Book Review

‘Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq’

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The Book Worm

By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Stepping back, squinting, you can imagine the tombstones as jagged teeth in the maw of green that is the cemetery. Some are old. Some are fresh, both in the earth and in the hearts of family. Each white stone represents a soldier who died — too many, too young. Each white stone represents somebody’s child.

In battle, there is always someone who patches up those children, big and small, when they’re hurt. In the new book “Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq” by Dr. Chris Coppola, you’ll read about one of those people.

As a college senior looking for a way to pay for medical school, Chris Coppola was “inspired by the patriotism that Ronald Reagan awakened.” In part because he needed a scholarship and partly because he “wanted to serve for… deeper, nonfinancial reasons,” he pledged six years of service in the U.S. military.

In 2003, Coppola began his payback. In January 2005, he was instructed to leave his practice and his family to deploy to Iraq for four months.

Although his first tour was short, it was an eye-opener. Coppola, one of a “handful” of pediatric surgeons in America, found himself practicing the kind of medicine he would never see back home in Texas. For the first time in ages, Coppola cared for adults.

One of his most memorable cases was that of a soldier who “took an IED blast” up close. The soldier lost both his legs and was badly burned. Just before he died, they discovered that he was a she.

But a pediatric surgeon can’t write without remembering the tiny patient that comes to mind every time he sees a burned child. Leila was 2 years old, with dark hair and an infectious giggle. She was badly seared when an insurgent threw a bomb in her house while she slept.

Much to his horror and anger, Coppola later learned that he’d cared for the man who threw the bomb.

When his four months were up, Coppola returned home to fulfill his obligations, knowing that he would likely be returned to Iraq. On his second deployment, he was dismayed at the changes he saw overseas. He never realized how much he, himself, had changed.

Filled with horrifying details (especially if you have a loved-one overseas), tenderness, anger, compassion, resignation and more than a few surprises, “Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq” is one of those books that presents the war from a very different perspective. I loved every page of it.

Coppola bounces from story to story in a way that gives you a blurred sense of time, which is rattling, but tends to make you feel the action more acutely. Some of his stories are so intense that at one point I realized I was holding my breath in anticipation of the outcome.

Whether you support the war or condemn it, you’ll find this book to be gripping, gritty-as-sand, yet amazingly gracious. Get it.

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