All Healing Hands on Deck

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A voice from the Comfort.

On March 28, 2003, Dr. Edward Jewell C’77, a commander and radiologist aboard the U.S. Navy Ship Comfort, wrote in his journal:

Sickening sight: a helicopter’s downwash blows a stack of letters overboard. Who knows what was lost? Last letter to save a troubled relationship? A fat check? Notice of a tax audit? We’ll never know. That’s war.

The doctors are all bored from under-utilization, but the surgeons seem particularly restless. There are so many of them and not enough cases to fill the time …”

The next day’s entry had a different tone.

We got creamed with fresh casualties last night, 30 new patients, both sides, all needing immediate and significant intervention. The injuries are horrifying. Ruptured eyeballs. Children missing limbs. Large burns. Genitals and buttocks blown off. Grotesque fractures. Gunshot wounds to the head. Faces blown apart. Paraplegics from spine injuries. The number of X-ray studies performed last night in a short period of time is so great that it causes the entire system to crash …

Jewell served for two months aboard the Comfort, an experience that he describes as “the most unforgettable and personally gratifying” of his 23-year career in the Navy. It also brought him an unexpected 15 minutes of fame when a portion of his journal was chosen to be included in Operation Homecoming, a book project by the National Endowment for the Arts that invited soldiers and their families to write about their war experiences. (The resulting book, culled from thousands of entries, is scheduled to be published this month by Random House.) To top it off, the bulk of Jewell’s Operation Homecoming piece was included, along with 10 other entries, in a New Yorker excerpt this past June.

Jewell had decided to keep a journal before the official word came down in late February 2003 that he and the other Comfort personnel were about to be activated. (That followed a “bizarre” four-month stretch when it became increasingly clear they would be activated even though war hadn’t been publicly declared.) His first entry was for March 6 and 7. After flying to Bahrain, they boarded the Comfort—a “placid Moby Dick, a monstrous white metal whale with red crosses”—and a few days later found themselves stationed off the coast of Kuwait. Although the ship was well out of the range of artillery fire, Jewell and his colleagues were close enough to see oil fires near the shore. They also knew that a small, explosives-laden boat could slip past their defenses and inflict horrible damage.

A surgeon buddy of mine, Mike from Massachusetts, thinks an attack on our ship is a near-given, with a 50-percent chance of success. However, he is a proctologist and a Red Sox fan and naturally pessimistic.

Between patients, Jewell would write his observations on scraps of paper—shades of William Carlos Williams M’06 Hon’52—then type them up on a computer that night.

“I tried to write every day to keep it fresh,” he says. “I tried not to edit it or hold back anything I felt at the time.”

During his time there the Comfort medical staff treated approximately 670 patients. The work was often grueling.

“It was brutal,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. We’d get loads of patients; the helicopters would fly in, and we never knew how many patients there would be. They’d tend to average 10-to-30 patients at a time. There was no warning; they’d arrive morning, noon, and night. They’d come in and we’d start triaging, and we would just work till we were done. Sometimes we worked till the point of exhaustion.”

He frequently found himself thinking of M*A*S*H. “It was pretty similar, except that we were at sea,” he says. “We were all medical people, and most people, like me, had real doubts about how wise the war was in the first place. But nobody ever complained. Here we were spending our whole time in the war taking care of patients who were almost all enemy.”

Looking at these pathetic-looking fellows, it is easy to forget they were the enemy, and many probably still wish us harm. According to an ICU doctor, one of the most timid-looking teenage patients is actually an identified terrorist. Another patient awoke from surgery disoriented as to place; he asked if he had been sent home to Syria! …

In a Pavlovian way, the patients now associate the presence of the Big Nurse Administrator with the Clipboard with imminent departure of fellow Iraqis. As soon as she sets foot on the wards they circle their arms overhead like helo blades in motion and make woop-woop sounds. They know helos are in-bound for evacuation.

The end of the Comfort’s tour of duty came quickly, he writes.

We were flown off in H-53s, the largest helicopter in the world, in groups of 20. There were only three helos, so the evolution took all day. Once on the ground we were supposed to locate our gear and check in for the flight home. The planes were scheduled to go some time in the evening. We were not to leave the base but were allowed to roam around since we had hours to kill. My roomies and a bunch of other doctors found our way to the Officers Club. We all had the same thought: BEER. A cold beer. Maybe several.

When the beer arrived, words failed him.

I cannot describe the ecstasy of the moment. The brew slid down like ambrosia. No one spoke for a full minute, just numb in the ecstatic joy of knowing the war, for us, is over. 

After Jewell finally got home to Washington, he threw the journal in a drawer, and for the next 22 months barely looked at it. (He retired from the Navy in October 2004, though he now works for the Army as a civilian physician in Ft. Meade, Maryland.) Then, in February 2005, he read a “tiny back-page article” in the base newspaper that mentioned the NEA project—whose stated deadline was the end of the following month. He just managed to submit it in time for the deadline, but when he didn’t hear anything from the NEA for some months, he assumed that either the project had “flopped” or that they didn’t want what he wrote. Finally, this past May, after increasingly enthusiastic notes from the NEA, he received his final acceptance letter.

Despite his strong misgivings about the war, Jewell’s time aboard the Comfort left him with a great sense of professional satisfaction and pride.

Radiology interpreted over 4,000 exams in a few short weeks, almost all on patients we could not converse with. It was the most honest medicine I know. Doctors practice medicine largely fearing their patients will worsen or die or sue. In the war we just did the best we could. There was no regard to collecting bills, dealing with insurance companies, and no chance of being sued. The patients for the most part showed gratitude for our efforts and I felt very good about that. I was never prouder to be in the U.S. Navy, and I have never worked with braver people than the crew of the U.S.N.S. Comfort.


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