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Baghdad ER: Documentary On US Military Hospital in Iraq Gets Cold Reception From Army

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A new documentary film on the emergency room of a US military hospital in Iraq is being met with resistance by the US Army. The film “Baghdad ER”, which airs Sunday on HBO, chronicles life in the emergency room of the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone during a two-month period last year. The Army surgeon general has warned military-personnel it could cause post-traumatic stress disorder, while the Secretary of the Army asked HBO to delete some footage from the final cut. We play excerpts of the film, and speak to the film’s directors, as well as a military doctor depicted in the film, and a mother of a soldier whose death is chronicled on screen. [includes rush transcript]

The Army surgeon general has issued an unusual warning about an upcoming film that airs this Sunday on HBO. In a memo to military personnel, Lieutenant General Kevin Kiley writes that watching the documentary could result in symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks or nightmares. The film “Baghdad ER” chronicles life in the emergency room of the 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad’s Green Zone during a two-month period last year. It examines the daily lives of doctors, nurses, chaplains and soldiers who work at one of the busiest hospitals in Iraq.

“Baghdad ER” was screened on Monday night at the National Museum of American History and is scheduled to be shown at 22 military installations around the country. But it has already caused controversy because of it’s graphic footage of soldiers reeling from, and in some cases dying, from their war wounds. HBO screened the film in March for Senior Army officials including Undersecretary of the Army Pete Green. HBO’s executive Vice President Richard Pleper said the film received an enthusiastic response.

But then last week, the Army suddenly seemed to withdraw support for the film. HBO’s offer to co-sponsor a screening of the film this week at Fort Campbell, Kentucky where the 86th is based- was turned down by the Pentagon. And last week the Army suddenly declined to attend Monday’s screening.

In addition, none of the highest ranking officers or senior medical personnel attended the screening. After the screening, Shelia Nevins, President of HBO’s documentary unit, told the Washington Post, “Maybe people at the Pentagon feel the truth will discourage people from backing the war. The film certainly tells you what could happen in a war, but it’s also about the heroism, courage and dedication of our troops.”

  • Jon Alpert, award-winning filmmaker and founder of Downtown Community Television. Produced and Directed “Baghdad ER” which airs on HBO on Sunday, May 21st.
  • Matthew O’Neill, a producer at Downtown Community Television. He Produced and Directed “Baghdad ER” which airs on HBO on Sunday, May 21st.
  • Dr. James Hill, flight surgeon in aviation medicine at Fort Rucker in Alabama. He spent a year as an emergency medical physician in the Combat Support Hospital in Baghadad.
  • Paula Zwillinger, her son, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Robert Mininger was killed in Iraq on June 6, 2005. He was 21 years old.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is an excerpt of Baghdad ER

ARMY SURGEON: What all do we have to do to save his arm? What are our options?

ARMY SURGEON: It doesn’t look good.

ARMY SURGEON: He’s just got a massive injury to his arm. He’s going to lose it.

ARMY SURGEON: Hey, can you grab me an amputation set? Thanks, John.


ARMY SURGEON: Alright, let’s get this thing off.

MAJ. MARTIN HARNISH: This war and the number of lives it’s affecting is just unbelievable. I have to think that the people in this country are in a better place for it or will be in a better place for it. I have to believe that, because otherwise, this is just sheer madness.

AMY GOODMAN: That was an excerpt of the film, Baghdad ER, which will be shown on HBO this Sunday. We’re joined now by the filmmakers who produced and directed the film: our colleagues Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill, both award-winning filmmakers here at Downtown Community Television. Between them, they’ve won 14 national and local Emmy Awards. We’re also joined from Alabama by Dr. James Hill, the flight surgeon in aviation medicine at Fort Rucker in Alabama. Dr. Hill spent a year as an emergency medical physician in the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. And on the phone with us is Paula Zwillinger. Her son Marine Lance Corporal Robert Mininger was killed in Iraq on June 6, 2005, 21 years old. We welcome you all to Democracy Now! We’re going to begin with Jon Alpert. Jon, tell us about the mission you went on to Baghdad, you and Matt O’Neill.

JON ALPERT: We spent two months in the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad. It’s the main Army hospital, the most sophisticated facility that we have in Iraq. And when you’re wounded and your life is on the line, that’s where you’re taken. And the Army gave us complete access. We were embedded, and I was really quite surprised when we got there that the army completely facilitated our access to the facility. They’re extraordinarily proud of this facility. I’ve never seen doctors so dedicated. I’ve never seen miracles like this, and I’ve never seen horrors like this before.

AMY GOODMAN: Matt O’Neill, what most stands out for you as you were embedded in this unit in the emergency room?

MATTHEW O’NEILL: For me, it’s the relentless pace that the doctors are working under day after day. I mean, we spent two months there, and we came out exhausted and rattled by what we saw. And the doctors who were there, like Dr. Hill, were there for a year, and spending 12 months under those conditions working the enormously hard shifts that they worked is unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Dr. Hill in Alabama. Your response to this film, Baghdad ER? Do you feel it captures what you went through, spending a year in the emergency medical unit at Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad?

