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A Combat Medic’s Story

Jenny Pacanowski Jul 16

Editor’s note: The names have a distant but familiar ring to them: Mosul, Tikrit, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tal Afar, Balad, Baquba, Samarra. Urban battlefields like these in northern and western Iraq were frequently in the news a decade ago as U.S. troops fought an insurgency while dodging everything from IEDs to RPGs.

When militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) routed the Iraqi Army and overran many of those same cities in late June, a war that most Americans had forgotten was suddenly back in the news. The media have since focused on who was responsible for “losing” Iraq and what military tactics and alliances should be pursued to win it back. Largely unacknowledged are the voices of veterans like Jenny Pacanowski, a former combat medic, who recalls her initial support for the war and the traumatic homecoming that followed, as well as the hard-earned lessons she drew from her experience, lessons that U.S. leaders remain unwilling to acknowledge. 


On Christmas Eve of 2004 I flew out of Iraq for the final time, heading to Germany. My dreams of “saving the world” had been replaced with the fantasy of Iraq being transformed into a parking lot so we would never have to return.

“How did this happen?” I asked myself. “Who is this person speaking?” 

My journey from idealistic American to disillusioned veteran cannot be summed up by one plane ride or discharge papers. For many of the people in my generation who fought in the Iraq War, being in the military and then becoming a veteran and transitioning into the civilian world brings with it countless complex variables and decisions.

What most civilians don’t understand and what I discovered when I began to share my experiences is that telling the story replays the war and the trauma associated with it. I begin to relive each moment of fear, disillusionment and betrayal. 

When I enlisted in the U.S. Army on April 23, 2003, it seemed like I had been awarded a “golden ticket.” The Iraq War had recently concluded with an apparently decisive American victory. A crowd of jubilant Iraqis had toppled a giant statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad and welcomed our troops as liberators. I was 23 years old and the Army was going to train me as a health care specialist/combat medic. For my service, a jovial Army recruiter had promised that the military would erase the $40,000 in federal student loans I had no hope of paying off after dropping out of college without a degree. 

After completing basic training, I began receiving instruction in my chosen field. The first 12 weeks were filled with rigorous testing and practical applications of emergency medicine for civilians. In the final four weeks we trained to be combat medics. We tended to bleeding mannequins amid the fake sounds of suppressive fire and helicopters whirring noisily above us. Still, I felt no sense of an impending war. As both a trained health care specialist and a woman, I was certain I would be working in a hospital, not a combat zone.

Entering Iraq

We deployed to Kuwait and then crossed into Iraq in January 2004 in jungle-green ambulances that seemed to be left over from the Vietnam War. Anyone who was afraid seemed weak to me, but very few people showed that side. As we blazed across the desert, I remembered the letter I received during basic training stating that we had won the war and recalled President George W. Bush standing on an aircraft carrier with the giant red, white and blue banner stating “Mission Accomplished” draped behind him. Strange as it sounds today, I was proud to be part of an army led by our commander-in-chief, who said our next action would be to rebuild Iraq because we are the kind of country that brings democracy and freedom to the world. 

Early in my deployment, we were invited to go into a local village near the Iraq-Syria border and give physical exams to the local children. The mission was called a “medcap,” and I was elated to be helping children. We taught them how to suck on cough drops, gave them antibiotics and explained how antacids work. One young girl we examined had a heart valve pumping the wrong way. She was supposed to go on a “special list” for treatment in the United States but I later learned that she never made it to the States.

I was hopeful that the “medcap” would happen often and in every village, town and city we visited. However, that was the last time I treated a child in Iraq. The only other children I saw were blurry figures by the side of the road. 

