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Reaching Past The Wire

A Nurse at Abu Ghraib

Deanna Germain

Publication Year: 2007

On a frigid afternoon in February 2003, Deanna Germain, a nurse practitioner and new grandmother living in Blaine, Minnesota, received the registered letter she had hoped would never arrive. In six days she was to report for active duty as war loomed in Iraq. The purpose of mobilization: “For Enduring Freedom.” With startling detail, Lt. Col. Germain offers a clear-eyed account of life as a nursing supervisor behind the fortified gates of Abu Ghraib. Her duty: To treat Iraqi prisoners, U.S. soldiers, and Marines in need of medical attention. Shortly after she arrived, the notorious prison made headlines around the world for abuses that had stopped months before. Despite unbearable heat, frequent mortar attacks, medical supply shortages, substandard facilities, the relentless stench of war, and sleepless nights quartered in a tiny prison cell, Germain served the medical needs of each of her patients with remarkable humanity. In this crucible of wartime stress, workplace turmoil, and cultural uncertainty, Germain found herself forging powerful connections with colleagues and translators. She learned from translators about normal Iraqi families struggling to survive impossible conditions. And after vowing to avoid personal relationships with prisoners, she became a comfort to many. Duty and compassion, camaraderie and hope all helped to pull her through.

Published by: Minnesota Historical Society Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

I look back, and it seems surreal. On some days, it feels like it happened yesterday. On other days, it plays back like someone else’s story. I was a fifty-two-year-old wife, mother, grandmother, nurse practitioner, and Army reserve lieutenant colonel living the American dream in Minnesota. I went from comfortable middle-class suburbia to sleeping in Saddam ...

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1. Six Days to Ready

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pp. 3-12

I answered the door and saw the certified letter from the United States Army reserve. Activation orders—damn! The waiting and wondering were over. As I signed a receipt for the letter held out to me that frigid February afternoon in 2003, I knew I was signing for a life-changing event. I also knew that others in my Army reserve unit were going through the same thing— ...

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2. 120 Degrees and Rising

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pp. 13-26

A combination of excitement and fear, multiplied by one hundred and twenty of us, saturated the atmosphere as we boarded a Delta airplane for the trip from Fort Stewart to Kuwait. It was the most emotionally charged moment in my career thus far. There we were, all in our desert uniforms, weapons by our side, ready to do our ...

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3. The Worst Assignment in Iraq

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pp. 27-32

On April 26, 2004, as I stepped out from the open tail of the C-130 military plane into a blast of heat, a first sergeant, dressed in threadbare desert fatigues, saluted. “Welcome to Baghdad, Ma’am,” he said. “You have accepted the worst assignment in Iraq.” At that moment mortar fire exploded nearby and, like everyone else, I threw myself to the ground. Lying there ...

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4. Convoy

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pp. 33-42

The convoy consisted of both military and non-military vehicles. That surprised me. American contractors drove their own vehicles, and drivers in western or traditional Arab dress drove the fuel tankers, food trucks, and other vehicles that provided service and supplies to the combat zone. Some of the drivers waiting in the convoy looked bored, ...

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5. Mortar Attack at Abu Ghraib

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pp. 43-52

Okay, I thought, this is home for now. Like it or not. Soldiers can make a home anywhere, and I wanted to find my own space in this God-forsaken dump. I began to look around for familiar faces, my military family, who were already here. They would provide some orientation and show me to my quarters. Then I wanted to find a place to ...

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6. Living in the Shadows

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pp. 51-58

That first day of work, I was assigned to care for a seriously injured patient who had just been moved close to the nurses’ station from the Intensive Care Unit. Bassem, an Iraqi man in his late thirties with a long, thin body, had been shot in the head and left for dead. His injuries and subsequent neurosurgery had caved in the right side of his skull. He had an open hole in his head ...

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7. The Marine and Mohammed

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pp. 59-66

I quickly became familiar with the hospital and the ward to which I was assigned. Our daily work involved a lot of wound care, amputation follow-up care, pain management, and working closely with the patients. We had basic supplies and surgical and emergency room capability, but nursing and medical care presented challenges in this austere ...

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8. Prisoner Abuse at Abu Ghraib

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pp. 67-74

News of earlier reported mistreatment of prisoners by U.S. military personnel at Abu Ghraib reached us a few days after I arrived. Like most of us, I heard the news from family— my sister sent an e-mail asking what was going on. reports say the mistreatment went on from October 2003 to January 13, 2004. Most of us were new in camp ...

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9. Attitude Adjustment

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pp. 75-82

I was still angry and upset at having been extended again and sent to Abu Ghraib. But shortly after I arrived, I received an e-mail from a nurse I had worked with at the Kuwait Armed Forces Hospital. Rose, a very spiritual woman from a province in India, wrote: ...

