ALBU SAIF, Iraq (CNN) — The soldier cries out in pain, his combat fatigues soaked with blood. Around him, six medics — an Iraqi, a German and four Americans — are hard at work. One asks the soldier’s name, trying to soothe him, while another cuts off his bloody uniform with scissors; the others are examining his wounds, taking his pulse.
It’s another hectic day at this frontline clinic in the village of Albu Saif, just a few minutes from the battle for west Mosul. Over the clamor around the wounded, booms echo from the nearby fighting. Artillery hurtles overhead from Iraqi positions targeting ISIS in the city. An American B-52 circles above, F16s fly over the battle field, and helicopters clatter, firing volleys of missiles into the city.
Ten volunteers from New York City Medics, a humanitarian aid group providing emergency medical care, are set up in an abandoned, bullet-pocked house, working with a team of Iraqis from the Rapid Response Division of the Federal Police. NYC Medics has provided aid in the aftermath of the Nepali earthquake, the Fukushima disaster, the Haitian earthquake, but this is its first war zone.
“In twenty minutes here, we see as much trauma as a lot of places would see in an entire shift, if not in an entire week of work,” says Jeff Evans, a physician’s assistant from Boulder, Colorado and mountaineer who once guided a blind climber up Mount Everest.
Evans cuts the interview short as an ambulance arrives at the clinic; a young man whose face is covered in bandages sitting in the front seat. He springs into action, his relaxed, easy going demeanor gone as he and the rest of the team get to work.
They sit the young man — clad only in boxer shorts — in a wheel chair and roll him into the operating theater. The ambulance driver, a soldier in his late teens, explains his comrade was burned by the flames from a suicide car bombing in the Tayaran neighborhood, about two kilometers (or less than a mile and a half) away. The ambulance driver lost a friend in the same bombing. His face twitches in anguish as he recounts what happened.
The medics, meanwhile, unwrap the bandages on the wounded soldier’s face. The flames have burned the outer layer of skin off his face, his lower abdomen and his right hand. Occasionally the soldier groans softly, but doesn’t flinch.
Here, the focus is on stabilizing patients who have received first aid on the battlefield, before sending them on to a larger field hospital a half hour’s drive to the south.
The burned soldier, however, needs to go to a special burns unit in Baghdad.
Kathy Bequary, NYC Medics’ country director, calls to request a helicopter for the soldier’s onwards journey.
The atmosphere here can best be described as controlled chaos. It’s noisy, the medics and translators are scrambling around grabbing syringes and pills, bags of saline solution, jotting down information on clipboards, barking staccato orders hard for the layman to understand.
On the day CNN visited the medics, they only treated one civilian, a little girl with a toothache who had fled Mosul that morning with her family. The days before, however, they had treated multiple civilians, many with gunshot wounds from ISIS snipers. One of the victims was a five-year-old girl shot through the pelvis.
Readjusting to a war zone
When they put the patients into an ambulance and send them on their way, calm returns. The medics lounge on a sofa outside, sip from bottles of water and chat quietly among themselves. For newcomers to a war zone, they’ve quickly become accustomed to their surroundings.
It wasn’t so easy for their friends and family, however.
“My friends were not surprised, my sisters were not surprised, my mom cried, and my dad got mad at me,” Bequary recounts in a pause between attending to patients.
Evans also had to overcome the reservations of his 11-year-old son. “My little boy was very much against me coming to do this. He has only known me as a mountaineer, as a climber, going on trips, and he has never had a problem with it. This one, he said, ‘don’t go dad.’ So that was a tough thing for me, to be able to explain to him that this was something I needed to do.”
For Evans, as a husband and father, he says the onus is on him to live by example and “to do things to show my son, how important it is to life a selfless life.”