June 14, 2008

Treating Casualties of the War


DENNIS CASTRO of Leonia returned to work Monday from a week of training at McGuire Air Force Base. As a flight nurse specializing in trauma, he plays a big part in improving the survival rate of soldiers injured by improvised explosive devices and suicide bombers.

When not in the air with injured soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan, Castro can be found on the ground coordinating the flights transporting troops to military medical facilities.

With three tours of duty under his belt since the war started, Castro has accompanied injured soldiers from the war zones to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. He's also flown with them to Walter Reed and other stateside military hospitals for major surgeries and rehabilitation.

The Air Force reservist will be home in Leonia with his wife and three kids at least through the summer, but expects to head back to the war in the fall with about 20 others in the 514th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. For the most part, they are nurses, EMT's and medical personnel. It'll be his fourth tour of duty at the front since 2003.

"Doing the flight nurse job is probably the most satisfaction I get when I'm over there," said Castro, talking about one of his many nursing duties. "We've had a lot of head injuries and multiple trauma. What in the past would have taken 40 days now is taking four days. Now they're getting immediate care if they need some type of surgery, rather than waiting days and days."

If a soldier injured in Iraq makes it alive to the regional medical center at the Balad Air Base, about 40 miles north of Baghdad, he's got better than a 90 percent chance of survival, said the 514th Air Mobility Wing's chief of public affairs, Capt. Mark Medvesky. Improved medical techniques make it possible for many more injured soldiers to survive traumatic injuries that would have claimed their lives in past wars. But once they get back home, consistent military medical treatment is a roll of the dice.

A cruel irony of the war is the resistance by people who got us into it to approve more spending that would ensure expeditious treatment and care of veterans in need of medical services.

Despite excellent treatment abroad in the first stages of their injuries, back home the deck is stacked against them. Newly wounded troops find their cases backlogged and churned out slowly alongside the other 400,000 veterans using the system.

Health care officials and families are left to deal with traumatic brain injuries, which some say is the signature ailment sustained by combat troops in this war. An estimated 65 percent of those treated at Walter Reed Army Medical Center suffer from traumatic brain injury.

Surrounded by professionals

For as long as he can remember, Castro, 36, has been surrounded by medical professionals. While he was growing up in Leonia, many of his friends and family members including his mom and dad worked in various capacities in North Jersey hospitals.

So it was a natural progression for him to go from treating local Bergen County road accident victims as a member of the Leonia volunteer ambulance services, when he was just in high school to stabilizing injured service men and women fresh from the battles in Iraq. When he returned to his full-time job in emergency room trauma management at St. Josephs Regional Medical Center in Paterson, Castro reflected on his work flying the cavernous C-17 military air transports refitted as flying ambulances.

The military was an afterthought, he said. Castro earned a bachelor's degree in nursing from Seton Hall in 1997, and a few years later joined the Air Force Reserve on the advice of other Leonia emergency medical technicians and co-workers at St. Joseph's.

Unfazed by his fourth tour of duty, which is still a few months away, Castro will be savoring Father's Day at home. This week he returned to his job as trauma program manager back at St. Joseph's.

The skills Castro and other medical personnel bring to the war keep American soldiers alive. Roadside explosives, gunshot wounds, mortar fire and suicide bombers have left hundreds of victims with life-threatening wounds and severe burns since the war started. In addition to the nearly 4,100 dead, about 30,000 Americans have been wounded.

Increasingly controversial as a factor in this war is the less than adequate response to veterans' needs. The long-term care of wounded soldiers, a hidden cost not calculated in the $3 trillion already spent on the war by some estimates is as powerful a holdover issue from the outgoing Bush administration as is the troop withdrawal strategy that presidential candidates must make a priority.


Lawrence Aaron is a Record columnist. Contact him at [email protected] Send comments about this column to [email protected]


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