He was a disheveled old man, far older appearing than his purported age of 60. In Iraq, a man of 60 — at least one of humble origins such as he — was truly an old man. In spite of his age, he had a ferocious temper and had now willed death upon not only me, an American military officer, but my family as well, which is the ultimate curse.
What had prompted this? I had just finished examining him in my hovel of a medical shack in a large detainee camp in southeastern Iraq. The time was early 2008, the turning point that finally calmed the insurgency. He had a myriad of complaints, none of which I could provide an instant cure for, thus the venom.
This was an unusual reaction from my detainee group. Most were respectful and many were appreciative. I bartered a commodity — medical care — in short supply at that point in a much-fractured Iraq. In addition, I was educated and a leader, qualities revered in Arabic society. I was near the end of my 90-day stint of service, and the easiest course in dealing with this man was to report him to the guards, which I did, and decline to see him again. My conscience would not allow the latter.
I saw him a few days later, and some additional tidbits of information flew as we bantered back and forth with the help of my interpreter. Before his initial arrest nearly six months earlier, he had been beaten senseless by his Iraqi captors, which was not unusual. Physical abuse was the norm between the insurgents and the Iraqi police.
Never miss a local story.
As a longshot, I asked for a CAT scan of the head, my one and only order for the scan among the thousands of detainees I saw. A few days later, to my surprise, I was called by the interpreting neurologist who said my patient had a large and chronic subdural hematoma, which meant that he had an old blood clot pressing on the right side of the brain.
The treatment for this is to drain the fluid, a neurosurgical intervention. Two neurosurgeons were available for the U.S. military in the entire country. And since they were in short supply, taking care of an Iraqi detainee, assaulted by his own people, was low on the totem pole of priorities.
After much cajoling by me, he was evacuated by helicopter to the neurosurgeon's base in central Iraq. His subdural hematoma was drained without incident, and he was whisked back to us shortly after.
I was due to fly out the next day, and out of curiosity, I asked to see him. What a metamorphosis. The old, hunched-over man now stood upright, without support, with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes. His words of venom were now those of praise. He said I was his savior, and he would always be indebted to me.
The moral of the story, if there is one, is that compassion can disarm an enemy as effectively as shackles. We can never excuse the temptation to succumb to those baser means simply because our enemy does such. Brutality may transiently control behavior; good deeds offer the hope of a permanent change for the better.