NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq – The combat hospital on the chief U.S. base near Fallujah (search) has set up a morgue and doubled medical staff and supplies in preparation for an expected stream of casualties from an anticipated assault on the rebel stronghold.
"We've had 20 to 30 casualties on a given day here. We expect maybe double that on a serious day. And we can handle them," Capt. Eric Lovell (search), a Navy doctor, said Thursday at the base hospital, a low concrete building announced by a sign saying "Cheaters of Death."
The hospital added a Marine Mortuary Affairs team last month, a unit charged with identifying dead troops, cataloguing their personal effects and preparing their bodies for the flight to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
The morgue team counts 16 reservists trained in handling corpses of U.S. troops as well as Iraqi civilians and fighters that arrive at the hospital here, said Commander Lach Noyes, a Navy surgeon. The morgue team also travels to bomb scenes to recover body parts and corpses that need to be extracted from vehicles, Noyes said.
In hospital parlance, those killed in action are known as angels. In last weekend's suicide bombing of a truckload of Marines traveling south of Fallujah, the eight killed and nine injured came to the hospital.
"We took care of angels and wounded on that one," Noyes said.
The hospital's daily toil is grim. Patients arrive with devastating wounds. Common procedures include amputations or stabilizing broken bones or torn organs. The surgeons and staff say they cope, knowing the soldiers need them to be steady in the face of shocking carnage.
"The first patient I had was six hours after I got here," Lovell said. "His heart was out of his chest. I said 'Whoa, that's a shaker. Welcome to Fallujah.' But I'm more confident now."
Recovering in a rear wing were six of the nine Marines wounded in Saturday's suicide bombing, in which the bomber drove his explosives-laden car into a truckload of troops.
Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict, 28, of West Milford, N.J., said the truck was lifted by the titanic blast, which tossed Marines into the road. Benedict said he climbed out as a guerrilla ambush ensued and the Marines' own ammunition began exploding in the inferno.
"I saw one of my Marines, a young lance corporal, he was crawling away into the ditch," said Benedict, his face still glistening with burn scars.
Many of the Marines still recovering said they were eager to rejoin their units and expected to fight in the upcoming assault on Fallujah.
"I'm nervous for them but I know for a fact they're going to tear the place to pieces," said Lance Cpl. Nicholas Peel, 19, of Boise, Idaho. "It's kind of a justice after what they did to us."