Medics on the Move

My platoon of 25 medics was dispatched to Al-Asad Air Base in the restive western province of Anbar. Our primary mission was to aid Marine convoys that were rolling out of Al-Asad to deliver supplies, including food, fuel and mail to troops at forward operating bases. Most convoys I participated in were seven to 15 vehicles long, and the medics were positioned in the second to last vehicle in front of the gun truck. Iraqi insurgents consistently attacked our convoys with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), small-arms fire and the occasional rocket-propelled grenade launchers. For the first six or seven months we had no armor or bulletproof glass for the ambulances and neither did the other vehicles in the convoy, because military planners had not expected this to be a long war. We placed sand bags and Kevlar blankets at our feet and backs and hoped for the best. If you were lucky, the lead truck was also a gun truck or at least there was someone in a Humvee with a semi-automatic weapon. The other trucks and Humvees were loaded with supplies. 

I remember Iraqi kids waving and begging for candy as we drove by in the beginning. By August 2004 the children were throwing rocks and flicking the bird at convoys. I had numerous close calls with children and older people wandering in or near the roadway. I saw many incidents and heard of others in which my fellow soldiers drove over Iraqi civilians or shot at them after an attack on a convoy. As the conflict deepened, the Iraqi population became the enemy in our eyes. Anyone could be a “terrorist.” We were losing our humanity in the brutality of the war. 

I preferred to take the wheel even on extended trips. Driving the ambulance was the only thing I had control over. Survival on these roads meant developing the art of scanning for IEDs, which were usually hidden in cardboard boxes or dead animals or buried in a pothole. 

When scanning, my eyes would move laterally from side to side and then down the road observing what other military vehicles were doing in front of me and what locals were doing around, searching for anything “out of place.” I repeated this continuously every 20 to 30 seconds as I drove forward, knowing one mistake could leave me and my fellow soldiers dead or physically shattered for life. We sought to identify military-aged men (between 14 and 40 years old) and anyone with a cell phone. Since Iraq’s infrastructure was destroyed, it was difficult to differentiate the normal trash in the road from a bomb. As we drove, it was 120 to 130 degrees every day and our vehicles felt like ovens. 

Ambush in Samarra 

We also ran convoys at night. It was cooler but also easier for our attackers to conceal themselves. Many times right after the convoy arrived at the designated base, the mortars would pour in. 

THE DAMAGE DONE

1.455 million estimated Iraqi deaths due to U.S. invasion of Iraq (based on medical studies of increase in violent deaths in Iraq post-2003)

6,822 U.S. troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan (2014)

2.5 million U.S. troops who have been deployed to Iraq & Afghanistan (2013)

670,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with disability status (2013)

247,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans diagnosed with PTSD by VA (2012)

30% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated by VA with PTSD

30–200% increased likelihood of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans committing suicide compared to civilian population

$970 billion projected costs of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ disability and medical care (through 2053)

$4–$6 trillion Total price tag of Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (through 2053)

Sources: justforeignpolicy.com, antiwar.com, McClatchey, Washington Post, Daily Beast, Linda J. Bilmes/Harvard School of Government

The moment I realized I was just another expendable body occurred while running an Army convoy at night through Samarra en route to Tikrit. An IED exploded underneath the second truck in the convoy and ripped through the passenger wheel. I could feel the concussive blast through my flak jacket from four vehicles away. 

“Go! Go! Go!” someone blurted out over the radio. 

Then began the “plink, plink, plink” sound of bullets smashing into metal as we tore through small arms fire. As the convoy slowed I realized where we were. “Fuck,” I muttered under my breath. Headlights blazing and wrenches torquing, we were sitting ducks on top of Samarra’s bridge, changing a blown tire. 

My thoughts raced: “Who’s in charge? What are we doing? Why am I here?” 

We all lined the bridge’s railing, our rifles locked and loaded. During my convoys with the Marines, they did not allow the medics to pull security, because who is going to save you if the medic is dead? 

Whispers started. “Did you hear that?” … “Under the bridge.” … “Should we shoot?” …  My heart was pounding. The longest 30 seconds of my life followed. Suddenly, the radio blared that members of the U.S. Army Third Infantry Division were under the bridge. We almost shot our own guys thinking that the insurgents were going to ambush us or were setting up devices to blow up the bridge, something they did on a regular basis.

