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Saving Iraqi baby a new mission for U.S. troops

Georgia National Guard to bring baby Noor to U.S. for surgery
U.S. National Guard troops are arranging to bring Noor to Georgia for life-saving surgery.



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Atlanta (Georgia)

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- When troops from the Georgia National Guard raided a Baghdad home in early December, they had no idea that their mission in Iraq would take a different turn.

As the young parents of an infant girl nervously watched the soldiers search their modest home, the baby's unflinching grandmother thrust the little girl at the Americans, showing them the purple pouch protruding from her back.

Little Noor, barely three months old, was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal column fails to completely close. Iraqi doctors had told her parents she would live only 45 days. (Watch U.S. troops make saving a baby girl their mission -- 2:11)

But she was tenaciously clinging to life, and the soldiers in the home -- many of them fathers themselves -- were moved.

"Well, I saw this child as the firstborn child of the young mother and father and really, all I could think of was my five children back at home and my young daughter," Lt. Jeff Morgan told CNN from Baghdad. "And I knew if I had the opportunity whatsoever to save my daughter's life I would do everything possible.

"So my heart just kind of went out to this baby and these parents who ... were living in poverty and had no means to help their baby. I thought we could do that for them," he added.

So Morgan and his fellow soldiers began working to get Noor the help she needs.

"We ... collectively decided this is going to be our project," said Sgt. Michael Sonen. "If this is the only contribution we have to defeating the war on terrorism, this is going to be it."

The soldiers brought Noor to a U.S. military base for medical examinations and got friends and charities in the United States to help get her the surgery that could save her life.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia and his office are working to speed up the process of getting a visa for Noor's grandmother, who will accompany her to Atlanta.

Dr. Roger Hudgins, the chief of neurosurgery at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, has promised to perform the delicate operation for free.

The doctor told CNN the surgery needs to take place soon.

"We need to get the back closed," Hudgins said. "The concern here is meningitis. If the baby gets an infection on the back, that infection can spread to the coverings all over the brain and the baby may die, so time is of the essence."

Spina bifida, often called open spine, is a birth defect that occurs during the first month of pregnancy when the spinal column fails to close completely.

It affects the backbone and sometimes the spinal cord itself, often causing permanently disabling defects, particularly neurological damage.

It is the most common such birth defect -- known as neural tube defects -- and affects about 1,500 to 2,000 babies born in the United States each year, according to the March of Dimes.

Some 70,000 people in the United States are living with spina bifida, according to the Spina Bifida Association.

There are three types of spina bifida. Baby Noor has the most severe type, in which the spinal cord's protective covering and the spinal nerves come through the opening in the spine.

The neurological damage that can come from this type includes full or partial paralysis, bladder and bowel control difficulties, learning disabilities and depression.

Sonen said Noor already has lost feeling in her feet.

Recent studies have shown that folic acid, taken before pregnancy and during the first trimester, can reduce the incidence of spina bifida.

Dr. Hudgins said that while the surgery will probably help baby Noor, there's no guarantee that it will cure her of her condition.

"Our hope and expectation ... is that we can get the child through the surgery and save the life, then we can work on the quality of life," he said.

Back in Baghdad, the news that Noor's journey may happen soon is heartening for both her family and the soldiers who have become involved.

"This just gives ... the courageous men of Charlie Company, it gives them a focal point outside of the normal day-to-day routine of trying to catch the insurgency," Morgan said. "It gives them something even more positive to focus on."

The lieutenant said that while his unit's main mission is to put down the insurgency in Iraq, it is also trying to help the country's citizens.

"We are also here to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. To show them that we are a just people, not only by helping them establish a constitution but helping them with their problems that they cannot handle," Morgan explained. "This little girl epitomizes the efforts of us to do that."

But for all of their help, the soldiers realize they're also possibly endangering the little girl and her family.

"We are always concerned that talking to anybody longer than a normal conversation will put them in danger," said Sgt. Archer Ford.

"We did a lot of things to protect the identity of these people," Morgan said.

"We visited them when we could, which was usually in the middle of the night, as covertly as possible," he added. "Because the insurgents in Iraq like to find people that we're trying to help sometimes and either terrorize them or sometimes worse."

CNN Producer Arwa Damon and Correspondent Aneesh Raman contributed to this report.

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