From his hot and dusty base in northern Iraq, Ohio Army National Guard Sgt. David Borell typed an e-mail criticizing the U.S. military's lack of treatment for severely burned Iraqi children.
A day later, the Sylvania native got the attention of his congressman, U.S. Rep Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo). She pledged yesterday to speak directly with the secretary of defense himself - an action that could rekindle an international debate over how much U.S. forces should, or even can, help injured Iraqis.
“[Sergeant Borell] is in the finest tradition of the American military,” Miss Kaptur said yesterday. “I am going to make sure that the fact that he gave a ground-zero reality check from there can guide policy-makers at the highest level.”
Sergeant Borell, of the Toledo-based 323rd Military Police Company, complained Friday that he tried to get medical help for three children with severe burns on the arms, legs, and faces, but Army doctors told him that the children's wounds were not life-threatening and it was not the Americans' duty to help.
After having to send the family on its way without treatment, the sergeant broke down and had to be comforted by his platoon leader, Sgt. 1st Class Bryan Pacholski. The moment was captured by an Associated Press photographer, and the picture was printed yesterday in The Blade and newspapers across the country.
Upon seeing the picture and article in The Blade, Miss Kaptur said she shared the outrage of the 30-year-old military police sergeant. She said it's not only a moral duty for America, but a strategic one that can help build support in an Arab world that increasingly questions America's motives in Iraq.
“We are losing the battle for respect in that region,” said Miss Kaptur, who opposed President Bush's decision to go to war. “We might command the ground - or hold the ground for the moment - but we have to gain the hearts and minds of the people.”
Miss Kaptur's criticism was shared by some who contacted The Blade yesterday, such as Dave Pacholski, the brother of the sergeant who comforted Sergeant Borell Friday.
“I have two little ones, and I find it irresponsible on anybody's part to just walk away and say there's nothing they can do,” he said. “Not only is that ignorant, but it was totally against what doctors do.”
But others said the American military is doing the best it can in what is still a dangerous war zone, and they questioned whether anyone should pass judgment on a scenario before hearing the side of military officials, which was not available Friday or yesterday.
Maj. John Dzienny, a Toledo native now serving with U.S. Army special forces in Iraq, wrote in an e-mail that he has seen only “compassion and resolve” by American forces.
“It is the hope of all of us over here to see these people one day free and safe, just as we enjoy at home. These things take time, however, and it can strain the heart to not have an instant solution. All an individual can do is the best he or she can,” he said.
It is not a new debate.
The nonprofit group Doctors Without Borders complained three weeks after U.S. troops rolled into Baghdad that the U.S.-led coalition hierarchy had failed to restart Iraq's health-care system.
The group's international council president, Dr. Martin Rostrup, not only blamed U.S. forces for failing to stop the looting at many hospitals, but for not setting up an administrative health system to replace Saddam's - which he said was required under the Geneva Convention.
“They are definitely responsible to see that basic services are put in place very rapidly so as to avoid suffering of people. And this has not taken place. After three weeks, the hospitals are in disarray and I find that unacceptable,” he told reporters then, according to an Internet transcript of a May 3 news conference.
It's unclear now how much that's changed. The group's spokesman said yesterday that he could not provide an immediate assessment of Iraq's current health-care system.
And the human rights group Amnesty International has yet to pass judgment on whether the U.S.-led coalition is doing enough.
“The legal standard is a hard one to measure,” group spokesman Alistair Hodgett said. “But I think you can't read an account like that account [by Sergeant Borell] and not feel like the U.S. should be doing more.”
A U.S. military spokesman said Iraqis have a better health-care system now than before. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Matthew Klee, speaking on behalf of the U.S. Central Command, said yesterday that the military is doing the best it can to help as many civilians as possible in a country roughly the size of California.
“We are providing health care to Iraqis, but we don't have the infrastructure to support the entire Iraqi civilian population,” said Commander Klee, who is based in Tampa.
He said he was unable to immediately provide the military's detailed rules for when its field hospitals must accept Iraqi civilians, but he said at the very least military hospitals treat any civilians with life-threatening injuries. The rest are referred to local, civilian-run hospitals.
He also said he was unable to immediately confirm Sergeant Borell's account of the burned children not getting medical attention. But he said that, regardless, the military would not punish the sergeant for speaking out - a key worry of Congressman Kaptur.
“As long as he's speaking of his own personal opinions, he's more than welcome to do that,” Commander Klee said. “He just can't speak for the military. He can express his views. But when it comes to policy and official statements, that's really our bailiwick.”
Contacted via e-mail at their base 30 miles northwest of Baghdad, other soldiers in the 323rd also were unable to confirm the sergeant's account of the incident. But 1st Sgt. Robert Orwig confirmed that the unit's Balad base treats only civilians injured by an American or who have an injury that could involve a loss of life, limb, or an eye.
Still, the 323rd soldiers routinely call the base hospital anyway when an injured Iraqi approaches, and let the hospital staff formally refuse to treat the injured.
“It is hard for our soldiers to have to turn the children away, but that is the guidance we have and have to go by,” he said.
“This wasn't the first incident that children were sent away,” he added. “[It] probably won't be the last.”
Miss Kaptur, however, hopes it is the last.
She said she will seek out Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as well as House leaders from both parties when she returns to Washington tomorrow. She said the military should be able to set up more field hospitals to treat wounded Iraqis until the Iraqi civilian hospitals can do the job.
If the U.S. military can't do it, Miss Kaptur said, other international groups or even American citizens should.
“I know the American people. We could fill a cargo plane out here at Toledo Express and equip the first field hospital ourselves,” she said.
As for Sergeant Borell, he wrote in an e-mail to The Blade yesterday that the Iraqi family hadn't returned yet to the base to seek help for their children.
“I imagine one refusal is enough for them,” he said.