My idealism left for good that night and rage became my only defense against feelings of guilt and betrayal.

Coming Home

Surviving Iraq was one thing. I also had to fight the Army itself. During the middle of my deployment, I learned they would not repay my student loans because they were not the “right” kind of loans. 

After traveling from Iraq to Germany I managed to win an early discharge for “breach of contract” on the part of the U.S. Army (which is almost unheard of) and headed home to apply for my G.I. benefits. Upon returning to the States, I received a phone call from the Army board of corrections stating that if I had stayed in the Army they would have paid off my loans. I was informed that since I agreed to an early discharge they were unsure if my student loans would be paid, even though I served in Iraq. I proceeded to line up all my paperwork, got support from my local congressman and hounded the Army relentlessly until a congressional inquiry let to me being awarded partial repayment of my loans for time served, just under four years. 

I was exhausted. But that was just one battle. The war to bring my soul home from Iraq had just begun. Within the first few months of returning to my home in northeast Pennsylvania, I could not sleep because the sounds of war were everywhere. When I drove, I was still on edge, scanning for IEDs. After my first year back, I was unemployed and drunk every night screaming, “My life is a nightmare.” I was embarrassed, lost and in complete denial that I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. I thought I had no reason to live.

In July 2008, I attended my first veterans’ retreat at Martha’s Vineyard off the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Warrior Writers and Combat Paper, a pair of projects dedicated to helping veterans tell their stories, hosted the event. For the first time since leaving active duty in 2005 I was in a community of veterans. It stirred something deep inside me that I was suppressing with alcohol and VA medications. 

No Longer Heroes

Asked how I really felt about the war and my part in it, I spoke with anger, rage and regret about what I did “over there” and more accurately what I did not do to speak out against the carnage I saw inflicted on the Iraqis. My first poem was about how veterans are not “America’s heroes” but rather people afflicted with homelessness, addiction and violence. I sweated, cried and bled as I cut up my combat uniform and transformed my desert-camouflaged fatigues into paper that I could write my experiences on. Writing allowed me to take the demons in my mind and put them on paper where they could exist outside of myself. It saved my life.

Since then, I have continued to write and read my poetry while also branching out into playwriting, public speaking at high schools and colleges and facilitating writing workshops all over the country for other veterans. 

Jenny Pacanowski speaks about her experience of coming home from war and battling PTSD. Photo: Ellen Davidson

Having emerged from my own “dark place,” I doubt anyone really understands the cumulative effect of war besides the people who have lived it. When the media recently started blaring the names of the towns that I occupied in Iraq, I felt an overwhelming desire to block it all out. It was as if nothing had changed and no time had passed, it was more war and the same propaganda. In a brief idealistic moment, I wondered if I should go back and be the person to promote peace instead of more violence. 

After leaving a writing retreat, I resolved to listen to President Obama’s June 19 press conference about the situation in Iraq. His words — “[the U.S.] will help Iraqis as they take the fight to terrorists who threaten the Iraqi people, the region and American interests” — were familiar and callous to someone who saw Iraq and what our presence did to its people. We killed innocent civilians and called it “collateral damage,” we did not understand their 6,000-year old culture and disrespected their way of life. We won no one’s heart or mind. To use military force in Iraq again and believe it will make things better is delusional.

My hope for the future is that the more than 2.5 million veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars will return home to a community that understands them and will help them understand themselves. This community will consist of other veterans, family members and concerned civilians who are committed to learning how to heal from war. We will share our journey and look to find the humanity in each other and extend it into the world. In my own work, if I can help one young person avoid going through what I experienced, or if I can help one veteran not commit suicide, then what I’m doing will be worth it. 

Jenny Pacanowski lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She will perform at the Warwick (NY) Summer Arts Festival on July 23. For more about the Warrior Writers Project and Combat Paper, see warriorwriters.org and combatpaper.org.