Essay: Sick And Chugging Gatorade In Iraq

Matthew "Doc" Pooley i i

hide captionMatthew "Doc" Pooley is the Gatorade enforcer, among other medical duties.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings
Matthew "Doc" Pooley

Matthew "Doc" Pooley is the Gatorade enforcer, among other medical duties.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Capt. Rawlings Takes Questions

A listener asks what gives America the right to "force democracy on people" in Iraq. Capt. Rawlings responds, "If you feel that we entered into this conflict unjustly ... then do all that you can to bring us home." Read the rest of their exchange here.

Also, you can send Capt. Rawlings your questions and comments, through this form.

Doc and Capt. Rawlings i i

hide captionCapt. Nate Rawlings (left) and medic "Doc" Pooley take a break at an Iraqi safe house during a mission.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings
Doc and Capt. Rawlings

Capt. Nate Rawlings (left) and medic "Doc" Pooley take a break at an Iraqi safe house during a mission.

Courtesy Nate Rawlings

Routines are vital to a soldier in combat. They are often the only comforting aspect of life in an environment that is as foreign as it is bizarre.

Eager to return to my pre-leave routine following 18 days of home leave, I began rising early to work out in the makeshift gym on our small outpost in southern Baghdad. This routine lasted three days, until I was slammed by a debilitating case of bronchitis.

Feeling under the weather is never an enjoyable affair, but being sick in a combat zone is wretchedly miserable. There is no chicken soup, no warm bed to crawl into, no lazy days watching cartoons while the fever subsides and certainly no room for pity. There is simply work that must get done amid temperatures of 120 degrees.

I executed as many of my duties as I could with a chest full of mucus. The most difficult challenge was finding fresh reasons to excuse myself from meetings with Iraqi commanders when I had to clear my lungs.

As we neared the end of our partnership with the Iraqis we had worked with since June, the Iraqi battalion commander planned a series of dismounted offensives to clear the worst neighborhoods surrounding our base. Dismounted offensives are less scary than they are exhausting; we move through a neighborhood on foot, searching every block of a huge area for people on detainee lists, as well as for weapons and explosives.

Our battalion operations officer, a major, was conducting the mission with us, so it was not necessary for me to command the patrol. Regardless, I did not want my men to execute a mission without me. On the morning of the first offensive my medic, Matthew "Doc" Pooley, took one look at me and said, "Sorry sir, you're out."

I had a fever over 101 degrees and reluctantly agreed. My desire to aid the patrol was trumped by the harsh reality that I posed a real threat to the mission as a heat casualty.

The night before the second mission, Doc looked me over and said that if I felt up to it, I could join my men the next day — but only if I drank four liters of Gatorade throughout the night. The mission began at 4 a.m., which was fortunate because we would be nearly done before the most unbearable heat. In spite of the fact that my fever had begun to subside, every step felt like torture. My head pounded as the heat sauteed my body. At the corner of each block I hacked up a wad of chest congestion, depositing it in one of the thousands of piles of garbage that line Baghdad's streets. I focused on directing the troops, observing the Iraqis, and prayed that each street we started down would be the last of the mission.

As midmorning arrived, the temperature reached 100 degrees. The Iraqi troops stopped for a rest in one of their safe houses. I collapsed against a wall in a sweat-soaked heap and allowed Doc to poke and prod me.

"You're keeping fluids down well, so I don't think you need an IV," Doc told me, "but you're not allowed up until you drink two more bottles of Gatorade."

Doc plopped his wide frame down beside me and watched to ensure I complied with his instructions. As I finished slugging down the yellow liquid, I leaned my head against the wall and asked, "Doc, if I ordered you to, would you please shoot me in the face?"

Doc grinned as he shook his head. "Can't do it, sir. I'm sure there's a girl somewhere who would hunt me down and kill me if I did."

We both laughed.

"I don't see any around here, Doc," I replied. "I think you're safe."

The Iraqi battalion commander signaled for his troops to move out. Doc helped me up and we gathered our equipment, strapped on our helmets and walked into the dizzying heat.

"Don't worry sir," Doc told me as he walked beside me into the street. "All's well that ends, right?"

It was something I had said to my troops many times as they struggled through difficulties. Soon it will end, I told them, and sometimes, all is well that simply ends. Sometimes in the midst of misery and suffering, when you can't be sure of the outcome, all you can look forward to is the end.

That was the last mission I conducted with Doc Pooley; he left for his R&R shortly thereafter. By the time he returns we will have different duties in different places. Though I will miss walking garbage-strewn streets with my friend, I cannot be sad that this miserable punishing mission came to an end.

The end, sometimes, is all one has to look forward to, and at the end of each mission, we are one step closer to finally going home.

Officer Responds To 'Gutless Coward' Charge

Over the past few months, Capt. Nate Rawlings has been taking people's questions about his experience as an Army officer stop-lossed in Iraq. Many of those who write him applaud his efforts, and others are more skeptical. You can send your questions and comments through this form.

Question For Capt. Nate Rawlings

Capt. Rawlings,

What gives America the right to invade some country on the pretext of unfounded allegations made up to justify their invasion? Do you really feel proud of yourself as a murderer of innocent people? Who are you to go a country and force democracy on the people? If the U.S.A. did not have bombs and just fought a land war with conventional weapons I can assure you they would not be talking so bravely because they would be whipped so bad into defeat that they will never recover from their defeat. You call yourself a soldier, but I call you and all the others who are in the U.S. Armed Forces gutless cowards and murderers with their embassies hiding behind the fortress called the "Green Zone." I challenge you to answer this one, you coward.

—Mohmed Hasan, Roeland Park, Kan.

Capt. Rawlings' Answer

Dear Mr. Hasan,

Your question is very important because it strikes at the fundamentals of why we are here, but before I get into that I need to clarify a few things. While we do have bombs, artillery and missiles, much of the conflict, including my own current operation, is being fought in densely urban areas where such large weapons would cause massive loss of life and destruction of infrastructure. As a result, most of the fighting is being done by foot soldiers, rifle to rifle and by walking the streets and searching for insurgents. Any use of the larger, more destructive weaponry is always weighed against potential damage to the area and, most important, potential civilians killed or wounded. We avoid such damage and death at all costs.

What impresses me about your question is that it addresses one of the most important issues in this war: Why are we here? You obviously care enough about the current situation to write in to NPR, but your thoughts don't provide any answers to the questions you pose. I am here because I am a soldier and swore an oath to defend my country and the Constitution, and when my commander in chief orders me to move I will go.

If you feel that we entered into this conflict unjustly and feel that we should not be here, then do all that you can to bring us home. First, study the conflict up and down so that you will have the knowledge to make your argument. Use the Freedom of Information Act to access documents that will, hopefully, explain the rationale for entering this conflict. Read the accounts by journalists and soldiers and talk to those who have been here because their experience is valid and their thoughts are important. Once you have the facts to back up the claims you want to make, write editorials, lead protests and, most important, vote for candidates in the upcoming election who share your views on the war. You believe political power without moral justification is perilous; I believe that passionate defiance without political engagement is worthless. Your vote is a powerful tool that should be used to make your voice heard. My father always said that people should and will vote with their feet. If you are truly passionate that we should not be fighting in Iraq then vote with your feet and work to change that.

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