The heavy fighting in Iraqi cities within the so-called “Sunni Triangle,” such as Fallujah and Ramadi, along with the redeployment of about 25,000 U.S. Marines to Iraq earlier this year, has led to a spike in Marine casualties.
For the past month, wounded Marines like Cpl. Laura Langdeau have arrived in a steady stream at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda — so many they take up a whole wing on the fifth floor.
Cpl. Langdeau grimaces when a nurse flips on the suction machine attached to the gaping shrapnel wound on her left arm.
“It hurts,” she says from her hospital bed, her tough Marine demeanor cracking for a moment as she recoils from the pain. “It hurts a lot.”
The hospital at 8901 Wisconsin Ave. had a long lull because most Marine units left Iraq soon after the U.S. military gained control of the country last April. But with this spring’s massive troop rotation, the Marines are back in combat zones and taking casualties as they fight Iraqi insurgents.
Marines arrive at the naval hospital daily, sometimes as many as 18 at once and usually in the middle of the night. Some are hooked to respirators and must be wheeled in. Two trauma surgeons assigned to the wounded perform up to 10 surgeries apiece daily.
“We are getting about as many people as we did last time,” Cmdr. James Dunne, one of the trauma surgeons, said recently. “The trouble is, it is more steady. There is no end in sight.”
The hospital just outside Washington saw about 100 patients wounded during fighting in April. In all of last year, the naval hospital treated roughly 560 patients from Iraq and Afghanistan, troops injured in both combat and accidents.
On a sprawling campus across from the National Institutes of Health, the naval hospital provides routine medical care for veterans and military personnel living in the area. The president and members of Congress also are treated there.
About 320 military doctors, nurses and support staff from Bethesda deployed last year to Iraq on the hospital ship USNS Comfort to treat battle victims from a location off the coast of Bahrain.
In the past year, however, the hospital also has been an important way station for wounded troops returning home.
Daily flights arriving at nearby Andrews Air Force Base carry wounded Marines and soldiers from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. The soldiers are transported to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the District, while the Marines go to Bethesda.
Most arrive only two or three days after being injured. In the interim, they receive quick surgeries to pluck out shrapnel and bullets, patch broken bones, remove shattered limbs.
They’ve had to endure long flights on military transports — first from Iraq to Landstuhl and then to Washington. Cpl. Langdeau remembers being strapped to a stretcher for the 10-hour flight from Germany, stacked like wood with another stretcher just inches above her face.
At Bethesda, doctors try to stabilize the wounded and prepare them for a return to their home bases. Some patients stay only a few days, while others remain on the wards for weeks before they’re healthy enough to leave.
Capt. Raquel Bono said the hospital was notified in December that Marines would be redeployed, giving it time to set up a new system to handle the logistics and flow of the wounded. The hospital now plans all facets of a patient’s care as soon as he or she arrives, from medical treatment to counseling relatives.
Bethesda is a first stop for most wounded Marines in the United States and the first chance to see family. It can be an emotional moment — Cmdr. Dunne said one young Marine wept with joy when he reached the hospital.
For many, it also is the first time the reality of their wounds sinks in. Some saw horrible things, like the deaths of friends trying to pull them from the battlefield, Cmdr. Dunne said.
“These are 19- and 20-year-old kids with their whole lives ahead of them,” he said. “I don’t know if they comprehend the potential lifelong impact.”
There’s been a steady flow of top brass, members of Congress and retired veterans into the hospital, all eager to shake hands with the wounded. The drop-ins come so frequently that some Marines have taped signs to their hospital room doors that read “NO VISITORS.”