Unless you have a close friend or relative serving in Iraq, your perception of the war effort is limited to news reports or opinions from commentators. But there are those citizens, some of them neighbors, who went overseas, putting their lives on hold, because they believed in service to their country. One of those citizens lives right here in Mineola. He is Dr. James Di Maio, a physician of internal medicine, who has a practice at 175 Westbury Avenue in Carle Place.
After the United States was attacked on September 11, 2001, Dr. Di Maio joined the Army Reserves as a way to apply his medical knowledge and talents to his country.
In 2007, Dr. Di Maio would be deployed for a four month tour to Iraq where he would serve in the 399th Combat Support Hospital (CSH), a unit similar to that depicted in the popular television show, MASH.
Unlike television, though, Dr. Di Maio was put in situations where he was counted on to help save the lives of Americans, Iraqi army personnel, Iraqi police and Iraqi civilians. "The Iraqi civilians valued the American presence and the medical care that we were able to give them," he said.
At the Mineola Memorial Library, Dr. Di Maio gave a presentation on his experience in Iraq during a four-month tour. Stationed in the Al Asad airfield, just south of the Euphrates River, in the Anbar province.
It was at that 25-bed hospital, which was staffed by medical personnel of all different specialties, two-thirds of which were reservists and a third on active duty, where Dr. Di Maio saw the horrors of what bombs exploded by insurgents could do to the human body. "Sometimes we filled it up if there was an attack or an explosion off post, we would get a ton of patients all at once," he said.
Most of the injuries came from explosions from bombs that left limbs burned and mangled, some requiring amputation. "That's really all the enemy had left - suicide bombs and roadside bombs," said Dr. Di Maio, who helped treat patients who came into the hospital with traumatic injuries.
One Iraqi soldier was hit by a piece of metal from an improvised explosive device that sliced his rear end. Luckily, the metal missed his rectum. The soldier survived.
"Just enormous attempts and efforts went into saving people," said Dr. Di Maio.
Some civilians happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time when a bomb hit. A young Iraqi girl who could have been about 4 years old, for instance, was hit with a piece of metal, which entered her hip and wound up in her abdomen. The metal was taken out through surgery and the young girl survived. "We did a lot for civilians there too, not just Americans," said Dr. Di Maio. The American military personnel even treated dogs that had gotten injured.
The youthful looking and well-spoken Dr. Di Maio and the other doctors and nurses who staffed the 399th CSH had to be ready for whatever emergency came their way. "Being an internist, I don't see a lot of this stuff. I sit down with patients and interview them about basic medical problems and I was used in an emergency room capacity during these mass casualties. I had to be at a bed. Maybe we had 10 beds and if I had to man number seven and if one through six filled up, mine was the next guy rolling. That's not something I do every day. The first time I did it, my heart was pounding. I thought it was going to come out of my chest," he said. "By the end of the summer, I was much more comfortable in those trauma situations."
Dr. Di Maio is still a reservist, but he is now back to his practice on Westbury Avenue, near Glen Cove Road, in Carle Place, also near his home on Donna Lane in Mineola. "I have no regrets. It was a positive experience," he said of serving the country. "The people you worked with, you never forget. I'll never forget those people. We all felt good when we came back. We were eager to get back to civilian life, but we feel like we did something worthwhile."