment plants, that should outweigh the renegade acts of a few miscreants.

Blood, sweat and tears

Since U.S. forces invaded Iraq, there have been numerous movements in the streets of American cities protesting the American campaign in the Middle East. Steinmetz said it's important that the sons and daughters serving in the military return home safely, but not before their job of reconstructing Iraq is finished.

"I love America, but I think we all have short attention spans. Honestly, I think that many Americans felt that we would be able to come into Iraq, take out Saddam and go home. It would have been nice, but it is not realistic. (Iraq) is going to require a lot of work to be able to support themselves again. It is going to require a lot of blood sweat and tears, but we cannot give up and go home now. If we did that, then someone just as bad as Saddam would gain power and who knows what would become of the Iraqi people."

Complacency Kills

You can watch all the action movies you want, Steinmetz said, but there isn't anything that can properly prepare you for living in a war zone. Nothing can prepare you for wondering if the family that just waved hello is now getting ready to launch a rocket propelled grenade at you.

"I don't know if I will ever be able to accurately convey what it is like to live in a place where so many people hate you and want to kill you and your friends," Steinmetz said. "You never know whom you can trust. You always have to keep up your guard and never become complacent. Even on the nursing wards, we have military police to provide security for us. The Army has a good old saying, "complacency kills." I never fully grasped the meaning of that quote until I moved (to Iraq)."

Boots back

on the ground

While she's home, Steinmetz said she plans to visit former teachers at Linwood Elementary School and a class that's written letters to her while she's been overseas. She also wouldn't mind going water skiing, hanging out by the pool and making some good ol' fashioned apple cider with her parents.

It's activities like these, or more accurately, the freedom to choose, that Steinmetz hopes American forces can deliver to the people of Iraq.

"Overall, the Iraqi's are really good and kindhearted people, who just want to move on with their lives," she said. "I pray that their lives will resume some sense of normalcy in the future and that they are able to live without fear."

Until that day comes, though, soldiers like Steinmetz will be needed in the region.

Leaving for war is in the back of her mind as she's home with her family this week, just as returning to her family of fellow soldiers is.

"Of course, I'd rather stay here, but my quasi-family is out there too," she said.

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