Documenting Life and Death in 'Baghdad ER' A new documentary airing on HBO puts a human face on the statistics coming from Iraq. Filmmakers Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neill and Maj. Merritt Pember, an orthopedic surgeon featured in the documentary, talk with Debbie Elliott about Baghdad ER. Filmmakersspent two months in Iraq in 2006. Maj. Merritt Pember is an orthopedic surgeon who was featured in the film, and has returned to Fort Hood in Texas. They talk with Debbie Elliott about the documentary.
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Documenting Life and Death in 'Baghdad ER'

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Documenting Life and Death in 'Baghdad ER'

Documenting Life and Death in 'Baghdad ER'

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Peace and quiet still seem far off. A series of bombings killed more than 30 Iraqis today. We can sound impersonal when we report these daily death tolls from Iraq. A documentary tomorrow night on HBO puts a human face on these numbers. Baghdad ER takes viewers inside the Army's 86th Combat Support Hospital, or CASH. While most of the patients are Iraqi, the film focuses on wounded American soldiers, and the Army doctors and nurses who try to save their lives.

(Soundbite of Baghdad ER)

ELLIOTT: The film is so disturbing that the Army Surgeon General sent out a memo warning soldiers and their families about the graphic content. I spoke with the documentary's directors, Matthew O'Neill and Jon Alpert. They said it was a hard film to make as well.

Mr. JON ALPERT (Director): This is Jon speaking. The amputations, the extent of the injuries, the helicopters coming in non-stop bringing in one body after another, it was just unrelenting. And in that sense, it was very hard to make. But we also were inspired by the doctors who never stopped, who worked round the clock, and it enabled us to be able to withstand what was something that was very difficult for us to take, something that we just couldn't have imagined before we went there.

ELLIOTT: I have to ask what it is that you all set out to do with this film, because so much politics going on when you talk about the war. Was there a political agenda here?

Mr. MATTHEW O'NEILL (Director): This is Matt speaking. There is no political agenda with this film. We set out to hold a mirror to nature in the Baghdad ER at the 86th Combat Support Hospital, and we really felt the responsibility as these soldiers who came in injured let us into extremely intimate moments in their lives, when they were mourning their brothers in arms, when they were mourning the loss of their own limbs. They allowed us to film and we felt it really important that we kept this film absolutely apolitical, because that's a promise we made to the soldiers in the field.

ELLIOTT: I'd like for us to listen to a scene now. There's a trauma nurse, and she's talking about the toll of this kind of work. Let's listen.

(Soundbite of Baghdad ER)

Unidentified Woman #1 (Nurse): I try not to think about it. Sort of go on automatic after a while. One day I'll wake up and be back in the States.

Mr. ALPERT: This is Jon speaking. What's interesting about that clip is that the nurse is talking about the trauma of looking down in a plastic cup at the thumb of a soldier, the thumb just having been amputated. And this is the reality of war. There are a lot of really un-pretty pictures.

ELLIOTT: Was it hard to get these medical workers to open up with you about how they felt about what they were doing?

Mr. ALPERT: The people over there in Iraq are proud of what they're doing. The people in the hospital are saving lives every single day. I think they wanted the American people to see their own heroism, but they also really want them to see the horror of the war, because you can't understand heroism without seeing what they're subjected to.

Mr. O'NEILL: This is Matt O'Neill speaking. The Army gave us every bit of help we could possibly want when we were in the field. We were a bit nervous about the imbedded process, and wondering, you know, how much we would be assisted by the Army to see everything that was going on. And not once were we asked to turn off our cameras. Not once were we blindfolded, or did anyone try to lead us in a direction other than seeing the reality of what was happening.

(Soundbite of Baghdad ER)

Unidentified Man #1: It doesn't look good.

Unidentified Man #2: He's just got a massive injury to his arm.

Unidentified Man #1: He's gonna lose it.

Unidentified Man #3: Can you grab me an amputation set?

ELLIOTT: One of the voices in that clip was Major Merritt Pember an orthopedic surgeon. I spoke briefly with him from Fort Hood, Texas. He said he found the documentary accurate, and I asked what he hoped viewers would take away from it.

Major MERRITT PEMBER (Orthopedic Surgeon): I was certainly humbled by the amount of courage that our young men and women in uniform have, by the fact that they know exactly what they're getting into when they go out and do their job, and yet they go out and do it anyway. And even when wounded, you can see their desire to get back out and get the mission accomplished. I also hope that they see how well they're taken care of while they're over there by the Combat Support Hospital and other medical support staff that's out there.

(Soundbite of Baghdad ER)

Unidentified Woman #2: It just kills me, because these kids are, you know, I'm old enough to be their mom, and just to see them hurt, it's very difficult. I hope their parents are happy to welcome them home. And I always try to tell them before they go to sleep, you will wake up in Germany. Have a beer for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Woman #2: Some of them aren't even old enough to drink.

Mr. O'NEILL: When a grievously wounded soldier came into the hospital, the whole hospital basically snapped to attention and focused on trying to save the life of that soldier. At the end of the film, you see a soldier who had been in the hospital for I would say 14 hours and then ultimately died. And the whole hospital fell silent and everybody began to grieve.

And it's one of the most profound things that I've seen. You know, the band that develops between soldiers trying to protect each other, when they lose a comrade in arms, the grief is just so deep.

ELLIOTT: Let's listen now to a clip featuring the chaplain who plays a pivotal role in the film and in the hospital. He always seems to be there whenever there's a soldier who's hurting.

(Soundbite of Baghdad ER)

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) stopped moving. My radios didn't work. I checked to make sure everybody was okay. Spurlock(ph) said he was okay. (Unintelligible) and I looked over and he was gone.

Unidentified Man #5: You can tell he was going.

Unidentified Man #4: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #5: Yeah. I'm sorry. It's okay to cry. It really is.

(Soundbite of weeping)

Unidentified Man #5: There, there. It's a terrible thing. I'm sorry.

ELLIOTT: Tell us about the role this chaplain plays at that hospital

Mr. ALPERT: Any time - this is Jon speaking. Anytime somebody is seriously injured, the chaplain would just appear at the bedside. He never seemed to sleep. He never seemed to rest. And he was always there trying to comfort the soldiers. And the other thing he had to do was pray over the soldiers that died in the hospital. And we filmed far too many of those occasions, as we were making this movie.

And he said to us, I can't stop and count and tell you the number of people that I've prayed over right now, because it would paralyze me and I wouldn't be able to function. But when I get back home I'll count them up, and I'll let you know. And he came up to us the other day and he says, I've been meaning to tell you something. It was 117, and I miss and mourn every single one of them.

ELLIOTT: Do you think that people in the U.S. have been in the dark about this until now?

Mr. ALPERT: To some degree. The mother of the Marine who dies at the end of this program was talking to one of the morning shows and they were very much interested in telling her story. But they said, You know what? Every time we put something about Iraq on morning television, people change the channel.

The soldiers who were in this film said that they want people to see this, they want people to see their faces. Because they're sick and tire of just being a little crawling statistic on the bottom of the news. Two people died today. They want people to know who they are.

ELLIOTT: Jon Alpert and Matthew O'Neil directed the documentary, Baghdad ER, airing tomorrow night on HBO. They joined me from our New York bureau.

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