Balad, Iraq — On a scorching afternoon, while on duty at an Army airfield, Sgt. David J. Borell was approached by an Iraqi who pleaded for help for his three children, burned when they set fire to a bag containing explosive powder left over from war in Iraq.
Borell immediately called for assistance. But the two Army doctors who arrived about an hour later refused to help the children because their injuries were not life-threatening and had not been inflicted by U.S. troops.
Now the two girls and a boy are covered with scabs and the boy cannot use his right leg. And Borell is shattered.
"I have never seen in almost 14 years of Army experience anything that callous," said Borell, who recounted the June 13 incident to The Associated Press.
A U.S. military spokesman said the children's condition did not fall into a category that requires Army physicians to treat them -- and that there was no inappropriate response on the part of the doctors.
The incident comes at a time when U.S. troops are trying to win the confidence of Iraqis. But the Iraqis maintain the Americans have not lived up to their promises to improve security and living conditions, and incidents like the turning away of the children only reinforce the belief that Americans are in Iraq only for their own interests.
No required care
For Borell, who has been in Iraq since April 17, what happened with the injured children has made him question what it means to be an American soldier.
"What would it have cost us to treat these children? A few dollars perhaps. Some investment of time and resources," said Borell, 30, of Toledo, Ohio.
"I cannot imagine the heartlessness required to look into the eyes of a child in horrid pain and suffering and, with medical resources only a brief trip up the road, ignore their plight as though they are insignificant," he added.
Maj. David Accetta, public affairs officer with the 3rd Corps Support Command, said the children's condition did not fall into a category that requires Army doctors to care for them. Only patients with conditions threatening life, limb or eyesight and not resulting from a chronic illness are considered for treatment.
"Our goal is for the Iraqis to use their own existing infrastructure and become self-sufficient, not dependent on U.S. forces for medical care," Accetta said in an e-mail to AP.
When Borell talks about the children, he pauses between sentences, keeps his head down, clears his throat.
Seated on a cot in a bare room at an Army air base in Balad, 55 miles northwest of Baghdad, Borell said when he saw the three children, especially the girls, Ahlam, 11, and Budur, 10, he visualized his daughters, Ashley, 8, and Brianna, 5.
Madeeha Mutlaq was holding her son, Haidar, 10, fanning him with a piece of cardboard. His legs, arms and half of his face were singed. Ahlam, Haidar's full sister, and Budur, his half-sister, had fewer but still extensive burns.
What struck Borell was the children's silence.
"They did not utter a single sound," he said.
Borell radioed his superiors, who contacted the base hospital.
Two Army doctors, both of them majors, responded.
"Through the interpreter, one of the doctors told the father that we didn't have any medicine here ... and were not able to provide them care," Borell said. "And he also expounded on the fact that they needed long-term care."
Borell grabbed his first-aid kit and gave the father some bandages and IV solution to clean the wounds.