From the window of the shabby room where he had spent almost every day of the past seven months, Kadaam Hassoun could see the U.S. Army’s combat support hospital only a few hundred meters away. Over time, the sight of the hospital had become more than just scenery to Hassoun.
It had become the symbol of frustration.
Hassoun, 45, had not been able to walk unassisted since being surgically affixed with a heavy brace after breaking his leg last summer. The brace was supposed to come off after a few months, but Hassoun couldn’t find a doctor willing to remove it. His leg shriveled as months kept passing and the brace remained on. Things were beginning to seem hopeless. But then he met the paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“He just seemed like he needed help and wasn’t getting it, so we decided to do something,” said Sgt. 1st Class Fredrick Garnett, a platoon sergeant with Company A, 3rd Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, who was one of the first paratroopers to meet the man.
Thanks to the persistence and effort of Garnett and his fellow paratroopers from the 82nd, Hassoun underwent a surgical procedure Jan. 16 to have his brace removed and is now on the road to recovery.
It has been a long road. In the summer of 2004, Hassoun was working as a laborer in Baghdad’s International Zone when disaster struck. A heavy iron gate collapsed on his right leg, causing a horrific fracture. Army doctors treated him and inserted five-inch long screws into his leg to set the bone. The screws were held in place by an enormous steel brace called an external fixator device.
Doctors told Hassoun that the bone would heal in about three months, and then it could be removed. That’s when the trouble really started. Army Combat Support Hospitals are designed to provide emergency treatment, not follow up care. As a result, the CSH wasn’t able to help Hassoun when it came time to take the screws out. He also sought treatment at different Iraqi clinics and hospitals, but was turned away for various reasons.
Unable to work or move around freely, Hassoun could only watch while his wife worked multiple jobs to support their five children. As three months turned into seven, he became a virtual shut-in. Parents often had him watch their children while they worked. Over time, his apartment became something of a neighborhood day-care center. That’s where Garnett found him.
“He was just this guy surrounded by kids,” he said.
Garnett’s platoon had been patrolling the area Hassoun lives in as part of routine security operations. A man came up and told them Hassoun’s story, and they decided to investigate, Garnett said.
When they saw the condition Hassoun was in and heard his story, the paratroopers decided to take action. They took him first to the CSH and then a local clinic, but were told neither place could treat him. As good paratroopers, however, they were determined to complete the mission they had started.
“A lot of problems in this area can be solved with just a little bit of effort,” said Sgt. Jason Lackey, a paratrooper with A Co.
Lackey brought Hassoun to the attention of Maj. John Bride, the battalion surgeon. Bride, too, wanted to help.
“I thought, there’s got to be something we can do,” Bride said.
Bride thought he could do the operation himself in the battalion aid station if he just had the right tools. The piece of equipment he needed was a special device to remove the screws in Hassoun’s leg.
“It’s basically a $1,500 wrench,” said Lt. Brian Savage, the battalion physician’s assistant.
Bride contacted Maj. Jeffrey Kazaglis, an orthopedic surgeon at the CSH who had access to the equipment. Kazaglis agreed to loan out his tools to the 82nd for a day so the operation could take place. Everything was set.
It was late in the afternoon Jan. 16 when Garnett and Lackey arrived at the battalion aid station with Hassoun in the back of their Humvee. They each took an arm and helped him navigate his way into the aid station. Inside, Bride and Savage helped Hassoun get up on the operating table.
When Hassoun was comfortable, Savage began twisting the long screws out of Hassoun’s femur with his “wrench.”
During the procedure, Hassoun never made a sound. He stoically endured the pain, only clenching his fists and letting out a small sigh when the last screw came out. It took less than half an hour to get every screw out.
When it was all done, the paratroopers tried to help Hassoun back to the vehicle, but he was determined to walk on his own. Supporting himself on his crutches, he took wobbly step after wobbly step until he reached the Humvee. Though he was still weak, he flashed a grin and a’ thumbs up.’
“Now, God willing, I will walk again,” he said.