Abu Ghraib Doctor Takes on ‘the Worst Medical Job in Iraq’

Published Aug. 5, 2007 by Colorado Springs Gazette.

Curtis Gales adheres to the Hippocratic oath to treat the sick or wounded, whoever they may be.

He’s followed it not just in treating the underprivileged of Colorado Springs but also for injured coalition troops, Iraqi civilians and more than 2,000 assumed terrorists in the infamous Abu Ghraib prison.

From June 2005 to June 2006, the eye doctor learned rudimentary Arabic, slept in a prison cell, worked in an old tire factory and looked squarely into the eyes of men whose religious convictions called them to kill him.

“Some of them, you could tell, they hated you,” Gales said. “That was just their basis for being there. You were in full protective gear wherever you went because not only did you have the enemy on the outside but we had 5,000 of them inside with us.”

Gales served with the 344th Combat Support Hospital at Abu Ghraib, among some of the last U.S. soldiers to run the prison before it was transferred back to Iraqi control in October.

At that time, Abu Ghraib was one of two central processing hubs in Iraq for people considered insurgents or terrorists. Detainees made up the majority of his patients, which is why Gales said it was considered “the worst medical job in Iraq” by military doctors.

As an Army doctor in the 1990s, Gales deployed to places like Bosnia and Korea. After switching to inactive duty, he got married, settled in Colorado Springs and began working at his current practice, Executive Park Eye Care, where his volunteerism sprouted. He recently received a national People First award from VSP Vision Care for his humanitarian works.

He’d fulfilled his eight years of active and inactive duty, even going through the resignation process twice.

“At that stage in the game it didn’t go through,” he said, and in April 2005, three months after the birth of his first child, he got “the call.”

While active-duty soldiers are typically informed months in advance where and when they will deploy, Gales was surprised to hear he was expected to ship out for training at Fort McCoy, Wis., the next week. He struck a deal to show up a few days later than that. He was also surprised to learn that such a high-profile job at Abu Ghraib was given to a reserve unit.

The training, he said, was intense.

“They had mock mortar attacks, mock rocket attacks, where they would have explosions going everywhere and everybody had to react,” he said.

A mock guard perimeter was set up outside a simulated Abu Ghraib where civilians and detainees spoke Arabic. The Muslim call to prayer was blasted from a pickup five times a day. In the simulated environment, riots raged on both sides of prison walls during the nearly three months of training.

“We had nutrition technicians or dental technicians or optometry technicians who had to cross-train to be gunners for convoys and they did very well with it,” he said.

Once inside the Sunni triangle, they treated a variety of people — lawyers, doctors and contractors, along with insurgents from Sudan and Syria.

“That was probably one of the hardest things as a mission that you had to perform in Iraq was to take care of the people that were trying to hurt your fellow soldiers,” he said. “We took care of the worst of the worst and then we also took care of people who were in the wrong place at the wrong time that were just picked up on suspicion.”

Detainees were terrified at first, he said, but after a while they came to understand they wouldn’t be tortured. They knew two legacies of torture and mistreatment: one by Americans and one of the atrocities seen during Saddam Hussein’s time in power. In April 2004, allegations and images of torture by U.S. Army officials began to surface from the prison.

Among the several humiliating acts portrayed in photos were naked men forced into piles of other naked men and a man on top of a box cloaked in black with electrodes strapped to his body.

Before that had come decades of mutilation from Saddam’s Baath regime, with the prison one of its chief torture chambers.

Exact statistics are nearly impossible to find, but Amnesty International reports more than 150 people, most of whom were members of opposition groups, were executed in a two-day period in January 1995 and hundreds more the following year.

Not all of the detainees were committed insurgents.

Some, he said, “would actually get paid to fire mortars at coalition soldiers or set roadside bombs to injure coalition forces … “In that situation when you don’t have a job, you don’t have an income, who’s to say what you would do to feed your family? Not all these guys are in there because they hate Americans or they hate democracy. They were just, you know, there by circumstance. Now obviously there were a lot of them there that were there for a specific reason and thank goodness we had them in custody. I think any time you can get to know another culture and you really get to know ’em and understand what they’re all about, then you know that not every single Muslim thinks this way.”

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