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Monkton nurse cares for Iraq detainees

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October 4, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MONKTON — It was only 18 months ago that Monkton resident Caitlyn Bushey was hitting the books at Plymouth State University, preparing herself for a career in nursing.

Last month saw Bushey return from a military stint in Iraq during which she saw more catastrophic injuries in one year as a combat medic than she may see during her entire career as a hospital nurse.

Bushey, now 21, signed up with the New Hampshire National Guard soon after graduating from Mount Abraham Union High School in 2004. She saw the Guard as an opportunity to serve her country while receiving tuition reimbursement at Plymouth State.

“I saw it as the best of both worlds,” Bushey said.

She joined the 3643rd Ordinance Co. based in Concord, N.H.

Cpl. Bushey knew, when she signed up, there was a strong likelihood she would be called to serve in Iraq. She received that call in June of 2006. While the news was somewhat of a jolt for her, Bushey took solace in the fact that she would be serving in Iraq as a healthcare giver — a vocation she aspires to take up as a civilian.

“I was very lucky,” she said. “Most of the people in my unit were assigned as guards.”

By this time, Bushey had already received extensive military and medical training. That training included a 17-week stint at Fort Sam Huston in San Antonio, Texas, lasting from September through December of 2005.

After receiving her deployment orders, Bushey and her colleagues shipped to Mississippi on July 5, 2006, for three months of additional training to get them ready for conditions they would face in Iraq.

“I had to do everything — convoy training, detainee operations — everything imaginable,” said Bushey. Though her primary role would be to heal people injured by guns and explosives, Bushey herself trained in how to use an assortment of weapons, including rifles.

Bushey capped her pre-deployment training with a month-long stint in Wisconsin, where she was drilled on how to be an effective combat medic.

“It was many of the things we had learned before, packed into a month,” Bushey said.

Her training complete, Bushey was ready for the huge challenge that lay before her. She left for the Middle East in September of 2006, first landing in Kuwait. There, she and other soldiers spent a few weeks adjusting to the searing heat while taking some classes on the culture and customs of the people she would be charged with healing.

Bushey made her way into Iraq on Oct. 4. She was assigned to the 324th MP Battalion at Camp Cropper, a prison on the outskirts of Baghdad where enemy fighters are held. While there, her assignment was to assist in patching up detainees who had suffered injuries ranging from scrapes to amputations to head wounds.

“Any Iraqi forces that went up against us and got shot up, injured, blown up, they would come to us,” Bushey said. “The sole purpose for that hospital was detainee medical care.”

She explained that U.S. forces were treated elsewhere, as it would not have been appropriate — for security reasons — to have American and enemy soldiers housed in the same building.

Spending most of her working hours in the emergency room of Camp Cropper’s hospital, Bushey knew little about the people whom she was treating. That’s just the way she liked it, given the fact that the enemy combatants she was treating had been trying to kill American soldiers and/or Iraqi military and civilians.

“We weren’t supposed to know who was there,” Bushey said. “(The prisoners’ identities) were not supposed to reflect on how we treated them. You would hear rumors about who you had treated and sometimes it didn’t make you feel very happy.”

Still, Bushey and her colleagues had to divorce their personal feelings from the healing they were duty-bound to give.

“Sometimes it was frustrating, that you have to put you best efforts into saving people that very well could’ve taken another soldier’s life,” Bushey said. “But it was comforting to know that as soon as they got patched up they were going to prison and would get their judgment going to court.

“From a medical standpoint, it was almost easier to treat them,” Bushey said. “You don’t have the emotional feeling that you would towards a fellow soldier. You could almost block that out; all you were doing was giving medical care and that’s it.”

She would dispense a lot of care during her yearlong stint in Iraq, working mostly graveyard shifts. She would see patients who had sustained multiple bullet wounds and others who had accidentally tripped their own improvised explosive devices.

“I saw everything,” Bushey said.

Indeed, working at a conventional hospital may become anticlimactic.

“You got to see pretty much every part of the body, inside and out,” Bushey recalled. “It was a good opportunity. Even as a nurse, you don’t get to see those types of things or treat those things. But as a medic in the army, you get taught to perform different procedures and you get to practice them.”

She knows the experience will serve her well in the years to come.

“The fact that I got to see these things lets me know I can handle whatever comes to me in nursing in the future,” Bushey said. “Now I know I have a one-up when I go to school.”

THE WORK WEEK

Typically, Bushey would be on duty for five-day stretches, with a day off in-between. She would go to the gym, phone home, read or watch movies when she wasn’t working at the hospital. She could take a shuttle bus to other U.S. camps within the secured Victory Base complex in which Camp Cropper was located.

Being stationed at a prison, Bushey and her colleagues were highly sensitized to the scandals of Abu Ghraib — a notorious prison outside Baghdad at which some detainees were tortured and humiliated by several of their U.S. captors. Bushey noted the Abu Ghraib incidents have led to a very strict code on how detainees must be treated and prisons managed.

“The guards were read the rules of engagement and rules of force every day before they went into work,” Bushey said. “It was very much by the book.”

Fortunately, Bushey was not injured during her time in Iraq. While she could hear mortar rounds land beyond the perimeter of Camp Cropper, she did was not directly exposed to the mayhem that kept a steady stream of casualties coming her way.

Those casualties gratefully accepted the medical treatment they were given, according to Bushey.

“They loved medical care; we never had a problem with them,” Bushey said. “They want the medication. They can’t afford it.”

Bushey returned stateside this past Sept. 12. She arrived in Monkton around two weeks ago and would like to stay in the area. She has applied for permission to transfer to the Vermont National Guard and to Castleton State College, where she wants to resume her nursing studies. She has around six years left on her Guard contract.

“I found (my experience) very valuable for the future,” Bushey said. “I know this is exactly what I want to do. I loved every minute of all the training that I got.”

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