Published on Sunday, May 11, 2003 by the Washington Post
For 'Shield,' A Searing Test of Mettle
Faith Fippinger Is Haunted By Her Memories of Iraq
by Jennifer Frey
She is gardening. Putting in brightly colored gerbera daisies, heartened by their vibrance. Clearing out long-neglected plants that have withered, turned brown. This is good, she thinks. Therapeutic. New life, regrowth it is a needed respite from where she has just come.
There, she saw burned babies. A pregnant woman without arms. Stacks and stacks of dead bodies and body parts. Weeping, keening parents searching for their children. Doctors so horrified they sobbed as they worked. There, she felt the fear that comes when the air raid siren wails and the windows shake as bombs strike so close your body feels the shudder. There, she cradled the bodies of screaming, agonized Iraqi civilians as overworked doctors amputated their twisted, useless limbs often without anesthetic, because there were no more supplies.
Faith Fippinger returned to her home in Sarasota, Fla., early last Sunday morning. She had left in January, a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher off to India on one of her adventures. Only this one took a detour. A detour to Baghdad, where she spent more than two months living with the Iraqi people, first as a "human shield" hoping to prevent the United States from bombing, then as a makeshift nurse in a hospital overrun by the casualties of war. She saw the war, lived the war.
And she is not the same. She will never be the same again.
"I've just been cleaning," she says. "Straightening things. Digging in the little flower garden I have, which is totally, utterly neglected."
Staunchly antiwar, Fippinger entered Iraq in February and spoke by telephone with a Post reporter about her decision to become a human shield, about her hopes and fears for what was to come. At the time, she was assigned to shield an oil refinery, and she was living there when the sound of bombs jolted her from sleep at 5:30 a.m. on the first day of the war, March 19.
"My heart pounded like it has never pounded before," she said in a phone conversation from Baghdad later that day. "We just got up and got dressed and waited."
It became a routine. Night after night, day after day. The phones went out, the power. There was a constant sense of fear, and of frustration. When is it going to stop? Please, please, please let it stop. Each time a bomb hit, her mind ached with the knowing: Someone had probably just been maimed or killed.
"We slept in our clothes, if we slept," she says. "You couldn't sleep really."
When the bombing would lessen, Fippinger and the other shields would run to the market, hoping someone, anyone, would be there with something to sell. They ate rice every day.
As coalition troops neared Baghdad, more and more shields were gathering their things and leaving the country. One day, on a rare trip downtown to visit the shields' headquarters at the Palestine Hotel, Fippinger met up with another American shield, Tom Cahill. He had decided it was time to leave, and he implored Fippinger to come with him.
"I just told him I'm not ready yet," she says. "I can't. We didn't stop the war, but we may have averted a few things. And there was still so much left to be done."
Instead, Fippinger sent Cahill off with a letter to her brother, John Fippinger, who also lives in Sarasota. The last entry in the letter was March 24. Cahill sent it, and wrote an e-mail to her family, referring to Faith as "a bright, brave and gallant woman." It would be the only news Fippinger's family had of her for weeks. And John who had urged his sister not to do this, who respected but did not understand her decision worried. At one point, he called the State Department, asked if anyone could help. People were polite and promised to call if they heard anything about her. No calls came.
In the end, Fippinger and the other shields were lucky the closest the bombs came to her location was about two miles, she estimates, and none of the sites where the shields were got bombed.
After the American helicopters landed in Baghdad and American tanks took over the streets, Fippinger made her way downtown. She saw celebrations, joy and happiness, and she heard Iraqis angrily denounce Americans. She met soldiers who treated her with kindness and those who looked at her with contempt.
"We're all glad that Saddam Hussein is no longer," she says. "We never went in support of Saddam Hussein. Never, ever. The goal and the purpose was the protection of the innocent Iraqi people who have had many wars and years of sanctions and are tired and devastated. And now they are wondering, 'What is the future?' And I can only hope, from the bottom of my heart, that these people have a chance for a better life."
Fippinger knows the horrors Hussein perpetrated on his people, but she also feared the horrors of war. Horrors she would see firsthand when she went to Medical City, a complex of hospitals in Baghdad, shortly after the bombing stopped. She volunteered at one that had essentially been turned into one big emergency ward. The place, she says, was overrun by injured civilians, understaffed, desperate for supplies. They gave her and another volunteer a tiny room for sleeping and put her to work. She stayed around the clock for a week.
