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Serious Injury a Daily Risk for Iraqi Soldiers

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Serious Injury a Daily Risk for Iraqi Soldiers

Iraq

Serious Injury a Daily Risk for Iraqi Soldiers

Serious Injury a Daily Risk for Iraqi Soldiers

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More than 17,000 American soldiers have been wounded in Iraq. But when it comes to injured Iraqi troops, there are no reliable numbers. U.S. and Iraqi military officials do agree that the number is much higher. We tell the story of one Iraqi soldier who recently suffered serious injuries while on patrol.

JOHN YDSTIE host:

More than 17,000 American soldiers have been wounded in the war in Iraq, but there are no reliable numbers when it comes to injured Iraqi troops. U.S. and Iraqi military officials do agree that that number is much higher.

NPR Pentagon Correspondent John Hendren traveled to the Iraqi cities of Kirkuk and Balad to uncover the story of one Iraqi man who was singled out by American and Iraqi military officials as a model soldier. But he paid a price for that honor.

(Soundbite of vehicle accelerating)

JOHN HENDREN reporting:

Like many tales of danger in Iraq, this one starts in a Humvee at night on a perilous roadway. And like most tales of woe here, it involves an Iraqi. Iraqi Army Lieutenant Mohammed Nudair Kotter(ph) remembers it well. It was Friday, July 7th, his 27th birthday, and it was his turn to lead a patrol on a road known for its landmines in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

Lieutenant MOHAMMED NUDAIR KOTTER (Iraqi Army): (Through translator) Another soldier and I were joking. And I told my friend, you go. And he said, no, you go instead. I said, let me go tomorrow. If something happens tomorrow, it won't be my birthday.

HENDREN: Mohammed had joined the new Iraqi Army two years earlier. He says he gained new motivation in April after insurgents kidnapped his uncle, held him for two months and then beheaded him. Video of the grizzly killing was posted on a jihadist Web site.

(Soundbite of Iraqi military muster)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man #1: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

HENDREN: An American Special Forces medic who trained Mohammed's unit remembers how the young lieutenant stood out from other Iraqi troops.

Unidentified Man #2: He was one of the people that was quickly identified as being one of the top-notch guys in the class. He excelled in everything we did. He always had more motivation and more interest and commitment than anybody else that we saw out there.

HENDREN: The Green Beret trainers say the Kurdish lieutenant graduated at the top of his class, and he passed the Special Forces training onto his own troops. NPR agreed not to use the names of the Special Forces trainers under standard military rules for interviews with the secretive Green Berets.

Unidentified Man #2: He was one of the guys we grew to love just because we saw the commitment he had and how much he loved his troops. And he was always with them; even on his days off he was with them.

HENDREN: Kirkuk is an ethnic stew of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs, with all the tension that accompanies that mix. But Iraqi commanders say it has also become a haven for insurgents who have fled the capital and the western insurgent hotbeds of Fallujah and Ramadi to carry their jihad northward. And that night, his birthday, Mohammed had reason to be especially careful.

In the evening twilight, insurgents had fired a Katyusha rocket into the Iraqi Army base. Mohammed remembers solemnly picking up the shell that fell harmlessly to the ground. Then at 9:00 p.m., he led two squads in Humvees with their lights off, scanning a particularly perilous road through night vision goggles.

Lt. KOTTER: (Through translator) We had to drive throughout a location that has been hit by roadside bombs four or five times in the same spot. All day long and in the early evening, I had a strange feeling. When we reached the spot, a hole in the road where the insurgents plant the bombs, I told my soldiers avoid this hole and speed on.

HENDREN: A Kurdish soldier, who had asked to be identified only as Assad(ph), was in the back seat.

ASSAD: (Through translator) When we got there, there was a massive explosion. I put my head between my legs. When I opened my eyes there was smoke and awful smell. I jumped out and shot into the trees because I thought there might be terrorists there. When I stopped shooting, I could hear Mohammed shouting help me.

HENDREN: The Humvee was heavily armored, but in a freak incident one American later called a million to one shot, a piece of shrapnel ripped through the space between the jam and the door just below the front passenger seat. Mohammed tried the door but it jammed. The slender lieutenant then tried to wriggle out the gunner's turret, but he could not gain his footing. Then, Assad recalls, Mohammed looked down at his bloody trousers.

ASSAD: (Through translator) He was shouting I lost both my legs. I was trying to calm him. I told him it's nothing. Don't worry.

HENDREN: But they both could see that it was serious. Remembering his Special Forces training, Mohammed tied a tourniquet around one mangled leg. Assad wrapped a piece of fabric around the other. Had they not done that, American Special Forces trainers say, there is no doubt Mohammed would have bled to death.

The Humvees raced to a Kirkuk hospital. Mohammed screamed at the driver to call the Americans. He said the Iraqi hospital had unnecessarily amputated both legs on another soldier recently. After a few harried phone calls, the Green Beret medic met them at the gate.

Unidentified Man #3: He called me out. He was just like, doctor, doctor. Don't let them take my legs away.

HENDREN: The medics scrubbed in for surgery at the base medical center. Mohammed's left leg had no feeling and no blood. It was held on by a few centimeters of muscle and skin at the ankle. There was no way to save it. The medic and surgeons amputated Mohammed's left leg above the ankle. The surgeons turned to his right leg. The pressure dressing had helped to save it. They carefully bound it in place with a metal brace.

The Special Forces medics later told Mohammed's commander that the Green Berets had asked the Pentagon to waive the usual rules barring Iraqis from being treated in the U.S. He said they want the Defense Department to send Mohammed to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington to fit him with a prosthetic foot.

Unidentified Man #3: My goal of getting him a prosthetic is because he was such an exceptional leader, that I want him to be able to have the option to come back to work.

HENDREN: A week later, Mohammed lay in his hospital bed with one lump at the end where there were once two. He woke to see a visitor and flashed a smile.

Lt. KOTTER: (Through translator) I don't want them to discharge me from the army. Please, do me a favor and ask them to keep me in the army.

HENDREN: The Web site icasualties.org records that nearly 5,000 Iraqi Security Force troops have been killed since the war began. That is double the official tally of American troops killed in the war. And the Iraqi figure includes only those found in news reports. Mohammed is among tens of thousands who have been wounded in insurgent attacks. For now, he remains in a hospital in Balad. But Green Berets say they have high hopes that he would soon be on his way for treatment in the U.S.

John Hendren, NPR News.

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