It seemed like the start of a normal day of duty in Ramadi, Iraq. U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Candice Gerber woke up at her regular time, worked out at the gym, then walked over to the base hospital where she worked as a medic. What awaited her on the other side of the door came as a complete shock.
"I walked in, and there was just bodies everywhere," said Gerber, a 29-year-old native of South Philadelphia, who discussed her yearlong deployment in Iraq during a recent interview.
She described the nightmarish scene: Iraqis, suffering from missing limbs and deep wounds, bled profusely, while crying out for help in Arabic. With all beds occupied at the hospital unit, Gerber and a team of other medics treated patients wherever they could — even on the rocky terrain outside the hospital compound.
Gerber was stunned by the scene because she had not yet received word that a suicide bomber had blown himself up during a recruitment drive at an Iraqi police-training facility earlier that day. The Jan. 5 attack killed 50 people, according to The New York Times. Many wounded Iraqis had come to the American military base for treatment.
"I must have treated 100 patients that day," said Gerber, who worked for 15 hours straight, casting broken legs, removing shrapnel and trying to save people's extremities.
While she has sympathy for a wounded or dying Iraqi, treating American soldiers elicited much more emotion.
"You don't have the same feelings when your treating Iraqis as when you're treating your fellow soldiers," she said, noting that she could never be sure who was an enemy and who was not.
'I Wanted to Help Fix Soldiers'
Gerber enlisted in the military after taking a break from studying for a nursing degree at Moravian College in Bethlehem. The Central High School graduate saw military service as an opportunity to help save lives.
"I wanted to go over there, and help fix soldiers and send them home to their husbands, wives and kids," said Gerber, who was deployed to Iraq in July of 2005 and returned home this past June.
During her first couple of weeks in Iraq, Gerber slept in a large tent with more than 100 other females, all living out of their duffel bags while they waited for soldiers leaving the country to finish out their final days and free up some living space. She soon settled into a four-person barrack that had a modest air-conditioner, which was lucky since the heat sometimes hit 130 degrees.
At the medical facility, Gerber and her team treated anything from sprains and breaks to gunshot wounds and bomb victims. While providing care for American soldiers was first and foremost in her mind, the team did treat Iraqis, and even captured insurgents. If a patient needed further care or a hospital stay, he or she were evacuated by helicopter to other facilities in Baghdad or Balad. Insurgents were transported to military jails.
While being proud of her Judaism, Gerber requested to keep her religion off of her dog tags — for fear of being captured.
"I'm sure I would've been killed," she said. "They kill everyone for the most part anyway, but it definitely wouldn't have helped me any."
When Chanukah rolled around, Gerber and another female soldier lit a menorah. Since her friend couldn't remember the prayers, Gerber helped her through them — then they treated themselves to some matzah-ball soup and Jewish apple cake sent from home.
Along with work at the medical unit, Gerber was able to tag along on missions, acting as a medic for units on the front line — a duty she almost always requested. During one mission, she found herself in a vehicle in the back of a long convoy when, suddenly, insurgents launched a rocket-propelled grenade toward her vehicle.
"I don't know if it just landed short or what happened, but one landed 10 feet from our vehicle," she said. "It was the closest I came to losing my life."
Gerber also recalled the first time she had to tend to a "double amputee" — a soldier who lost both legs following a bomb blast.
"His face was so silver, he was in shock and lost so much blood," she said. "I didn't know where to pick him up from."
Remarkably, Gerber did not support the war before her deployment, but still decided to enlist.
"My wanting to go was because no matter why we were there, there are still soldiers and Marines and Navy and Air Force that are over there being injured," she said. "If I can save one person's life, then there's a reason for me to go over there."
Even after seeing the battlefield firsthand, her opinions on the war still have not changed: "I really don't think there's a need for us to be there."
"I've probably seen enough deaths and enough bad stuff to last me a lifetime," she continued. "It's more than anyone should ever see."
Gerber noted that many Iraqis support the American cause, but are afraid to speak out or act for fear of being killed. She recalls two Iraqi women who applied to wash laundry on an American base; both were then murdered by insurgents. Gerber believes that most ordinary citizens wish to create a free society, but the reprisals from other Iraqis serve as a powerful deterrent.
She noted that many Iraqis don't want the lives that they have, but acting any differently can result in what's all too common over there: death.