"It's just sobbing doctors," she says, "because there was so much death, so much horror. . . . It was just death after death after death. From babies to old men and women, the whole range. Amputees. Arms gone, legs gone. Children filled with shrapnel from cluster bombs."
The telling of this part of her story is the most painful. Her voice ranges from ragged grief to controlled outrage. Her words are punctuated by soft crying and huge, wrenching sobs.
"I've never seen in all my life such horrors," she says. "But I'm sure I'll see them for the rest of my life."
She did anything they asked. She scrubbed down operating rooms, cleaned beds. Most times, that meant simply flipping a blood-soaked mattress so someone else could bleed on the other side. The worst moments came, she says, when she had to help restrain patients who needed amputations, their pain and screams an agony to hear. Afterward, it would fall to Fippinger to dispose of their useless limbs. In those conditions, that simply meant adding them to piles and piles of rotting flesh.
Behind the hospital, there were vans equipped with air conditioning, where bodies would be stored until claimed for burial. Only there was no more air conditioning. The families came anyway, searching relentlessly through the piles for relatives, parents, children.
These are images she cannot forget.
She remembers the pregnant woman who had lost one arm when a missile hit her home. The other was so badly mangled it had to be taken as well.
The baby near full-term was delivered by Caesarean. The child was okay, but after the birth there was nothing but the sound of crying in their room. Crying, and crying, and crying. Not from the child. From the mother.
"She cries, cries all the time, because she has no arms to hold her baby," Fippinger says, and she is lost to another bout of weeping. "It just goes on and on and on . . ."
She remembers the man at another hospital in Hillah, 55 miles south, where Fippinger and other shields ventured for a day trip in mid-war. The man stood next to his dying wife, tears rolling down his cheeks. It was early April. She says a civilian location had been bombed, sending floods of wounded Iraqis to the hospital. Six of the man's children were dead. His wife was about to join them.
The man looked at Fippinger, then asked, in English:
"Where are you from?"
"America," she answered.
And the man just stood there, his cheeks covered in tears, his eyes uncomprehending.
"That scene, those words, will be with me for the rest of my life," she says. "I wish every American who is for this war could have been there with me."
Eventually, she reached the point where she was emotionally drained, low on funds, and feeling a responsibility to reconnect with her family.
Humanitarian aid workers were arriving.
Most of the shields had left (at this point, 10 remained). And so Fippinger and two other shields hired a taxi to drive them to Jordan.
It was April 26.
It was heartbreaking to leave, she says, and she felt regret not relief when, after several days in Amman, she boarded a plane back to America.
"To be honest, it's still difficult to be here," she says, four days after returning to the States. "And I know the people who wish I were dead or in prison or whatever will say, 'Then why are you here?' "
She was worried about passing through U.S. Customs after all, public officials have suggested that the shields' behavior is criminal, that legal sanctions could take place.
But she wasn't hassled; her one small bag wasn't even searched.
At home, though, was a letter from the Treasury Department.
The letter sent to any American shields the government has been able to identify spells out sanctions, demands an accounting of her activities in Iraq, and threatens punishment ("up to 12 years in prison and $1 million in fines") if she has violated any sanctions.
Fippinger has 30 days to comply. Richard Newcomb, director of Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control, says he cannot comment on what actions might be taken against the shields.
"We do administer these sanctions," he says, "and we administer them evenhandedly across the board."
Fippinger mostly has kept to herself since she arrived home, but she expects she will be confronted by people who are angry at her.
"I appreciate that there are differences of opinion," Fippinger says. "Isn't that what democracy is all about? But, yes, the attacks will hurt, because that is what they are meant to do. I see the attacks and the way people respond as part of what's wrong. That we're so agreeable to aggression and war."
And so she will try to explain herself. To her friends, to strangers, to whoever will listen. To her brother. The woman John picked up at the airport was thinner and paler than the sister he'd last seen. She also was pensive. She wanted to talk, needed to talk, but it was hard, so hard.
"She can hardly carry on a conversation without sobbing," John says.
It is hard to explain, exactly, how this changed her. And perhaps too soon for her to truly know. She used to be a woman who played tennis, traveled and gardened. She is gardening again now, except when she looks at her flowers, thoughts flood into her head.
"Even though it's drier there," she says, "they have a lot of the same vegetation."
She is thinking of going back.
2003 The Washington Post Company