Originally Published Thursday, Dec. 23, 2004

MOSUL, Iraq — A feature on senior soldiers in the latest AARP Bulletin shows Maj. John “Doc” Nelson, in full uniform at Forward Operating Base Marez, beneath the headline “What Are You Doing in the War, Grandpa?”

Here’s what:

Just after noon Tuesday, ignoring the four pieces of shrapnel lodged in his back and neck, the 51-year-old chief medical officer for the Maine Army National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion saved an untold number of lives.

Then he collapsed.

“It knocked me for a loop, ” said Nelson, who was sitting about 15 feet from the explosion that decimated the base’s huge dining hall, killing 22 people and wounding 69.

“It was smoky. It was dark. I picked myself up and looked around and didn’t see anything moving, ” Nelson said. “And I thought, `Oh (expletive), I’ve got my work cut out for me now.”

Stretched out across his bunk Wednesday, his right arm out of its sling but still pressed gingerly against his chest, the certified physician’s assistant from Bangor relived the horror that began as a normal lunch and ended in the worst MASCAL – military shorthand for mass casualty – that even he could imagine.

“My MASCAL plan for an attack on the DFAC (dining facility) during a peak meal hour assumed 24 dead, ” Nelson said.

His projection, tragically, was only off by two.

Nelson and Chaplain David Sivret had just loaded their trays and sat down for one of their frequent lunches together when the blast – apparently caused by a suicide bomber – sent tables, chairs and bodies flying.

“We both landed about 10 feet from where we’d been sitting, ” Nelson said. “It knocked both of us out.”

Nelson came to first. “I didn’t feel like I had been hit at all. I didn’t feel anything, ” he said.

Nelson looked over at Sivret, who was still unconscious, and confirmed that he was still breathing and not bleeding. He looked to the other side at a soldier from the Virginia-based 276th Engineer Battalion who had been sitting next to them at the table. The young man was dead.

Rising to his feet, Nelson saw bodies scattered across the floor. Able-bodied soldiers, many in shock, moved around them – some rendering aid, others not knowing what to do.

“At first I was just trying to get people started, get them focused, ” Nelson said. “It’s what we do – bring order out of chaos.”

Moving from casualty to casualty, Nelson assessed injuries and instructed soldiers on how and where to hold wounds to stop the bleeding. He emptied napkins from their holders and stuffed them in a young soldier’s hand, then took the soldier’s palm and pressed it against a comrade’s severed neck artery.

At one point, confronted with a gravely wounded soldier bleeding from multiple pieces of shrapnel in his chest, Nelson tore a sheet of clear plastic from a roll used for meals-to-go and wrapped it tightly around the young man’s chest.

“You use whatever you have, ” he said.

At times, it wasn’t enough.

“I saw one guy, he was about ready to die, ” Nelson said quietly. “So I turned him on his side so at least he wouldn’t choke to death. There wasn’t anything else I could do.”

Nelson also came across Spc. Thomas Dostie, 20, of Somerville, one of two members of the 133rd killed in the attack.

“All I could do was close his eyes, ” Nelson said. “I can tell you he didn’t suffer.”

While Nelson moved among the wounded, Chaplain Sivret slowly regained consciousness. The blast had punctured his right ear drum and left him temporarily with no hearing in either ear.

“I got up and saw Doc’s pistol and strap over the chair, like he always does, and I started looking for him, ” Sivret said. “I couldn’t see him on the floor, so I figured he was OK and I went about my job.”

Which was?

“Ministering to soldiers, ” Sivret said. “Even though I couldn’t hear a thing.”

A mass casualty plan for the dining facility, developed last spring by Nelson, called for a temporary morgue in a corner of the building. Sivret instinctively headed there, praying over one body and then another as they arrived on litters borne by their stricken comrades.

Sitting in his chapel office Wednesday, a wad of white cotton stuffed into his right ear, Sivret said he eventually moved back into the middle of the dining hall to help the living. That’s where he finally found Nelson.

“I’ll tell you, ” he said, “Doc was all over the place.”

Sivret came up behind Nelson, saw the blood on the back of his uniform and told him, “Doc, you’re bleeding.”

“I am?” Nelson replied, without stopping.

A short time later, however, Nelson’s knees began to buckle. A sergeant major, ignoring the chain of command, summoned a litter and ordered the major out of the dining hall and into an ambulance.

“I just got weak all of a sudden, ” Nelson said. “I think the adrenaline started to wear off.”

Sivret walked alongside his friend all the way to the ambulance and then returned to the morgue. Together with Chaplain Eddie Barnett of the 276th, he continued his prayers over the bodies. By now, there were two rows.

“The carnage was awful, ” Sivret said. But, he added, the response was inspiring – particularly from members of the 133rd who sprinted up the hill from their encampment within seconds of the explosion.

“Everywhere I looked, there was that Maine patch, ” Sivret said. “Just helping in any way they could.”

For months, Nelson had drilled his squad of eight medics – and, by extension, the entire battalion – on the need to be ready for a catastrophe just like this.

He brought them to the dining facility repeatedly and ordered them to install litters here, first aid bags there, and run through what they’d do if a bomb hit. And once they thought they had it down, he ordered them to do it again.

At times, some of the younger medics would roll their eyes at the often irascible senior officer and wonder, sometimes aloud, if all of this wasn’t a tad melodramatic.

No longer.

Spc. Angel Waters, 25, of Gorham rushed from the 133rd’s medical aid station to the dining hall the moment the first call came in. She saw Nelson doing what they’d all trained so hard to do, and followed his lead.

“There were so many people who needed help, ” Waters said. With tears in her eyes, she added, “And there were other people who were so bad they didn’t need help anymore.”

Did watching Nelson in action change her opinion of the 51-year-old major?

“It greatly did, ” Waters said. “I realize now he was trying to prepare us for the worst-case scenario – and then the worst-case scenario happened.”

After he was treated at the 67th Combat Support Hospital at nearby Camp Diamondback and returned early Tuesday evening to Marez, Nelson headed straight for the medical aid station. One by one, his medics stepped forward and hugged him.

“I’m really proud of my medics, ” Nelson said. “‘They did great. They took the plan and they made it work.”

And after Tuesday, they will never be quite the same.

“Nobody will, ” said Nelson. “Nobody will.”

Staff Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]