An occasional journal of pictures and words.
The bug and the hero

No War in AfghanistanNo War in AfghanistanThe first thing I noticed on going to see Joao at the Walter Reed (after all the uniforms, of course) is that there are dispensers with antiseptic hand gel everywhere. And god forbid you try to enter a patient’s room without cleaning your hands. The obsessive hygiene is like a sickness itself, to the ignorant eye, what with people washing their hands compulsively. The bacteria they most fear is a little critter called Acinetobacter baumannii.

This bacteria is commonly found in the soils of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is how it has come to the notice of the wider medical world, as soldiers injured in the field, especially by landmines and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs), were infected by it.  Thus, it was dubbed Iraqibacter. Resistant to all the usual antibiotics, it is a nightmare to clear, requiring doctors to go back to antiquated medications like Doxycycline (which is a pretty low-tech drug).  Joao was infected by the Iraqibacter.

All the upbeat and careful messages did not prepare me for how sick Joao actually was. I had believed that the loss of his legs was the worst of the injuries – and yes indeed they are – but it was the myriad other broken bones, perforations and infections that were more likely to kill him. In fact, if he were at any lesser hospital than Walter Reed, and had less phenomenal doctors and nurses than those in the US military, I think he would have died. Against the odds, that obsessive cleanliness, and the smarts of those doctors and nurses, saved him.

While Joao’s quiet drama played out among the dozens of other horribly mutilated soldiers and Marines struggling to survive and come to terms with their injuries, the White House was preparing to present the first Medal of Honor to a living combatant since the Vietnam war. Considering the amount of conflict US forces have participated in since the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that came a curious fact to a non-follower of military affairs.  Staff Sgt Salvatore Giunta received this, the highest wartime honor after a battle in Afghanistan.

One would have thought that the thousands of firefights and battles that US forces had taken part in would have led the military and the state, especially under the previous administration of George Bush – to try and galvanize public opinion behind US combat heroes. The NYT reports Pentagon stats noting that 464 Medals of Honor were awarded during World War II, 133 during the Korean conflict and 246 during the war in Vietnam. Other than Sgt Giunta, only six US fighters have – posthumously – been awarded the Medal of Honor since September 11, 2001.

I have just finished the book “Black Hearts” about a unit in Iraq that went bananas under sustained moronic and gung-ho leadership. A chilling story of fear, racism, violence, appalling leadership and, ultimately, of courage. As author Jim Frederik tells of the daily fear faced by US forces trying to survive the weapon of choice in Iraq – the IED –  I could only imagine how lucky Joao was to have survived his assignments in the “Triangle of Death” south of Baghdad. And also how he managed to get such great images from that very difficult war.

Joao will live, and he will recover, thanks to the soldiers he was with, whose swift treatment of his wounds saved him, and later the meticulous and compassionate care of the medical teams who have worked tirelessly on him.

Oh, and did I tell you how Joao’s brother-in-law Roy Innes emerged from Joao’s room to inform the nurse on duty – Captain Kelly Sullivan – that a cockroach had just ran across the gleaming floor of that intensive care facility? No? The calm Cpt’s voice rose several notes, and her eyes widened in horror. It turns out she has a phobia about cockroaches. Fortunately, I am at least as heroic as Sgt Giunta, and I swiftly ended it’s reign of terror. I am fearless, and in the realm of the natural world I am scared only of rats, frogs, snakes, some birds, and of course anything larger than a domestic kitty cat.

The staff at the hospital sprang into action, mortified that there was a cockroach in that anti-septic facility. Cpt Sullivan could not stop apologizing at the breach in hygiene, but actually I think that the insect was brought in by one of Joao’s colleagues just landed from Afghanistan……

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  • Leonie

    But where are the pictures?

  • Myriam

    Mon anglais est antique et … minable!
    Je ne connais pas les mots pour votre ami, mais être à leur cotés quand il faudra …
    Courage à vous tous

  • catherine Henegan

    great to hear joao is doing ok
    and great that you there
    lots of love, light and healing
    X Catherine

  • Gaby

    This reminded me of how serious it all is & was. I needed that. After weeks of tears & worry, I finally relaxed & celebrated that fact that he was alive. I cannot imagine the injuries sustained & can only hope that he gets better swiftly & with no more complications than he has already endured! I enjoyed reading this blog & wish that some of our hospitals were that consciencious about hygiene. :) Thank you for your updates & I sincerely hope to hear that more soldiers are awarded with the Medal of Honor. 7 is an absolutely shocking number considering. On a lighter note…congratulations on being the hero of the moment…perhaps you could be number 8 on the list? :)

  • joanne

    Thanks for keeping us up to date with Joao’s progress. There are so many people who care about him and are sending their love and prayers.

  • khaled kazziha

    Thanks Greg for this update, helps us to understand what is going on. Great of you to be there. Pass on our love to Joao from all his friends here in Nairobi, Kenya…

  • Sarah

    Greg, your humanity is compelling, your writing is (as ever) stellar, and your humor is unforgettable. Thank you for sharing all of it!

  • Felix Karlsson

    You are truly a great writer/blogger. Best of wishes for Joaos recovery.

    About the cockroaches I am glad I live in a cold and hostile enviroment.

  • Fergal Keane


    many thanks for those words. Those of us ex SA corrs who remember him and you and all the guys from those days back on the East Rand are rooting for Joao.


  • Jasmin Krpan

    Hi, Greg. Long time no see since Dubrovnik 1991. Vidio sam tvoje slike na webu – gdje je ona tvoja bujna kosa?


  • Robbie, Laura & Chloe Botha

    Great Story Greg! How Sad to hear that Joao is in a Worse Condition than the Media let on, but I suppose it’s only natural for one to sustain such Severe Injuries. PRAISE GOD he’s Alive, even though his Recovery could take Months or even Years. Please send him our Bestest Get Well Wishes. We will continue to Pray for a Speedy Recovery for him & Support for his Family. From Robbie, Laura & Chloe Botha

  • Patricia

    I agree with the comment from Sarah above. And only want to add that one can judge someone most clearly by the quality of their friendships. Joao is showing himself to be a remarkable human being.

  • Steve Norton

    Nicely written post, Greg. I am ex-military and unfortunately spent time in Walter Reed many years ago…the fine folks there fixed me up pretty well, although I still suffer daily pain…

    On another note, my company makes that fine waterless gel hand sanitizer, and provides clinical education to Walter Reed, and many other hospitals and ambulatory surgery centers around the world.

    Joao has a long road to recovery in front of him. I will pray for his health and for his family, as they are suffering, too. I am also thankful for my hardworking, bright, colleagues that spend everyday trying to come up with new ways to prevent the spread of infections with healthcare facilities…patients have enough to deal with…without catching something dangerous inside the facility.

    I was pleased to learn the folks as Walter Reed have gotten the message…BTW…they had roaches at Reed 20 years ago, too.


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