Q&A with Chris Coppola, MD

A pediatric surgeon twice deployed to Iraq is forever haunted by the images of war, injury and death


Excerpt from Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq

Dr. Chris Coppola, a United States Air Force pediatric surgeon twice deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, expected to care for combat soldiers, but ended up also treating horribly injured Iraqi children, who arrived at Balad Air Base by the dozens. Although the memories of what he saw could not be erased from his mind, he sought release by writing letters to family and friends describing the people and events he witnessed. His letters have been stylized into a New York Times acclaimed memoir: Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq, published by Chicago-based NTI Upstream. Dr. Coppola can be contacted at ccoppola@pol.net.

Your book is based on letters written during your first deployment in 2005. At the time, did you ever think they would become a book?

I wrote the letters as a way to settle my mind and deal with my insomnia, and as a way of reaching out to touch the people I loved back home. About halfway through the deployment, when people were forwarding the letters on to friends to keep the story circulated, I began to hear, "You should make a book out of this." When I went back for the second deployment, I kept a blog so people could see the letters without me having to email them, and that became the final product covering the whole experience. This was a self-published benefit--a fund-raiser for Fisher House, the Ronald McDonald House equivalent for military families.

Did you have previous writing experience?

I've always enjoyed writing letters when I travel to keep in touch with people back home, but they were the typical tourist things like, "We saw an old church today." This was the first time I'd had something so shocking and vibrant going on around me all the time, so even though I wasn't an experienced writer, the events were so compelling all I had to do was relate it. The story essentially wrote itself. It's probably apparent in some chapters that it's a stream of consciousness from a very tired man trying to get something straight in his mind.

Were there any restrictions on what you wrote? Did you need permission from your superiors?

I didn't ask any permission, but, from the very start, I attempted to censor myself for two reasons. One was for mission safety and operational security--to make sure I never wrote down something that would give the enemy critical information. The other reason is, as a physician, part of my duty is to keep private the suffering and illnesses of the people I care for. I tried to carefully disguise names and conditions because, not only was it not fair to share things I learned at a patient's bedside, but also because the Iraqi civilians who were treated at our hospital were often targeted by the insurgents for being in some way collaborators by coming to get emergency care for their injuries. There was a time when my superiors were critical because I wasn't having my letters reviewed, and from that point on, whenever I sent out a letter I would forward a copy to our hospital commander.

You went to Iraq as a pediatric surgeon. Did you ever think you would see so many children, or did you just expect to treat adults?

I thought I was going to be a combat-support surgeon taking care of American soldiers. I had no anticipation of taking care of children, which was a very ridiculous and naïve point of view. My very first patient was a child. It was always very troubling and shocking for me to have a child die in my care. I lost more children during my 4-month deployment than I had in 5 years of treating children before that. One nice thing about being a pediatric surgeon in the U.S. is that my patients are mostly tough, hardy little kids. There are illnesses like cancer that we can't do anything about, but it's rare when we can't save a child who survives long enough to make it to the hospital. In Iraq, I was seeing child after child suffering multiple serious injuries across all their body parts. In a war time setting, many of these children had been displaced from their homes, so they were malnourished and some had chronic infections, so they were receiving serious injuries at a time when they were already weak. The greater number of children I saw die was because of the nature of those war wounds.

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