Written by: Monika Mudranincová
Photo: Petr Poliak
Colonel Mojmír Mrva (50) doesn’t feel like a hero, but the excellent results of the 7th Field Hospital in Iraq indicate otherwise. We spoke to him about team leadership under critical conditions.
Last year you were in command of the 7th Field Hospital, which operated in the southern Iraqi city of Basra. What was your unit’s mission?
Our mandate was purely humanitarian. We provided medical care to the local populace both during and after the armed conflict.
How many personnel were on your hospital staff, and what were their specialties?
Our unit was completely self-sufficient in terms of logistics and comprised 150 people, with about 50 medical personnel and about 100 support unit personnel. Most of the core medical personnel were career soldiers. We had surgeons, but there were also internists, a dentist, a microbiologist, a hematologist, and a pediatrician.
What is the difference between doctors’ work in a field hospital and their work at home?
The differences are great. At home we’re backed up by the national health service, and we enjoy the comfort of specialized facilities for our work, but in Iraq our options ended at the fence around the base. So for this sort of mission the type of people you choose is crucial.
What were the key factors when you selected your people?
I chose people with good references and experience under similar circumstances. Since it was my seventh such mission I already knew many of them, and I knew that I could rely on them. It was a very close-knit team.
There were 24 women working at the hospital. Do you think it’s appropriate for them to serve on such missions?
Absolutely. They provide a gentle, civilized counter-balance to the somewhat crude behavior of the men. They were great at dealing with the psychological demands placed on them, and they set a standard for the others.
What was your normal work day like?
We had a strict schedule: reveille, breakfast, personal hygiene, performance of morning duties, lunch, more work, dinner, free time, and bed time. Up to that point it was simple. However, minuses appeared at each step, starting with the high temperatures, generally over 50 degrees Celsius in the shade, and 100% humidity. Fortunately, we had been prepared in advance for it, and we knew how to behave so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of the local citizenry. We always asked our female patients if they were willing to cooperate, and we always made it possible for a man from a female patient’s family to be present at the examination.
You went through several tense moments, such as when irate local citizens accused you of defiled the Koran. How did you react to this conflict?
We arrived at the conclusion that it was a well prepared provocation. The person who initiated it was probably a young Shiite fundamentalist, an immigrant from Iran who was a member of the group that tried to destabilize the post-conflict situation. People like that wanted to push through Islamic law, and this incident was evidently meant to discourage the locals from working together with us. Everyone had to be aware that this unit, which helps the people of Basra, even flying their children to the Czech Republic for surgery, had absolutely no interest in dishonoring the faith of the local residents.
There was a demonstration during which some Iraqis were throwing stones at you. What was the reason for this show of ingratitude by people to whom you were providing free medical care on a daily basis?
You have to see this within a broader context. After the armed conflict had ended the focus shifted to restoring the functioning of state authorities, along with all the sources of electricity, water, etc., which were the tasks of teams of specialists. On the other hand, fundamentalists and Saddam supporters, ruined the power grid and water sources. Sabotage was worsening the situation, as the locals didn’t see the influence of terrorists, Baathists, or fundamentalists, but instead they saw the inability of the Americans to ensure order. This lack resulted in intentional incidents, which was precisely what the saboteurs wanted.
During its mission the personnel of the 7th Field Hospital examined about 10,000 patients, operating on 242 and hospitalizing 308. How did you motivate your team to get them to work at such an unbelievable pace?
Our team can work efficiently anywhere, whether its 50 above or 50 below. Patients came to us with trust, and we couldn’t let them down. A satisfied patient is the greatest motivating force for a health care worker, which is why most of us began working in the field in the first place. When I want to carry out a task I work together with the team. If people see that their leader is working, shirking their duties never enters their minds. For me, setting a good example is the simplest way to accomplish your goals.
What kind of a boss are you?
Undoubtedly the worst you can imagine! (laughs) I’m lazy at heart, self-indulgent, and I don’t like rude behavior. I motivate people by believing that they’re better than I am, and amazingly, it works!
Did you go through any stressful moments?
It was stressful the whole time. I was crushed by the impossibility of preventing the injuries that could be caused by the projectiles that were raining on our base. Machine-gun fire is a part of every-day life in Iraq. The shells are quite heavy, and can reach two kilometers in altitude before falling back to earth, accelerating the whole way, so they are lethal in every flight phase. There’s no way to protect yourself against such random fire. Bunkers would provide the only safe cover. One British soldier went to sleep in his bed in the evening, and in the morning he was dead. And many of our people, nurses included, brought Kalashnikov bullets that had landed near them home for souvenirs.
Could you tell us about the mission’s brightest moment?
When the last soldier deplaned at Ruzyně. I felt tremendous relief. But of course we also had good moments every day, like when our patients or representatives of Basra thanked us, or when the British division’s general praised us for our work.