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Iraq Journals

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Friday, July 9

Pensacola soldiers: Iraqis grateful for U.S. help

By Amber Bollman | The Pensacola News Journal

When Army Reserve Maj. James Manzanares returned from a four-month deployment in Iraq, he threw away three pairs of khaki-colored boots that were stained black with blood.

"I just wanted to forget," said the 38-year-old pediatric orthopedic surgeon who served with the Army’s 629th Forward Surgical Team.

But he hasn’t forgotten.

When he hears a loud noise, he braces for a mortar blast. When he showers, he remembers the sides of his shower tent shaking from the force of a nearby explosion. He thinks of soldiers "who didn’t look old enough to shave" lying before him with serious injuries pleading with him to make them better.

But along with his painful recollections of the war’s human toll, Manzanares, who works at Nemours Children’s Clinic in Pensacola, Fla., is proud of the U.S. mission in Iraq.

"This is truly a war," he said. "There was nothing nice or subtle about it, but I have to believe that we’re doing the right thing. I have to think that people are dying for a reason, and that eventually Iraq is going to be more prosperous, more self-sufficient and more free."

Now that Iraqi’s interim government has assumed sovereignty, men and women from the Pensacola area who have risked their lives say progress is being made.

Capt. Peter O’Connor, who headed operations at a combat hospital during the first months of the war, can still recall how excited Iraqi physicians and nurses were to learn from people trained in current Western medicine.

O’Connor and his staff provided constant medical and dental care to soldiers, enemy prisoners of war and displaced Iraqi civilians.

Initially, he said, the foreigners’ reaction was one of distrust.

"But that would dissipate quickly when they saw that we were going to help them and care for them in the same way we would one of our own," said O’Connor, executive officer of Naval Hospital Pensacola.

His staff delivered $900,000 worth of medical supplies to several Iraqi civilian hospitals and worked side-by-side with Iraqi physicians and nurses in hospitals that had long lacked modern supplies and equipment.

Army Spc. Rolanda Murray, a hospital laboratory technician in Baghdad’s "Green Zone,’’ said Iraqi civilians told her horrible stories about life under Saddam Hussein and expressed gratitude for the U.S. presence.

"Maybe one of the ‘bad guys’ to whom we’ve administered care will undergo a change of heart and maybe develop a different view of Americans," she said. "Maybe not, but knowing that there are people in our care who respect our presence in (Iraq) and depend on us to help rehabilitate them is one thing that keeps me motivated to do the right thing."