Volunteer Mosul Medic Returns to San Diego for Holidays
A San Diego man treating wounded civilians in battle-torn Mosul, Iraq, has returned home for the holidays – with vivid, lasting memories of a job that is far from over.
Derek Coleman, 27, is a machinist from San Marcos in San Diego’s North County. Currently, he is one of two volunteer medics treating civilians and Iraqi soldiers on the frontlines of Mosul, along with his colleague, Pete Reed.
NBC 7 spoke to Coleman earlier this month over the phone, when he was still overseas. On Wednesday, NBC 7 went to Coleman’s home for an in-depth look at his work on the frontlines.
Coleman said he decided to head to Iraq more than a year ago, after he heard what was happening in Kurdistan. He knew he had to help, somehow, and now was the time.
“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t have dogs or kids. If not now, when?’ So I saw it as a unique opportunity in my life where I had the means to do it and I just booked a flight one day and did it,” he explained.
Coleman sold his truck, electronics and camping gear – basically anything that was worth anything – and used the money to make the move.
“I took a big gamble for sure,” he recalled.
Initially, he went to Iraq to be a foreign fighter but within the first few weeks of arriving, he realized there were few options for medical treatment for wounded civilians in Mosul and her felt he could make a bigger difference there by becoming a volunteer medic.
“Right now, I think there is this unique epidemic on the basis of how many civilians are being wounded on a daily basis and how little there is to help them,” Coleman explained. “It’s pretty staggering.”
“It’s a really, really big battle,” he added. “I think people don’t appreciate the size Mosul is. It’s a very large city and it has a million people still in the city, trapped.”
Along with Reed, Coleman has treated almost 600 patients during his time in Mosul, most of whom are children caught in the middle of the fight against ISIS. From about 9 a.m. until 7 p.m. each day, the medics treat between 40 and 50 patients.
He told NBC 7 the toughest part about his work is seeing how many children have been wounded or killed.
He described a typical day in Mosul: “Throughout the day, we just receive casualties. They come by ambulances, Humvees, on foot. Most [patients] are pretty severe trauma: gunshot wounds, explosions, fragmentation.”
Coleman said the smells, sights and sounds of the battlefield sometimes hit him after he’s finished treating patients for the day, once he has time to slow down and think about what he’s seen.
“I get emotional sometimes,” he said, adding that at times, those memories from Mosul will come to mind when he least expects it, when he’s back home safe in San Diego.
“Most of [the memories] are pretty negative – particularly the children I've treated,” said Coleman. “In the last day I was in Mosul, we had a few kids come in who were severely wounded and ended up dying. Picking up a little boy who had lost both his legs and carrying him and just having his blood all over me and wearing those clothes all day, I have vivid memories of that.”
Coleman said being so close to the battlefield has been scary, and he has experienced a few close calls of his own.
“I've been shot at a bunch of times. I've had a bunch of rockets land near us. Car bombs are by far the scariest,” he explained.
Witnessing the danger and death in Mosul firsthand, he said he now sees the world differently.
“I think going forward it's going to be hard having my day ruined now for something trivial now after I've lived through days that are life or death for some people,” said Coleman.
Although he’s currently home for the holidays, he plans to return to Mosul to continue his volunteer work as a medic. Coleman told NBC 7 he feels a sense of responsibility to help civilians there until the fight is over.
“I'm going to go back because the battle is not over yet,” he said.
Coleman said the medical supplies he and Reed are using to treat the wounded in Mosul come from donations. He said they ran out of pediatric medical supplies very early on. Currently, they are in the process of raising funds through this GoFundMe page and Facebook to purchase more supplies. As of Wednesday, the online donation drive had raised $7,300 for Coleman and Reed to continue their work.
Coleman said he has missed his family, friends and the food in Southern California. He said it still feels strange to be back in the United States.
“The first few days were strange because it didn't seem real. The streets I would go down, or off ramps I'm driving down on the freeway – they were like dreams. They didn't seem real to me," Coleman said.
For now, he is enjoying the calm and safety of home.
“It took a few days to realize, yeah I'm actually here. I'm not in Iraq anymore. I'm not hearing constant gunfire or explosions. I've been watching some of the videos I've taken there and thinking, ‘It's nice to not be in a situation where a Humvee is driving up, loaded with wounded people, or children. It's a nice, relaxing calm day.’”
Coleman is currently being filmed by a crew from Delirio Films that is working on a documentary about westerners volunteering in the fight against ISIS, directed by Sebastiano Tomada.