Temporary hospital finds permanent place in history

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ruth Curfman
  • 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
Airmen from the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Group and the 332nd Expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron here worked together to preserve a piece of Balad Air Base, Logistics Support Area Anaconda and Operation Iraqi Freedom history.

The emergency room from the old Balad AB Air Force Theater Hospital, which was a temporary tent structure, was recently dismantled and packaged up. It was shipped April 1 to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, where it is slated for exhibition because it is known, by the medical community, as the place where the most American blood was spilled since the Vietnam War.

However, the history of the old hospital is important in many other ways.

"Back in 2004, when the Army's Combat Support Hospital was built on the site, the tents were built on concrete slabs. The trauma bays in the emergency room were marked with tape on the floor," said Capt. Scott Miller, the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron logistics chief, deployed from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. "When I was here in 2006, the (emergency room's) bays were marked with painted numbers on the concrete floor.

"Because of the operations tempo being so high, later rotations ended up gluing a piece of vinyl sheeting to the top of the concrete to make it easier to clean and keep the area more hygienic," Captain Miller said. "The sheeting is actually the portion of the floor that is scuffed and stained with Betadine Scrub, which is an iodine-based antiseptic that is used on skin to help clean it before medical procedures can be performed."

After the newly built Air Force Theater Hospital became fully operational, Airmen were tasked to tear down the old hospital, which drew the attention of some congress members.

In particular, the historical significance of the bay marked with "II", known as Bay II, is where the most severe trauma cases brought into the hospital were treated. This area has earned the recognition of being the location where the most lives were lost and saved in the Iraq theater of operations.

"When Congressman Michael Burgess (Texas) came to Balad (AB) and toured the old and new hospital facilities in August, he realized the importance of the old structure and requested that the Bay II floor of the trauma center be preserved for historical purposes," Captain Miller said. "That is when the coordination for the preservation of the hospital began."

"As we stood near Bay II, we realized that perhaps more lives have been saved, and lost, on this spot than perhaps any other during Operation Iraqi Freedom," said a letter dated Aug. 7 authored by four congressmen, addressed to Army Maj. Gen. Galen Jackman, the Office of the Secretary of the Army legislative liaison chief. "The scuff marks and antiseptic stains on the floor tell a story of heroic efforts to give our wounded the best emergency medical care in the history of warfare. The lives saved, and lost, likely make the slab of concrete the most hallowed of ground in the entire country of Iraq."

The members of Congress involved in this project were, U.S. Congressmen Burgess, Steve King (Iowa), John Carter (Texas) and David Davis (Tenn.).

The new Air Force Theater Hospital is part of the Balad AB and Logistics Support Area Anaconda's transformation into a medical hub for those injured in the Operation Iraqi Freedom theater. 

"Over the four years that the Air Force has operated a hospital on Balad AB, we have constantly developed the infrastructure that you see today," Captain Miller said. "Over time, as we evolved into a more state-of-the-art medical facility, our patient mix has evolved into being more Iraqis and fewer Americans. The new hospital gives us more flexibility to accommodate these changes."

As the hospital received upgrades, the medical Airmen handed off the rest of the old hospital to CE Airmen to finish the preservation of history.

Beginning in August, with the congressional request, plans were discussed on the issues surrounding the ability to save Bay II and as much of the old hospital as possible.

"We were able to preserve and package up most of the artifacts, pictures, cards, wall panels, vestibule and Bay II from the old hospital," said Lt. Col. Jeff Ullmann, the 332nd ECES commander, deployed from Langley Air Force Base, Va.

However, this was not an easy task to figure out.

"We had to do some experimenting and think about how we would be able to save these items, using the tools we have available," Colonel Ullmann said. "We decided the best course of action was to remove another piece of the floor and see how it went before we actually went in to remove Bay II."

One of the biggest obstacles the 332nd ECES team faced was being able to remove Bay II, without damaging the protective vinyl covering and not cutting it or breaking the concrete floor, which would result in the floor no longer being historically significant.

"We weren't sure what the condition of this piece of concrete was or how it was going to come out of the ground, but once we succeeded in removing our test piece and going through the entire process, we realized we could make it happen," the colonel said.

Another challenge of the removal project was the size of the particular area.

"Successfully removing the 7-foot by 7-foot, six-inch thick solid concrete slab, weighing more than 6,000 pounds, without an extra crack or chip shows the tremendous effort, dedication and pride our civil engineers took in preserving this piece of history," said Maj. Scott Bryant, the 332nd ECES operations flight commander, deployed from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "We are honored to be able to play a role in helping to share the stories of this small foundation's role in supporting the healing hands and victims of war's tragedy."

"Although there was a great sense of urgency in this project, I think it is a great testament to the professionalism of these Airmen to be able to take time, from their normal duties, to step back for a moment and honor the past, while in the midst of fighting this war, carve out this piece of history, lovingly bring it back to the shop and package it up for its flight to the museum," Colonel Ullmann said. "You can hear the pride in their voice when they discuss the project. They know that they were instrumental in preserving such an important piece of history that will have a great impact on future generations; that's a great feeling to have."

In addition, people from all services are honored by this event.

"The preservation of Bay II is a great tribute to all the Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors and Marines treated in that particular bay, as well as to the military medical community that provided such great life-saving work in that location," the colonel said.

Before the old hospital was disassembled beginning in October, the medical community performed a tribute ceremony to honor those affected by the transition.

"Every medic had his or her own personal experience," said then Maj. Jody Ocker, the 332nd Expeditionary Medical Operations Squadron emergency department nurse manager, who was deployed here from May to September. "As a team, we had a profound collective experience. In these tents we witnessed tragedy beyond comprehension. We rose to challenges unimagined. We held the hands of wounded warriors, said goodbye to Fallen Angels. We sweated, cried and laughed together while at the same time, saving lives. The preservation of Trauma Bay II is a tribute to all who shed blood, sweat and tears -- the price of freedom."

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