FEBRUARY 12, 2024 Capt. Juliet Morah stood at a makeshift hospital bay at Abu Ghraib prison, facing a harrowing task.
In 2004, the Army nurse had to treat injured U.S. troops while also caring for the insurgents who attacked them. Morah said she compartmentalized emotions while caring for the insurgents.
“I’m now in the role of caregiver for a human being,” she said. “And you just have to turn off any potential biases related to how you feel about this war that we’re fighting.”
Army medical caregivers often shouldered this burden in the days following the aftermath of the first Battle of Fallujah, during the Iraq War.
“I went into this whole state of ‘remember your training, remember why we’re here,’” said Morah, now a colonel and branch director of the Army’s 68C Practical Nursing Program. “Remember, it is about the patient, not the event. You’re taking care of [them] as a human being.”
She said she kept that mindset with her throughout her 12-month deployment inside the U.S. Army detention center and former Iraqi prison.
Morah, then a recent graduate of the Army Nurse Corps Critical Care Course, deployed to Iraq in July 2004 with her medical kit, body armor and M-16 rifle. Morah along with other Soldiers assigned to the 115th Field Hospital built a tent hospital in a fixed warehouse on the Abu Ghraib prison compound. The FH had the equivalent services of a military treatment facility in the U.S., complete with an operating room, intensive care unit, a logistics department, and a post anesthesia care unit.
She said she can still remember the metallic sign on the outside wall of the entrance to the hospital they built, bearing the words “Restoring America’s Honor,” written in both English and Arabic.
In addition to building the hospital, the Soldiers had to set up living accommodations within the actual prison. She recalled the Arabic writing on stained walls carved by detainees once held there by Saddam Hussein. “That’s the part that still haunts me,” she said.
The field hospital provided care for injured U.S. troops, civilian contractors, and U.S. allies. Morah had the opportunity to provide care to critically wounded patients on Black Hawk helicopters enroute to Baghdad for further treatment.
Now Colonel Morah-Reeves recently reflected on her two decades in Army medicine, from the onset of Operation Iraqi Freedom to her current role as a senior nurse, responsible for training the next generation of Licensed Practical Nurses or LPNs at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
She said LPNs often didn’t share the spotlight or resources as Army medics, who provided critical emergency treatment in combat.
“I felt like nurses were kind of forgotten in the overall big picture of the Army,” Colonel Morah-Reeves said. “It seemed like we were only revered for our clinical abilities.”
At Abu Ghraib, many new nurses deployed with minimal training or field experience. She said nurses rallied together and learned on the job, often working in sweltering temperatures amid one of the most tumultuous periods of the Iraq War.
Hospital staff worked 12-16-hour shifts, seven days a week while operating on little to no rest, all while defending themselves from constant attacks by insurgents.
And the patients kept coming, on ambulances or flown in by military aircraft.
Reflecting on her arrival in Iraq, Morah-Reeves said, “The insurgents knew we were coming on day one, and they welcomed us with an attack. And from that point on, the attacks never seemed to stop.”
The Army Nurse Corps celebrated its 123rd anniversary on Feb. 2 and has played a critical role in each major conflict since World War I.
Dora E. Thompson, chief Army nurse led the corps in treating dozens of patients following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
The Army assigns nurses to a wide variety healthcare from critical care to psychiatric care. Nurses assist in treatments for retired veterans and their families. Some work as surgical nurses, while others care for acutely-ill patients. Nurses assigned to combat support hospitals primarily treat active-duty Soldiers.
As the Army prepares to engage in prolonged, multi-domain ground operations, Army nurses will assist medics on the battlefield to care for patients for longer periods.
According to Army Nurse Corps historian Constance Moore, nurse practitioners relearned map, reading, land navigation. They had to remember to load weapons and be ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Women comprise the majority of the Army’s 10,000 nurses. Colonel Morah-Reeves said that at the time, the Corps didn’t seem to have a say in leadership decisions, leaving nurses in the field without adequate facilities and training.
Morah-Reeves said she felt that the nurse corps didn’t begin to earn its due until now-retired Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho created a path for nurses through the non-medical side of the Army. Horoho campaigned for the corps to have a voice in service-wide decisions.
“[LTG Horoho] ensured that the Army Nurse Corps had a seat at the table where critical decisions were made for the Army. She also ensured that we were seen as more than just caregivers. Morah-Reeves said. “And that if you don’t include the nurse corps in the decisions and execution of combat operations, which I believe is the back backbone of military medicine, then a lot of what you’re planning for [in respect to Soldier readiness] may not be done effectively.”
In 2012, Horoho became first woman, first nurse, and non-physician to hold the positions of Army surgeon general and commander of Army Medical Command. During her tenure, the Army went from the lowest rated healthcare provider in the Defense Department to the best according to the Army Nurse Corps Association.
Born in the southern Nigerian town of Nsukka, Morah-Reeves came from a line of nurses that valued education. She and her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1975. She originally wanted to be a veterinarian, but decided to follow in her family’s footsteps in nursing. She earned her Baccalaureate in nursing degree from Hampton University then commissioned as an Army nurse in 2002.
“I decided that if I was going to be a nurse, then I wanted to experience the profession differently while traveling around the world,” said Morah-Reeves. Her older sister, Sylvia (Lynch) Hightower also served in the Army Nurse Corps. “Back then, there wasn’t a big thing about travel nursing, and the best opportunities in nursing, I thought, are in the military.”
Looking back on her 22 years in the Army, Morah-Reeves said that it seemed to take two catastrophic events for the Army to fully appreciate the value of their nurses: the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I believe 9/11 launched us into more of an operational and strategic type of environment,” she said. “Any conflict will be lost if your medical support is not maintained.”
And in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Army sent medical task forces to the hardest hit communities to treat patients and help contain the virus’ spread. Army nurses played critical roles in the treatment of hospitalized patients in urban areas of the country, especially along the East Coast.
During the pandemic, the Army assigned then-Lt. Col. Morah-Reeves to Camp Humphreys, Korea at Brian D. Algood Community Hospital. As part of a large team, she assisted in the testing and care of military and their family members exposed to the virus. Morah-Reeves noted that “Our number of COVID 19 patients were low in comparison to the U.S. in part due to the swift actions of the hospital team and the 65th Medical Brigade’s coordinated approach to control the outbreak.”
Although she has moved on to other leadership positions within the Army, the memories of that year in Abu Ghraib still linger. She still remembers the injuries she treated and the long hours in the intensive care unit. Morah-Reeves has since joined a Facebook support group started by others who served at Abu Ghraib.
Today she remains committed to helping the LPNs have the training they need to support the Army during peace and wartime missions through prolonged medical care in the field at the point of injury.
“I believe that the Nurse Corps is essential to Army Medicine,” Colonel Morah-Reeves said. “We are more than just nurses. We support the mission of patient care and our COCOM [Combatant Command] commanders in ensuring the care delivery systems are where it needs to be.”
By Joe Lacdan, Army News Service