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Monday, November 08, 2004 - Page updated at 08:15 P.M.
Information in this article, originally published November 5, was corrected November 8. A previous version of this story contained an error. A story on anticipated casualties from a U.S.-led attack on the Iraqi city of Fallujah misstated the deadliest month of the Vietnam War. It was May 1968, according to National Archives records.

U.S. braces for casualties as fight for Fallujah nears

By Seattle Times news services

ANJA NIEDRINGHAUS / AP
U.S. Marines from the 1st Division stand next to a wall painting of an Iraqi soldier as they train for a major assault on Fallujah in a former Iraqi military barrack outside the Sunni Muslim city.
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WITH U.S. FORCES NEAR FALLUJAH, Iraq — The number of dead and wounded from the expected battle to retake insurgent-controlled Fallujah probably will reach levels not seen since Vietnam, a senior surgeon at the Marine camp outside Fallujah said yesterday.

The staff at Bravo Surgical Company, who call themselves the Cheaters of Death, have been preparing for this for six weeks. They have built a third operating room, put up two large triage tents, added to their blood bank and brought in the mortuary staff.

Navy Cmdr. Lach Noyes, a surgeon, said the hospital here is preparing to handle 25 severely injured soldiers a day, not counting walking wounded and the dead.

"We've been living by the creed that if you build it they will come," said Capt. Eric Lovell, an emergency-medicine specialist at the hospital.

The plans underscore the ferocity of the fight the U.S. military expects in Fallujah, a Sunni Muslim city about 35 miles west of Baghdad that has been under insurgent control since April. More than 1,120 U.S. soldiers and Marines have died in Iraq since the war began, more than 860 of those from hostile fire.

The war in Iraq, which began almost 20 months ago, is already the most deadly war since Vietnam, which lasted for almost a decade.

The deadliest month was April, when fierce fighting killed 126 U.S. troops largely at Fallujah and Ramadi before a cease-fire virtually turned Fallujah over to the insurgents. Even then, the death toll was far below the worst month of Vietnam, May 1968, when the U.S. death toll was 543 at the height of U.S. involvement there.

U.S. forces have been building up outside Fallujah for weeks in preparation for taking the city back, and many here think the assault is likely to come soon.

U.S. jets and artillery batteries launched attacks on the insurgent-held area yesterday, hitting targets in the run-up to what could be a major assault on the Sunni-dominated town.

A senior U.S. intelligence officer last night said American forces have observed rebels making their own preparations, digging fortifications in the city and forming fighting groups of about 20 men.

The officer, Maj. Jim West of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the greatest threat in the city came from the foreign fighters who have come to Fallujah to prove their commitment to jihad and gain influence in their hometowns or villages.
 
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He said he had indications that Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi may be moving in and out of Fallujah. U.S. forces think Zarqawi's group is responsible for many kidnappings, at least six beheadings and numerous attacks on U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

Military officials say they expect U.S. troops will encounter not just fighters wielding AK-47s assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but also heavy concentrations of mines, roadside bombs and possibly car bombs.

West said he thinks there are 4,000 to 5,000 fighters between Fallujah and nearby Ramadi, and they may try to draw troops into cramped urban areas in Fallujah that have been booby-trapped.

The toll in human suffering already has been grave.

Staff Sgt. Jason Benedict was on a convoy heading to the Fallujah camp last Saturday when a suicide bomber rammed a vehicle into the truck on which Benedict and his platoon mates were traveling. A few minutes later, mortars and rifle fire rained down on the survivors. As he rolled toward the safety of a ditch, Benedict saw one of his friends crawling on all fours, with blood pouring from his face.

"You've got to expect casualties," said Benedict, 28. The fight for Fallujah, he said, "is overdue."

Eight Marines were killed in the bombing. Benedict is now recuperating in the field hospital with burns to his left hand and the side of his head.

He and five other Marines lay on khaki canvas and steel frame cots, some snoring, one playing masterful blues on his acoustic guitar, another staring into space. One Marine sat listening to the blues, still marveling at the total but thankfully temporary blindness he experienced after the blast.

Benedict said the staff at Bravo Surgical are "outstanding. ... They spoil us here. They're constantly checking up on you. They take care of anything you need."

It may be cushy in the ward — there's a TV and a Sony Playstation 2, cans of Coke and packets of Mini Oreos — but the injured Marines seem keen to get out and take part in the possible battle ahead.

"Everyone's anxious actually to go," Benedict said. "No one wants to stay here. Everybody wants to be with their brothers."

In the six weeks Noyes, the Navy surgeon, has worked at the Fallujah camp, his team has operated on Marines with eyes gouged by shrapnel and limbs torn by explosion.

A rocket strike outside the hospital killed two staff members and left deep pockmarks across the white concrete walls.

Noyes said some bodies have been so badly mangled that they had to be shipped home for DNA identification.

As Noyes was speaking yesterday, two Marines and photojournalist Stephanie Kuykendal, 28, of St. Louis, were rushed into the hospital.

They were injured when a bomb blew up as their light-armored vehicle passed during a patrol near Fallujah.

The Marines had shrapnel cuts and burns, and the photographer's teeth had been pushed back into her mouth.

Capt. Melissa Kaime, another Navy surgeon at the hospital, said that seeing trauma wounds in medical school is one thing; seeing them come off the battlefield is something altogether different.

"To treat a patient when (his) brain is coming out ... " she said, before her voice trailed off. "There are things that I will never understand. It's beyond my comprehension; a higher power will have to explain why these things have happened."

Compiled from Newsday, Knight Ridder Newspapers and The Washington Post.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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