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10. Settling In [Contains Image Plates]

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pp. 83-102

In an attempt at beautification and sanitation of the operations at Abu Ghraib, the name of our hospital was changed to Task Force Oasis. Who had permitted that name—Task Force Alcatraz—in the first place? We were full of cynical jokes about what Oasis meant. Some energetic young medics tried to transplant a small palm tree to a spot just ...

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11. A Day in the Life

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pp. 103-112

Daily life and dangers are di

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12. The Unsung Heroes

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pp. 113-136

Some may argue that the Iraqi translators were not heroes, but that is how I saw them. My job would have been less satisfying and more challenging, and the patient care would have been lacking, without them. They were often courageous, at times afraid, always in danger, but willing, for reasons I cannot fully appreciate or understand, to be ...

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13. Small Pleasures and the Best Day in Iraq

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pp. 137-144

There’s an old saying that an army runs on its stomach, and like most clichés this one has some truth in it. Food does more than just sustain life. When it is abundant, fresh, appealing, and tasty, it serves to create happiness. When it isn’t, soldiers and Marines may have low morale and unease. When I first arrived at Abu Ghraib, our food came from ...

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14. Challenges

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pp. 145-152

These Iraqi detainee patients may not be what you would expect, and our interactions may not be what you would expect, either. This was a war experience, but a human experience as well. And as Indira Gandhi once said, “You cannot shake hands with a clenched fist.” The biggest challenge in caring for our patients was ...

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15. God and Good Old-Fashioned Fun

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pp. 153-160

God works in mysterious ways, even in a place like Abu Ghraib. I never had as powerful a spiritual experience— either before or after—as I had while I was there. Maybe it was need. I knew there was little except God’s grace to keep us alive. Cheryl and I agreed early on that I would go to Protestant church services with her and she would go to Mass ...

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16. Sami and Grandpa

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pp. 161-168

Longfellow once said, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life, sorrow and su­ffering enough to disarm all hostilities.” I thought of that on so many occasions at Abu Ghraib. Sami was our youngest detainee, and one of the innocents. He was a muscular fifteen-year-old who definitely looked ...

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17. A Moment in Time

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pp. 169-176

Both Hashim and Sael were in their thirties, both knew a little English, and both had external fixators stabilizing badly broken legs. Sael was not, in fact, a detainee. He had been injured by another Iraqi, likely someone who had been trying to steal his car. The Americans found him and brought him to the hospital, where swift treatment saved ...

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18. Anything But R & R

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pp. 177-184

I called home and talked to Dave as often as possible. Our conversations were pretty unemotional and general in nature because we had no privacy. Dave was concerned for my safety and needed to hear my voice often for assurance that I was still okay. But like many spouses, he didn’t want to know too many details of my life at Abu Ghraib, and I ...

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19. Back Home at Abu Ghraib

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pp. 185-188

The trip back was uneventful. I was now a seasoned traveler in such uncomfortable circumstances. I was happy to see my cell was still waiting for me, just as I had left it. Nothing was yours at Abu Ghraib; anything could have happened while I was gone. A few soldiers and Marines had gone home for good, and a few soldiers and Marines ...

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20. The Nameless and Faceless

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pp. 189-194

I knew the soldiers in my unit in Kuwait so well that I could identify any of them by name just by the way they walked, talked, or wore their uniforms. But at Abu Ghraib, we were faceless and nameless and we all looked the same. I might be telling a story and try to remember someone; all I could remember was that he had short hair and was ...

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21. Sisterhood

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pp. 195-200

Americans often think that Muslim women cover themselves because men make them. I learned, however, that the reverse is true. “We want to be covered,” an Iraqi woman told me. “When we get married it is only for our man to look at us. For us to save ourselves for him. The girls here wear short skirts. In your home you can be ...

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22. Finding Myself Again

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pp. 201-208

The hot, dusty, dangerous convoy, the waiting, the delayed and confusing flights to Kuwait, the waiting, the turning in of gear, the waiting—all familiar, all disorienting. We spent four days back at Fort Stewart, attending sessions about going home that were to prepare us to meet our spouses again, to get back into the civilian world again, ...


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pp. 209-212


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pp. 213-214

E-ISBN-13: 9780873516921
E-ISBN-10: 0873516923
Print-ISBN-13: 9780873516068
Print-ISBN-10: 0873516060

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 15 b&w photos
Publication Year: 2007

Edition: 1

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Subject Headings

  • Germain, Deanna, 1950-.
  • Nurse practitioners -- Iraq -- Biography.
  • Abu Ghraib Prison.
  • Iraq War, 2003- -- Prisoners and prisons, American.
  • Iraq War, 2003- -- Personal narratives, American.
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