DR. JAMES HILL: Well, I don’t think there’s any film that can capture a whole year’s worth of footage within an hour, but I definitely think that Jon Alpert and Matt O’Neill hit a home run with this production. It was sensational. It gave me flashbacks, and I’m a person who was trained at one of the best trauma centers in the country down in Miami. And I thought I saw everything before I went to Baghdad. And within six hours, the facility showed me that I just saw the beginning, the tip of the iceberg, and after a year, I did feel like I was beat down, I mean, just run over.

AMY GOODMAN: What was hardest for you, Dr. Hill?

DR. JAMES HILL: The hardest thing for me, and I believe it was for all the medical providers, was the difficulty in taking care of so many soldiers and at the same time having to take care of the Iraqi people that actually injured them. They’ll be in one bed, the Iraqi person that shot four or five soldiers, and three of those soldiers may have died, and we still had to deal with our personal feelings and the medical ethics of taking care of that individual, so they can stand trial. So, we have a very big test of our morality of saving these people that want to hurt us, that are definitely against us, and then also taking care of our American heroes.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to another clip of the HBO documentary that’s going to air Sunday called Baghdad ER.

MAJ. AL WEED: So this guy’s obviously been shot in several places. He’s got some fractures, and we’re just looking at his films here. He’s got a lot of shrapnel in his legs and stuff.

ARMY MEDICAL PERSONNEL: Man, it’s a rubber knee.

ARMY MEDICAL PERSONNEL: You should feel it. Very unstable fracture. He’ll probably end up losing that limb.

MAJ. AL WEED: These guys have injuries all over the place, and so you have to prioritize which injuries take precedence. Life over limb.

ARMY SURGEON: I’m just a good West Texas boy, and back in West Texas, we thought we were seeing some stuff, but out here it’s all — whole ’nother ball game.

AMY GOODMAN: Another excerpt of Baghdad ER. So, Jon Alpert, what happened? You were embedded. You had the full support of the unit and the Army. They knew you were there, obviously. I mean, the images of just the two of you with your cameras right in there in the surgeries. What happened?

JON ALPERT: What happened in terms of the latest reaction to this?

AMY GOODMAN: The support, and then now as this film is coming out, the Army pulling back.

JON ALPERT: The support from the people who were there on the ground, the people in the hospital, the people who every single day are there saving American lives has not wavered at all. Everybody that we’ve spoken to feels honored by this film, is proud that they’re part of it, and they want everybody in the United States to see it. It’s been universal. There are people in some offices in the Pentagon that have had objections to this, but it’s certainly not anybody who is in Iraq helping to keep Americans alive.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, what about the top brass? What happened? They originally did support what you’re doing, and then at the Washington screening, where many of them were going to be — can you talk about the memos? Can you talk about what has turned around?

JON ALPERT: There certainly was an attempt at one point from the Secretary of the Army to see if HBO would change this film or alter it, and a phone call was made, and this is very sensitive. All these large media organizations are affected by Congressional legislation. There is a bill going through Congress that you’ve been talking about on your show that has certain language in it.

It’s billions of dollars for Time Warner one way and billions the other way if the language is changed, and when somebody makes a phone call, it’s intimidating. And to HBO’S credit — you know, I’ve been in this situation before in the first Gulf War. Our reports came back, and the news organizations wouldn’t play it. And HBO basically looked back and said, “You know, this is the truth, and it’s going on the air.” And I’m really proud to be associated with HBO on this, because they didn’t buckle.

AMY GOODMAN: The call that was made, the Secretary of the Army called the president of HBO?

JON ALPERT: Not president. He called a vice president of HBO?

AMY GOODMAN: Who was it?

JON ALPERT: I don’t know. I’m not privy to the conversation, but I do know that he wondered whether certain things in the program could be changed, and HBO said, “Hell, no.”

MATTHEW O’NEILL: I think it’s important to understand that every person that wears a uniform that’s spoken to us, including the top people in the Army, the Chief of Staff of the Army, have nothing but respect for this film, and they’ve told us directly that they think that it accurately captures the truth of what’s happening over there and the heroic efforts that the soldiers, the doctor soldiers are making every day in Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Hill, why do you think this film has become so controversial, if it simply captures what you did on a daily basis in the Baghdad ER?

DR. JAMES HILL: That’s a really difficult question to answer. I’m more of a medical professional, emergency medicine physician, if you would. What we did there was just to save as many people as we possibly could. Our commander took care of the logistics. I took care of the medical expertise, as well as Dr. Pembrey, who you’ll see in the movie, and as well as many other doctors that were there every single day just getting bloody and doing what we do.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn now to another clip from Baghdad ER that Major Hill is in, as well.

ARMY CHAPLAIN: Lord, you brought him to us. We tried everything we could to save his life. But it was not our — not up to us. Lord, we pray that his life and even his death might be used to hasten peace and end this terrible war.

