U.S. Military ER in Baghdad Handed Back to Iraq

Army Capt. Amy Prichard took one last look around the room where thousands of war-ravaged soldiers and civilians were treated by U.S. medics in Baghdad's protected Green Zone. Before turning off the lights, she began to cry.

"This is the room where we saved lives on a routine basis, and sometimes we lost them," said Prichard, who earlier served as a morgue assistant. "There are a lot of ghosts for me in this room, in this hospital."

The U.S. military was scheduled Thursday to return Ibn Sina Hospital — dubbed the Baghdad ER — to the Iraqi government, ending the American role in what was once the busiest military trauma center in Iraq.

The hand over of Ibn Sina has been pushed up three months by Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, as part of the plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops ahead of an Aug. 31, 2010, deadline set by President Barack Obama.

From the vantage point of those who worked at the "Baghdad ER," the war never discriminated in its victims. Thousands passed through its doors during its more than six years as a trauma center. The injured included U.S. and coalition troops, Iraqi soldiers and insurgents, journalists and sometimes civilians.

Though Baghdad has a number of hospitals that treat Iraqi civilians, they were sometimes brought to Ibn Sina because of its proximity or the wounds were so severe that only the U.S. medical teams had the equipment and expertise.

Ibn Sina, named for a 9th century scholar, was opened in 1964 by four Iraqi doctors with the aim of becoming the country's premier medical facility. It was later taken over by Saddam Hussein's regime in the 1970s, and then made Saddam's private hospital. His eldest son, Odai, was hospitalized there after being wounded in a failed assassination attempt.

After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, the military transformed Ibn Sina into its trauma center in central Baghdad. Its reputation grew in HBO's "Baghdad ER," a 2006 Emmy Award-winning documentary.

The closure has brought many of the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Combat Support Hospital full circle. The unit was deployed at the hospital at the height of the war's carnage in 2005 and 2006. The 10th Mountain returned earlier this year and learned they would be shutting it down.

"Emergency room takes on a different meaning after you have seen the Baghdad ER," said Sgt. Zeth Holbert, a 33-year-old Army nurse from Banning, Calif., who was deployed twice at Ibn Sina.

Prichard, 26, of Colorado Springs, Co., said she struggled with the news she would have to return this year to the hospital where she once had to put the body of a former schoolmate killed in a blast in a body bag and carry her to a helicopter.

"The morgue was still in the same place. The soldiers were still in the same places, just with different faces," she said.

The U.S. military leaves the hospital with violence in Iraq at some of its lowest levels in years. American forces pulled out of major cities in June and now join patrols only at the request of Iraqi commanders.

The waiting room at the hospital — where soldiers gathered for news of injured buddies — was quiet. There was no longer the need for staff to clean the blood of the wounded from inside armored vehicles parked at the hospital.

But it doesn't mean that attacks are no longer a fact of life in Baghdad.

Among the last patients at Ibn Sina were some of the nearly 100 injured in double suicide truck blasts that targeted government ministries in central Baghdad on Aug. 19.

Seven contractors were injured in September when a mortar attack struck the Green Zone during a visit by Vice President Joe Biden. The injured were taken to Camp Victory, on the outskirts of Baghdad, where a majority of the "Baghdad ER" had relocated after Ibn Sina stopped taking trauma patients.

The military has left more than $7 million worth of supplies and equipment at Ibn Sina for the Iraqis, though it is unclear when it will reopen, said Lt. Col. Laura Trinkle, 41, of Manhattan, Kan.

Maj. Adam Vanek, who worked as the head nurse at Ibn Sina, said he is keeping a card written by the daughter of a soldier badly wounded in the days before U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities at the end of June.

"It's a homemade card with a picture of her with her arm around her dad, and it says: Thank you for saving my daddy," said Vanek, 37, of Washington D.C. "That's the kind of thing I want to remember."

Prichard, who is charged with turning off the U.S. lights Thursday at the hospital, said she won't be taking anything from the hospital with her.

"I have pictures. That's enough," she said.