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These medical volunteers risk their lives to save Mosul’s injured

December 1, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
On the front lines of Mosul, Iraq, two young American volunteers aid those injured in battle. Pete Reed and Derek Coleman treat Iraqi soldiers and civilians right in the path of fire, far closer than other medical providers. Without their proximity to the fighting, many more wounded would die. But their location also means they are at enormous risk. Special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The six-week-long battle for the ISIS-held city of Mosul has become an increasingly tough urban war for the American-backed Iraqi forces. Up to a million civilians still live in the city.

The front lines are often too dangerous for international aid workers, but two young American volunteers are there saving lives while risking their own.

From Mosul, special correspondent Jane Ferguson and producer Matt McGarry filed this report.

A warning: Viewers may find some of the imagery disturbing.

JANE FERGUSON: Crying in pain, a tiny patient is carried into this basic treatment center in Mosul. His name is Karam. And at just 5 years old, the agony and fear are too much.

“Hawa,” says his father, mortar. His leg was shattered when it was hit two weeks ago. It was operated on, and is now infected. His father tries to comfort him.

For parents, war brings a terrible fear of loss. Two American medics are helping Karam. They have been at this post for about a month, treating civilians injured in the fighting.

How many of your patients are children?

PETE REED, Volunteer Medic: Too many.

DEREK COLEMAN, Volunteer Medic: At least a quarter.

JANE FERGUSON: Injured by?

PETE REED: Everything.

DEREK COLEMAN: Car bombs, mortars, snipers.


JANE FERGUSON: Karam is lucky. He managed to find treatment from ISIS doctors. It’s crude, but at least he will be able to walk again. He probably won’t lose the leg.

Is this kind of injury common?

PETE REED: The injury, yes. And actually making it to surgery was less common?

JANE FERGUSON: So, where would have gone for the surgery?

PETE REED: He went in Mosul. There are still operating hospitals there.

JANE FERGUSON: Inside ISIS territory?


JANE FERGUSON: These two American volunteers, both just 27 years old, are the first and only point of help civilians and Iraqi army soldiers get this close to the front line of fighting in Mosul.

Pete Reed is from Bordentown, New Jersey. After two tours in Afghanistan as a Marine, he came to Iraq to help.

Derek Coleman is from San Diego. He was a machinist in a factory with some medical training before coming here as a volunteer.

DEREK COLEMAN: I don’t have any kids, girlfriend, wife, nothing like that. So I wanted a little adventure, and see ISIS as an evil enemy, and saw good people fighting against it, and I thought I could help somehow.

And medical work seems to be much more important than carrying a gun and shooting at people.

JANE FERGUSON: Other charities are miles back from the front lines, wary of putting their staff in harm’s way.

Because of ISIS suicide car bombs, the civilians of Mosul are banned from driving cars. Many of the injured wouldn’t survive if Pete and Derek were not this close to the fighting.

DEREK COLEMAN: The location is everything with what we are doing. NGOs and other organizations can’t get anywhere close to where we are.

So, what we are doing is, we are stopping bleeding that would kill someone in five minutes. We are stabilizing patients that hopefully survive the trip to the closest hospital.

Even with us, the hospitals are so far away at this point, that we are afraid of how many patients we lose on the road.

JANE FERGUSON: But being this close to the front puts Derek and Pete at risk. They are always short on supplies, so Pete has gone out to search for any other medical stations to ask for more.

Derek just begins telling us about missing the holiday.

DEREK COLEMAN: Thanksgiving was interesting, because Thanksgiving was also when I left home last year. So, I had a turkey sandwich alone.


DEREK COLEMAN: That was a little close.

JANE FERGUSON: Bullets start flying, and we have to run for cover.

This is normal, this kind of gunfire going overhead?

DEREK COLEMAN: Yes. Yes, it’s pretty normal. Our proximity to the front line, it’s bound to happen.

JANE FERGUSON: Derek calls to warn Pete to be careful. The fighting has intensified around us.

DEREK COLEMAN: Hey, buddy. How are you doing? We have had quite a few rounds pass really close to our CCP here, worse that yesterday. So I just wanted to give you guys a warning as you are pulling up and just check in with you.

JANE FERGUSON: In the meantime, Derek prepares for the next patients, which will surely come. The conditions here are harsh, but they have learned to manage.

DEREK COLEMAN: As you can see, I’m kind of bloodied here, and I don’t really have time to always clean it all off. So I just try to not look like a I came out of a butcher shop as best I can.

JANE FERGUSON: Pete arrives back empty-handed, his search for supplies unsuccessful, just as more patients are brought in.

The center is also the first point of treatment for many Iraqi soldiers, their bodies brutalized by the urban warfare that rages just down the road. We are not allowed to film the injured and dying soldiers who arrived at the center.

Iraqi special forces medics are here too, some trained by the two young Americans. They often treat civilians, many transported here by the army in war-weathered Humvees. Soon, one pulls up, and a child wrapped in a blanket is lifted from it. A soldier races her into the center. Her aunt stays outside, hysterical with fear and grief.

MAN: Hold her (EXPLETIVE DELETED) head, somebody.

JANE FERGUSON: The small girl has been shot in the head by an ISIS sniper. Incredibly, she is still alive. Pete and Derek fight hard to save her life.

PETE REED: Tell her to stay still, stay still.

JANE FERGUSON: They manage to bandage her head.

PETE REED: Plaster, plaster.

JANE FERGUSON: Despite brave efforts, the little girl died.

Do you think, given what you have witnessed, that ISIS are deliberating targeting civilians?

PETE REED: Yes. They are shooting people with white flags. They are shooting kids.

Last week, we had two kids in a row who had been shot in the neck or the head by a Da’esh sniper because they were fleeing Mosul, not accidental grazing fire or anything like that, proper sniper shots, head and neck and face. Yes, they’re — they’re purposely trying to kill these people who are running away.

JANE FERGUSON: Being in the crossfire and tending to death, his family are worried about him.

PETE REED: Yes, they worry a lot, probably for good reason. Who wouldn’t worry? It’s not like, I don’t know, a ski instructor in Wyoming. I’m on the front lines in the battle for Mosul. They are really, really supportive. They’re just terrified of what I’m doing.

JANE FERGUSON: Are you changed?

PETE REED: Am I changed? Yes. You can only see so many dead kids a day so many days in a row before you are going to be changed.

People see one dead kid or one traumatic thing happen, and it affects them for the rest of their life. I have seen a couple hundred. I’m doing OK.

JANE FERGUSON: Inside, spirits are high, because Karam, the first child we met, is feeling better. A little tenderness and some candy have helped. He has been fortunate to cheat death in this violent place.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jane Ferguson in Mosul, Iraq.

Editor’s note: Many of our viewers have written in asking how they can contribute to the medical volunteer efforts mentioned in this report. Donations can be send via this group, The Academy of Emergency Medicine.