ST. LOUIS – A St. Louis-area nurse who cared for Saddam Hussein after his capture recalled a different side of the man than what is usually portrayed.
This Saddam — the Iraqi leader who was executed Saturday for human rights crimes — wrote poetry, told of reading his children bedtime stories and fed birds crusts of bread saved from his meal.
From January 2004 until August 2005, Master Sgt. Robert Ellis was the senior medical adviser at the compound near Baghdad where Saddam and other "high value detainees" were jailed.
Ellis, 56, an operating room nurse in St. Charles, said he was ordered to do whatever was needed to keep Saddam alive.
"That was my job: to keep him alive and healthy, so they could kill him at a later date," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for Sunday's edition.
Ellis said Saddam was confined to a 6-by-8-foot cell in solitary confinement at Camp Cropper. He had a cot and a small table where he kept some books and a Koran, two plastic chairs, a prayer rug and two wash basins. An adjoining cell kept basic medical supplies, a defibrillator, intravenous solutions and oxygen.
Ellis checked on Saddam twice a day. He wrote a thorough "situation" report daily about Saddam's physical and emotional status.
Saddam told Ellis that cigars and coffee kept his blood pressure down, and it seemed to work. Saddam would insist that Ellis smoke with him.
At one point, Saddam went on a hunger strike, refusing to eat when the guards would slide food through the slot on the bottom of his door. But when they changed tactics and opened the door, he started eating again.
"He refused to be fed like a lion," Ellis said.
When he was allowed short visits outside, Saddam would feed the birds crusts of bread saved from his meals. He also watered a dusty plot of weeds.
"He said he was a farmer when he was young and he never forgot where he came from," Ellis said.
He said Saddam never gave him trouble, and didn't complain much — and if he did, it was usually legitimate.
"He had very good coping skills," Ellis said.
Saddam shared with Ellis happier times, when his children were young: how he told them bedtime stories and how he would give his daughter half a Tums when she complained of a stomach ache.
When Ellis told Saddam he had to leave for America because his brother was dying, Saddam hugged him and said he would be his brother.
"I was there to help him, and he respected that," Ellis said.
Saddam never discussed dying and expressed no regrets about his rule.
"He said everything he did was for Iraq," Ellis said. "One day when I went to see him, he asked why we invaded. Well, he made gestures like shooting a machine gun and asked why soldiers came and shot up the place. He said the laws in Iraq were fair and the weapons inspectors didn't find anything.
"I said, 'That's politics. We soldiers don't get caught up in that sort of thing."'