Truckee nurse returns from Iraq detail
August 10, 2004
TRUCKEE – Russ Mann had never been in an army mess hall like this.
With marble floors, a domed ceiling and crystal chandeliers 40 feet in diameter, Mann waited for his lunch in a place he never expected he would be: one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq.
“It reminded me of a casino, in that there was a lot of surface glitz,” says Mann, a 59-year-old registered nurse in Truckee’s Tahoe Forest Hospital emergency room. “It was apparent that Saddam as an individual was the single biggest item in his government’s budget.”
Mann spent only a brief period of time under the former ruler’s ornate ceilings. Mann passed most of his days in Iraq providing medical assistance to people near the dusty Iraqi village of An Numaniyah.
Just days after his return, Mann talked about his experience on a military base near An Numaniyah, about 47 miles southeast of Baghdad. He was still re-adjusting to life in the United States. In Iraq, he was constantly on guard and on edge due to the constant threat of violence in the area.
“I’m gradually becoming less alert and more comfortable,” he said. “It’s sort of like coming back from Vietnam.”
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Mann’s 27-year career in the Army and the Army reserves took him around the globe from Vietnam to Thailand and Nepal to his last international stint in Honduras in 1986.
In March, Mann heard about an opportunity at a construction site in Iraq from an old military connection.
“It’s a chance to re-calibrate my sense of what’s important in life,” Mann said. “We lead a very privileged existence in the United States. I occasionally need to remind myself of that. We take things like food, water and shelter for granted, so it gives me a greater appreciation for life. It’s just emotionally refreshing.”
The isolated military base near An Numaniyah provided the perfect setting for Mann to re-tune his priorities. The village housed a military base constructed by a Yugoslavian construction company in the late 1980s. During the war, locals stripped the buildings of “anything that could be torn loose,” leaving empty shells behind, Mann said. Recently, the United States contracted with Environmental Chemical Corporation to improve the base’s 75Ð100 buildings for the new Iraqi Army.
In e-mails home to friends and family, Mann describes the base, the oppressively hot desert, the sparse landscape and making do with the medical resources available in the region.
“You gain an appreciation for how good American medicine is,” he said. “I’ve heard people here complain about their doctors – at least they have one.”
In his few months working with patients, Mann saw snippets of Iraqi culture and the local illnesses. He saw patients with everything from the serious – parasitic diseases and nerve disorders – to the mundane – coughs and diarrhea.
Several Iraqi men visited Mann’s clinic complaining of negligible problems.
“Most of my interruptions have been Iraqis who have nothing wrong, but want to see an American ‘doctor,’ ” Mann wrote in an e-mail on June 4. “I’ve discovered that the Iraqi men are incredibly vain. They come to me with complaints of various spots, bumps and hair loss I can barely see.”
For Mann, the construction project also put into perspective America’s role in Iraq. He said the media’s view on the current situation in Iraq is slanted. There is a lot of violence, he said, but there’s also money going into construction of power-generation facilities, schools, hospitals and roads.
“I certainly don’t mean to infer that (Iraq) is a tourist Mecca or a safe place to go, but it certainly isn’t the quagmire the media would lead you to believe,” Mann said.
Mann said he will slowly forget how it felt to be in a war-torn country as he re-adjusts to life in Truckee. He returned to work in the Tahoe Forest Hospital emergency room last week, and he doesn’t have plans for another international undertaking just yet.
“I’m just going to buckle down and go back to work,” he said.