Army nurse witnesses compassion, not abuse, at Abu Ghraib

  1. 3 June, 2004
    Army nurse witnesses compassion, not abuse, at Abu Ghraib
    By Michelle Tan


    U.S. Army 1st Lt. Riley Sharbonno has always been a daredevil.
    The 1998 Technical High School graduate applied for the ROTC program at St. John's University without telling his parents.

    During summer 2000, he made the long and lonely drive to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to be a lifeguard.

    "I said that was my training for him being in the Army," said his mother, Nancy. "That was a scary summer."

    These days, Sharbonno, 24, of St. Cloud, is an emergency-room charge nurse in the hospital at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison. The prison near Baghdad is the site of the prisoner-abuse scandal that shocked the world.

    Sharbonno, who's based in Wuerzburg, Germany, was sent in January to Iraq. He spent time last week writing home about his experiences in Iraq.

    The abuse scandal was the "horrible and inexcusable" deed of a small group of soldiers, said Sharbonno, who arrived after the abuse allegedly ended.

    "I am, however, bewildered by the press's reaction to the issue," he wrote. "Since we arrived here ... scores of prisoners have been killed by anti-coalition mortar attacks on our compound, yet we bring 85 personnel from their homes in America to treat them, at great danger to themselves, and we get the media criticism.

    "I am unaware of any military in the history of war that has built an entire hospital for the exclusive treatment of enemy detainees or POWs. I don't understand the media's insistence on ignoring the atrocities committed by anti-coalition forces or the amazing things that the military has accomplished over here."

    Sharbonno's unit was assigned to build a hospital to take care of detainees, military personnel and civilian contractors stationed in the area, he wrote. They endured riots and heavy mortar attacks sometimes up to 50 attacks a day.

    Test of character

    Sharbonno was assigned to work in the emergency room as the night charge nurse, giving him the chance to work with detainees and soldiers.

    "We ... proudly give the patients every last bit of energy, compassion and resources we have," he wrote. "But it is tremendously draining, emotionally, to risk your life each and every day treating the very people who have tried or succeeded in killing your American brothers and sisters, sometimes only days or hours earlier.

    "It is the ultimate test of character to look into a patient's eyes who says he will kill you if given the chance, then to drive on and treat that person with dignity, to refuse the urge to treat him as something less than human."

    So far, Sharbonno has worked through two mass-casualty emergencies.

    The first was six to eight weeks ago.

    "The enemy fighters, apparently trying to free some detainees, shot a huge barrage of mortars," he wrote. "Of the detainees who survived long enough to make it to the hospital, we treated over 85. It was sickening to see all the anger,

    hatred and violence culminated into this mass of humanity and carnage."

    There was another attack two weeks later, "except this time the mortars were much bigger and more accurate," he wrote.

    Twenty-two detainees were killed. Sharbonno and his staff treated more than 100 patients in about four hours.

    "About half of those four hours we were still under heavy fire, so we were wearing bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets," he wrote.

    The second attack forced the soldiers to realize the danger around them. Nobody slept very well for a while. Soldiers would flinch or drop to the floor when a door slammed shut.

    "We began to tease each other that we were going to go home on (leave) and dive under the table when the server dropped a plate," Sharbonno wrote. "Humor keeps this place from getting too depressing to go on. I have said from day one that humor is our most valuable commodity."

    Missing home

    Sharbonno's parents worry.

    "I notice a change in him. He was getting really tense when they were getting a lot of rockets and stuff," said his father, Ron. "It's harder for me as a parent than in Vietnam."

    Ron Sharbonno served in the Vietnam War with the U.S. Marine Corps.

    Nancy Sharbonno also senses a difference in her son. She's afraid she'll lose the wide-eyed, happy and adventurous child she raised.

    "I wonder if he'll be the same," she said.

    The soldiers try to have fun, Riley Sharbonno said. They have karaoke night once a week. They had a party complete with sombreros for Cinco de Mayo. Friday night is boxing night.

    "My ER has a motto. 'If you're not laughing with us, then we're probably laughing at you,' " Sharbonno wrote.

    Sharbonno said he could be in Iraq through May 2005. His parents, who live in St. Cloud, send him about two care packages each month. His must-haves include wild rice, Thai chili garlic sauce, peanut sauce and canned fruit and vegetables.

    "It seems silly to send a 39-cent can of peas to Iraq, but if that's what makes him happy," Nancy Sharbonno said.

    Sharbonno misses home.

    "I miss the green grass and beach at St. John's. I miss my family and all the wonderful plants, tress and birds in the back yard. I miss fresh fruit and vegetables and beer," he wrote. "I miss being able to walk out into the sunlight without a bulletproof vest and Kevlar helmet on.

    "But mostly, I miss the freedom that Americans enjoy. I miss the ability to hop in the car and drive to a lake, the park, the movies or to a friend's house. I am proud of our work here, but anxious to get home."
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