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Minnesota physician describes deployment conditions in Iraq

Col. Basil Leblanc's deployment to Iraq has put him in the position of brigade surgeon to soldiers he delivered as babies when he was a young medical student in New Ulm.

"Of course, that's one of the terrific things about the National Guard and especially the Minnesota National Guard -- it's a family operation," Leblanc said.

Leblanc is the brigade surgeon for the Minnesota National Guard 1/34 Brigade Combat Team stationed at Camp Adder in Tallil, south central Iraq. He spoke on Wednesday morning Minnesota time during a conference call from his base. In civilian life, he has an occupational medicine practice with the St. Cloud Medical Group and a family practice at St. John's University in Collegeville.

He is completing a 90-day deployment and will return to the United States next week.

In addition to his responsibilities to soldiers at Camp Adder and the many Forward Operating Bases Minnesota soldiers maintain, he also provides medical care to local Iraqi civilians and works with Iraqi medical officials. He also helps facilitate sending patients to the United States, such as a baby with cleft palate and a teenager with heart problems. The main difficulty is arranging the visas and transportation to the United States, he said.

"Once we get the to the United States there are many surgeons who are happy to treat them for free," Leblanc said.

However, Leblanc explained that the plan is to help Iraq's medical professionals repair and replace the clinics and other infrastructure to bring health care to local people.

"I would say the civilians are doing much better than the military and it all has to do with infrastructure," he said. "We are not trying to substitute care. We are trying to improve their quality of care so they can take care of their own."

Another big effort is to improve the water quality and sewer sanitation for the Iraqi people.

"It's a simple thing, but it takes a lot of effort and rebuilding," Leblanc said. "As you know, we would rather prevent disease than treat it."

Leblanc said he and other Minnesota doctors are deployed for 90 days because none of them can take off for a whole year. However, the Minnesota National Guard wanted the Minnesota soldiers treated by Minnesota doctors.

Besides, he said they are actually training for their mission in their regular practices. For example, in his occupational medicine specialty he deals with trauma from on-the-job injuries, skills that fit with war injuries. Fortunately, he said the traumatic injury rates have been low so far.

Travel is dangerous, and Camp Adder took some mortar fire a couple of weeks ago, but Leblanc said they have experienced relatively little hostile activity.

Leblanc said wartime medical treatment has advanced trauma treatment. Soldiers are trained for on-the-spot bleeding control and response in the first 10 minutes after someone is hurt, the Platinum 10, as opposed to the Golden Hour.

The most common medical problems are related to skin and heat issues because of the weather, he said. The average temperatures are between 100 and 118 degrees and the Camp Adder area was suffering through a three-day dust storm.

"Imagine taking a large sponge filled with talcum powder," he said. "It really takes a toll on the eyes. Even in a standard uniform, it's hot."

Add to that 30 pounds of body armor and other gear and the heat is hard on everyone, he said.

Leblanc added that in spite of the harsh environment, the Iraqi deployment has given him some wonderful experiences.

"On a normal day, I could look out and see the Ziggurat of Ur, which is a 4,000-year-old temple," he said.

The reminder that they are serving in what was Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization, is humbling, Leblanc said.

"I got to spend Easter Sunday service in the House of Abraham, which has been rebuilt," he said.

He said the soldiers of the 1/34th Brigade are making a difference, but their ability to serve is due to the support they receive at home. He thanked the businesses, community organizations and families, and especially his wife, Shelly, for making it possible for them to complete their mission successfully.