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Perry: Doctors in Iraq weather emotional toll

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CNN Baghdad bureau director Cal Perry

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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Baghdad bureau director Cal Perry and correspondent Ryan Chilcote recently followed the surgeons of the Army's 10th Combat Support Hospital as they fought to save lives in the chaotic aftermath of combat.

Perry on Wednesday spoke to CNN's Kyra Phillips about the experience.

PHILLIPS: I think that's the first time we've ever seen a piece like that. Very emotional, not only for the soldiers, but the doctors. This must be an unbelievable training ground in many ways, dealing with situations they've never seen before when it comes to operating and the type of wounds they're seeing. (Full story)

PERRY: It is. As you said, ... it's things that no doctors in the world are seeing. It's certainly things that doctors in the United States are not seeing.

These doctors, they see blast wounds. They see soldiers that are coming in, their legs are literally blown off. And they're faced with sort of an emotional challenge that no other doctor really is faced with. (Watch the life and death drama the doctors face -- 3:33)

The day that we were there, a soldier died in the room. And in the very same room, doctors were saving [another soldier's] life. And to see doctors as they're pronouncing a soldier dead, one of their countrymen, to then turn and have to treat another soldier and save his life, it's an incredible thing to be able to do.

And they do it every day, seven days a week. They do it every single day of the year because they have to. They talk about sitting on the roof, trying to get a moment to themselves. And a chopper comes into the LZ, and they know. They know that it's going to be a very seriously wounded individual, but they never know what they're going to see. And it's certainly something very difficult to deal with.

PHILLIPS: When you say they never really know what they're going to see, I'm thinking about the injuries, but what about the patients? Has there ever been a weird moment where [the doctors are] working, maybe, on a couple U.S. soldiers and then maybe the Iraqi target comes in, the enemy, and they have to work on that individual's life, as well?

PERRY: Well, absolutely. As you've said, these -- these doctors, they're doctors first, and they're soldiers second. And they'll tell you that. They do treat insurgents. And it's something that they have to do and that they do do on a daily basis.

[Lt. Col. Bob] Mazur is somebody we profiled in the piece. He's an incredible man. And I could really tell. He told me a story of the Australian soldier who was killed. He died of a bullet wound to the head. And Dr. Mazur was the one who treated him.

And he tells this story about the countrymen of the Australian soldiers gathering around as it becomes clear there's nothing he can really do for him. They pulled an Australian flag sort of over his chest. He had a little koala bear on him, and he died right there in front of them.

An hour later, Mazur is treating an insurgent with a very similar wound. And he told me this story. He sort of paused, and he was obviously very emotional about it. And he said, you know, "I'm not God and I can't play God."

But you can tell it really does take a toll on these doctors. But as I said, every day, they have to get back after it.

PHILLIPS: Do they work on Iraqi soldiers as well, the ones that are working with U.S. troops to try to take down the insurgents?

PERRY: They do, and translators, as well. They see the entire gamut of the war. And that's something that I found very fascinating about this hospital, is they see the war up close and personal every day because it arrives at their front door. So on any given day, they're treating a translator, an Iraqi soldier or an insurgent, and they have to treat everybody equally. They are doctors first. They said this over and over again. They really wanted to impress this point.

But again, when they see a U.S. soldier come in, you can tell it really hits home, and it's something that they have to do. And it just -- it's a very difficult thing, but they do it every day.

And ... 17,500 wounded U.S. soldiers is an incredible amount of wounded U.S. soldiers, but they're saving lives. These are soldiers that would have died in Vietnam. The one [in] Ryan Chilcote's piece that we profiled, that's a soldier that, we were told, would have bled out in Vietnam, probably would not have lived.

PHILLIPS: Wow. They've come a long way with regard to operational procedures. ... You told me, even through your personal pictures, you were very touched by Dr. Mazur. Tell me more about him and why he left such an impact on you.

PERRY: He's an incredible man. And ... he understands, as difficult as it is, and the horrible things that he sees, this is something that he's never going to forget for the rest of his life.

And it's an incredible training ground, as you said. I mean, these are the doctors that are going to go home and they're going to save lives of people in car crashes that probably would not have survived, because they'll have that training. They're seeing injuries that are really, on the one hand, horrific but they're learning.

And the staffs are incredible: 18-year-old medics who are doing things out here in Iraq that they wouldn't be doing in the U.S., because they see it on an everyday basis. Five guys come in wounded at a time, and they have to pitch in and help out. And they do, and they do an incredible job.

PHILLIPS: Final question, anything that really sticks out in your mind that you'll just never forget? I mean, you cover a lot of stories in Iraq. This was the first time you guys had a chance, really, to spend a couple of days in a situation like this. Quite a reality check. Is there anything that stands out specifically?

PERRY: Yes, the emotional strength of everybody involved, of the helicopter medic that's providing CPR care on a soldier that probably has no chance to live. But for 30 minutes that medic is going to give it every shot that he has, just in the chance of a miracle.

The young doctors that every day [are] pronouncing somebody dead on one side of the room. Then they have to turn around, that very moment, and they have to treat another U.S. soldier, and they saved his life.

The emotional strength that it takes on a daily basis, when you're seeing those kinds of wounds, to emotionally be able to cope with it, get by and move on to the next day is really something that I'll never forget.

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