American nurses are also helping heal Iraq itself. Col. Christine Rem, 59, has been a nurse since she was 17. In October 2007, she was deployed as part of a small State Department team to help the people of Ramadi rise from the devastation of war. Col. Rem acted as a consultant in health, education and women's affairs.
When Col. Rem arrived, she found the city's medical care in crisis. Seventy percent of physicians had fled the country, and cultural issues complicated the shortage. "Nurses are predominantly male in Iraq. It's not looked upon favorably for a woman to care for a man or to be working at night or traveling around in an unstable environment," she says. "Many of the males in Iraq had been recruited into the Iraqi Police or the Iraqi Army to help the government and provide security, so it left very few left over."
Because the 60-mile trip to Baghdad was dangerous, medical supplies were low. Hospital conditions were shocking, and lines were long. "There was only electricity one hour a day. There was no running water; there was no sewer," she says. "The Iraqis were doing the best job they possibly could under the circumstances."
Col. Rem got to work. She wrote for—and received—grants for supplies as well as living stipends for men studying nursing and teaching.
She also helped instill confidence in a shaken staff. With the Army's assistance, Col. Rem helped local nurses gain the confidence to travel the dangerous roads to Baghdad. Despite facing gunfire on their first trip, Col. Rem says they completed three successful runs while she was there. "I was very proud of those nurses," she says. "This work is still going on. I just started it."
Col. Rem's efforts earned her the Bronze Star, but she says working with the Ramadi people was reward enough. "It's like Horton Hears a Who. You learn a person's a person no matter how small, and you learn that human beings are all alike. We all have the same basic issues, needs, wants, desires," she says. "Once you've been there, you don't forget these people."
Like Col. Rem, Capt. Christensen says her experience was unforgettable. "The things I saw were horrible. The injuries were the worst you could possibly imagine, but the experience and the things I was able to see was rewarding. And I don't think a lot of people realize that," she says. "I was very honored to be there for the soldiers."
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