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'Devil Docs' operate on friend and foe

In field operating room, wounds matter more than sides

The "Devil Docs" work on a wounded soldier.

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SOUTHERN IRAQ (CNN) -- Early Monday, somewhere in the southern desert of Iraq, the "Devil Docs" of the U.S. Navy performed surgery on an Iraqi soldier's abdomen.

In this mobile operating room -- a tent that can be set up or torn down in less than an hour -- it's not unusual for these doctors -- Navy personnel who work for the Marines Corps -- to perform surgery on their enemy.

The most badly wounded fighters from the front lines are treated first, regardless of whether they are friend or foe.

"It's a medical decision based on the patient's physiology and the wound," said Capt. John Percibelli, the chief surgeon. "That's how we decide who goes first."

Percibelli looks more like a desert fighter than a doctor, dressed in military fatigues underneath his medical uniform.

Monday was the first time the Frontline Resuscitative Surgical Suite has been used, and doctors began treating some of the first patients coming from the front line.

In FRSS 4, the Devil Docs operated on the Iraqi soldier, who had suffered a gunshot wound to the abdomen. The bullet entered the left part of the man's back and exited through the right side, tearing holes in his intestine.

The surgeons repaired the man's wounds, sewed him up and wheeled him out to recover.

Conditions in the desert are far from sanitary, especially because the operations are performed in temporary facilities. The doctors lay down a floor on the sandy ground, and the tent has double layers to keep out the dust. Two zippers seal the door.

"We're under pretty austere circumstances here," Percibelli said. "We have to really pick and choose those critically injured patients that have to be taken care of now."

Another complication is the limited blood supply.

Still, the surgeons have the standard tools, including a scrub sink, complete surgical uniforms, antibiotics, and an on-site anesthesiologist. They can perform as many as 18 operations a day.

After surgery, each patient receives an individualized recovery plan that might mean helicopter transport to the USNS Comfort, a hospital ship, or a hospital in Kuwait.

All else being equal, the FRSS rivals any large trauma center in the United States.

The medical tent is mobile and is likely to move north along with coalition forces as they push toward Baghdad.

-- CNN medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was written in accordance with Pentagon ground rules allowing so-called embedded reporting, in which journalists join deployed troops. Among the rules accepted by all participating news organizations is an agreement not to disclose sensitive operational details.

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