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Essay: Independence Lessons From An Iraqi Goat

Capt. Rawlings reflects on the surge and leaving Iraq for a friend's wedding.

When you're stuck in Iraq for the Fourth of July, you have to get creative. Capt. Nate Rawlings' celebration involved a goat, a lamb, a medical training exercise and a large translator named Whopper.

The idea for our Fourth of July celebration came from my two youngest soldiers and led to the most useful, yet bizarre training event I have ever seen. Spc. Matthew "Doc" Pooley, my 24-year-old combat medic, had just finished recounting his medical training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, when Spc. Blake Colson, a 21-year-old rifleman, shouted, "Hey Capt. Rawlings, can you get us a goat?"

"What the hell do you want with a goat?" I asked.

"Because Pooley can teach the Iraqi commando platoon the Goat Lab," Colson explained. "And there's thousands of goats all over the place."

The "Goat Lab," it was explained to me, is an advanced training exercise performed by American medics. They sedate a goat and practice treating injuries often seen on the battlefield, including arterial bleeding and chest wounds. To pass the evaluation, one must successfully control bleeding.

While procuring both a goat and medication to sedate the animal does not fall into my normal, daily duties, I knew exactly where to go: Whopper, one of the interpreters who serve our small Joint Security Station. This nickname is a testament to both his massive girth and his oversized personality. In addition to his duties as a translator, The Whopper is our man who can get things. As a resident of Baghdad, he knows where to go and what deals to make.

My list for The Whopper that day included a small, very ill goat, a large and robust lamb, sedatives, bread and fresh vegetables. As he pondered the request and accepted the cash I handed him, he shook his head, the fat underneath his chin oscillating with the movement.

"You are a strange man, Captain. For you, this is no problem," he said.

Later, I returned to the Iraqi side of our compound and accepted the goods. Colson and Doc Pooley immediately named the goat Bambi and ran off to find a place to secure it, while I lugged our dressed lamb and fixings to the small grill we had managed to procure. When Doc Pooley and Colson found me, I asked where they had left the goat.

"We gave it to the Commando platoon sergeant," Colson informed me. "He put it in a jail cell."

With our goat fully secure, I set about to prepare the lamb for our twist on the classic Fourth of July barbecue. After the sun set, Doc Pooley, Colson and my team sergeant led the commandos from the Iraqi Elite Strike Platoon through the Goat Lab. Doc Pooley sedated the goat and made incisions to simulate actual combat wounds he had treated. He cut various arteries and made a pinpoint puncture in the goat's chest cavity, creating what's known as a sucking chest wound.

Immediately, the Iraqi commandos began executing their medical training. As one by one the Iraqi commandos used the proper tecniques — Quickclot and tourniquets — and applied a perfect sucking chest wound bandage to the puncture, Doc Pooley beamed with pride. The medical block of the Iraqis' commando training had been successfully completed — on the Fourth of July, yet.

Then it was time to eat. Doc Pooley and Colson led the Iraqi commandos to our eating area, where I had just completed grilling lamb and vegetables. Famished from the day's training and enjoying the relatively warm midnight, the Iraqi commandos wolfed down the food and soaked up the company of the American soldiers. Once my duties on the grill were complete, I asked for silence.

With the help of my translator I asked the group, "Does anyone know what today is?"

One of the Iraqi commandos raised his hand and offered, "This is the American birthday, right?"

I looked around the room to silent faces.

"After our Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, we fought the British for another seven years before the war was over. Seven more years of fighting was what it took to finally earn independence. It has been five years since we overthrew Saddam, and now you are the front lines of a different war to complete your independence. While the enemy was very different in our war for independence, this struggle is going to have the same outcome. You guys are going to be the ones to finally ensure a free Iraq, and I am proud to fight alongside you."

The Iraqi commandos cheered in approval, and American and Iraqi soldiers stuffed their faces. At midnight, the Americans clapped one another on the backs and wished each other a happy Fourth of July. At the end of the barbecue, the Americans and Iraqis went their separate ways for some well-deserved sleep before another long day of operations.

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Capt. Nate Rawlings