DR. JAMES HILL: Another crummy day in Baghdad.

ARMY SURGEON: Very young, very young. P.F.C. hasn’t been in very long, and the specialist could have been in a few years, but could have come in as a specialist. A lot of young kids over here getting hurt.

AMY GOODMAN: Major Hill, you were there as the person is dying, saying, “Another crummy day in Baghdad.” Your feelings when someone dies?

DR. JAMES HILL: I feel a personal loss, because it’s my patient. I take responsibility for each one of my patients, whether they end up in the morgue or they end up in the O.R. and make it back to their families. It feels like a triumph when we get them back to their families, and they give us a call and say, “Thanks a lot. I really appreciate everything you did for me.” And to tell you the truth, I don’t do anything that I don’t normally do. This is what I was trained to do. This is what I love to do, and I just love to see our American guys getting back to their families.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined on the phone by Paula Zwillinger. Her son U.S. Marine Lance Corporal Robert Mininger was killed in Iraq June 6, 2005. He was 21 years old. This film has to bring back memories for you. First of all, condolences on the loss of your son, Paula.

PAULA ZWILLINGER: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that.

AMY GOODMAN: How important do you think it is for people to see these images?

PAULA ZWILLINGER: I think it’s very important. It brings the reality of the war into the home. Right now, as we’ve talked about previously, what is the public really seeing nowadays? They’re seeing a paragraph on the second page of a newspaper saying that, you know, we lost X number of lives today, whether it be an I.E.D., whether a tank rolled over, and it’s just a little paragraph, and you don’t really get the visual image of really what war is about until you see the movie.

It’s very easy to read it in the paper. There’s no getting around it. It’s a little cold. It’s not detailed. You know, you never get details in the newspaper, but when you see the documentary it really hits home, because it’s reality. What you’re going to see is war, and it’s the outcome of war, whether it be positive or negative.

AMY GOODMAN: And your feelings now about the Army seeming to pull back, withdraw support from showing this film, saying it’s going to cause post-traumatic stress and even putting pressure on HBO to change this film, to delete scenes?

PAULA ZWILLINGER: Well, you know, I have an opinion and, you know, the more I think about it, as Jon mentioned that, you know, it does have political ties to it, but you know, everybody has to take from this documentary their own feelings, and right now with — everybody has an opinion about the war. Of course, with the polls and everything showing, you know, where the American public really resides as to our opinion as to whether we should be there or not and how things have changed, I mean, that’s an ever ongoing situation, but it definitely has a strong image of what war is about.

AMY GOODMAN: Paula, Matt and Jon brought you to New York, because they had filmed the death of your son in the Baghdad ER.


AMY GOODMAN: You, alone, watched this with your husband.


AMY GOODMAN: What were your feelings?

PAULA ZWILLINGER: Well, you have to understand that I initially had 17 hours where I knew nothing. It was, in essence, a black hole. I had many questions that I thought I would never get the answers to, and five months later, after, you know, losing Bob, Matt called me and told me about the documentary that they were working on, and for me to see this footage again of my son literally puts me at his bedside, and I think that is a precious gift that any parent would take, to literally be there at your son’s bedside.

You know, it’s — you have to wonder, timing of it and everything, as to why they were there when Bob came through the door, you know, all those little coincidences and things of that nature, but in reality it has given me peace. It has given me closure. It has answered some of my questions that I’ve had. It has given me the opportunity to talk with the doctors and the nurses who took care of him. Not every parent gets those answers in a time of war when their child is, you know, injured or killed overseas. And again, you know, I am very fortunate that I have that now, so I look at it as a gift.

AMY GOODMAN: Jon Alpert?

JON ALPERT: And on our part, it was an honor to meet Paula. It was an honor to meet the doctors who tried to save her son’s life and people like Dr. Hill who every single day were working in ways that just made me so proud to be with them. And I’m actually appreciative to the Army, because the Army did everything they could to help us capture this. It’s my firm belief that the soldiers in uniform want every American to see this film, and they’re proud of it, and I’m proud to have been part of it, and I want to thank all the military people that helped us.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it will be shown in Fort Campbell?

JON ALPERT: It was shown in Fort Campbell last night to a very enthusiastic response. We’ve talked to the soldiers, right? You talked to some of the soldiers.

MATTHEW O’NEILL: I talked to some of the soldiers who saw the film yesterday in Fort Campbell in a closed screening, just for people in the C.A.S.H. who were involved with the film, and one major called me up and she said, “I don’t understand what the warnings are about. You guys only showed the tip of the iceberg. They were saying this was gruesome, and you showed nothing.”

AMY GOODMAN: On that note, I want to thank you very much for being with us. The film will air on Sunday night on HBO, Baghdad ER. Matt O’Neill, Jon Alpert, the filmmakers; Paula Zwillinger, thank you for being with us; and Dr. Hill in Alabama, thank you so much.

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