Off the Base: The Iraq War through a Surgeon's Lens

Documenting some of the successes in Iraq, Army Reservist, surgeon and photographer Tim Floyd photographed the Iraqi children during his deployment in 2003.
The cover photograph of the book "Aid and Comfort to the Enemy: A Surgeon's View of Iraq War."
TAMPA (2011-12-14) -

The Sept. 11 attacks inspired a Florida native and middle-aged surgeon to join the Army Reserves. He ended up on the front-lines at the beginning of the Iraq War. As the U.S. forces withdrawal from Iraq, Tim Floyd and WUSF’s Bobbie O’Brien talk about his book: Aid and Comfort to the Enemy – A Surgeon’s View of the Iraq War.

BOBBIE O’BRIEN: You write that like most Americans you felt helpless as you watched the September 11 attacks unfold on television. Describe that day to me.

TIM FLOYD: My initial reaction was to fly to New York City but all the airplanes were grounded. So, I just sat there frustrated watching things happen on the television. I had never served in the military before. The president came on and said, you know, this is going to be a big, long, bloody protracted war and it’s not going to be pretty. And I knew there was going to be a need for surgeons, especially orthopedic surgeons, and my entire family had served going back a couple of centuries. It just seemed like the natural thing to do for me, to join.

O’BRIEN: But, you were 48 years old and you requested a Forward Surgical Team, why?

FLOYD: Their mission is to be pretty much to be right at the site of action and I said, “Well, that’s for me” and there was one (FST 934th) in Salt Lake City that needed an orthopedic surgeon.

O’BRIEN: But you had never seen combat, how did you know that’s what you wanted to do?

FLOYD: I just wanted to be where I could provide the most help.

O’BRIEN: What made you decide to do this book?

FLOYD: I took a lot of pictures there. It was kind of my therapy. I kind of wanted to document medical treatment in a combat zone from inside, from a surgeon’s perspective as opposed from someone visiting the tent and taking pictures of it. And, I didn’t know at the time I would ever publish it or do anything with it. I just knew that I wanted to make the photographs and then later on, because I had also kept a diary, I realized I could marry the two together.

O’BRIEN: When joined that medical team, you had full thoughts that you would be there to care for U.S. troops, for coalition troops. Did you have any realization the number of Iraqis you would be treating?

FLOYD: No, I didn’t and this was actually a huge lesson for us. You know, we’re Reservists and we thought, “Oh boy, we’re going to have a chance to help wounded Americans.” It just sounds on the surface like a noble thing and I didn’t make connection for me to care of an American or a good guy, then a good guy has to get hurt. And, we don’t’ want any good guys to get hurt. It was a huge lesson for me. We don’t want anybody to get hurt.
So when it was quiet, initially, we were thinking: God, what are we doing? You know, how come we’re not helping? We want to help. We want to help. But, really we don’t want anybody to get hurt. It would be great if doctors could go to war and never treat a single person, enemy or our own side, but we did see wounded Americans, wounded coalition.

But we did see a huge number of Iraqis and it was interesting to see the differences. For example, the regular army Iraqis seemed to me to be Shiites that were conscripted. We ran into all kinds of adolescents where the Republic Guard would come into their home, put their mother at gunpoint and say ‘You pick up a rifle and go out and fight these guys.’ They were really nice people, they would hug us and kiss us. I really thought at the time ‘heck, let’s just give them back their weapons cause the know who the bad guys are they could help us.’ And then there was the Republican Guard a totally different group of people and then there was the Special Republican Guard which I learned they were basically the thugs.

O’BRIEN: You have a lot of Iraqi families, a father who is comforting his wounded son, but there are also a few stark photographs, one of a severed foot. As a surgeon, did you feel compelled to put that photo in?

FLOYD: That photograph of the foot, it’s really controversial. It really offended a number of people and yet there are also people who thought I should have it on the cover because that’s what we did. And, I guess it’s one of those things that, well it is shocking, but that’s just life and that’s just the reality of it and that is war.

I think in this country we tend to scrub things down too much. I don’t know why we feel like we have to shield ourselves from reality and this is reality. This is what is happening right now. This is how horrible things are. And this is what the doctors are dealing with and the medics are dealing with and this is what the guys are getting their legs blown off are having to deal with when they come home. And that’s it, that’s war right there.

O’BRIEN: What struck me though is you’ve also got a lot of joyous photos in the book, children playing, waving at the camera. I’m wondering what your philosophy was on what you would include in the book.

FLOYD: I went back and looked at the Pulitzer Prize photographs of the past 40 years or something like that and almost all of them were bad things going on. Occasionally there would be a picture of somebody coming home and his family hugging him or something. More often it was the tragedies and so, the triumphs don’t often get documented. So I also tried to document that as well.

O’BRIEN: With hindsight being your friend, would you do it again?

FLOYD: I would. It was probably the greatest experience in my life. I don't have any regrets about it. I am proud I did it and I would do again.

O’BRIEN: Even though it put your family under tension and our practice under tension with your partners who expected you to be gone only half the time you were gone?

FLOYD: We all survived. Everybody survived, things went on. When I think of the teeny, tiny, little sacrifice I made versus the enormous sacrifices that so many people have made, I would definitely do it again in a second and I would hope that I wouldn’t pick up a scalpel at all. I would hope I would be there bored to death for all that period of time.

Editor’s note: Tim Floyd now lives and practices as an orthopedic, spine surgeon in Idaho. A few years after his deployment to Iraq in 2003, Floyd left the Army Reserve because of health problems. He got a waiver, and rejoined the military. He is now with the Air Force Reserve. You can get a look at his self-published book, “Aid and Comfort to the Enemy: A Surgeon’s View of the Iraq War,” HERE.

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