JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- “As-salaamu alaikum,” says the tall Iraqi man in white.
“Wa’ alaikum as-salaam,” Chief Warrant Officer 2 Scott Anderson says with wide green eyes and his right hand over his heart in a traditional Arab greeting.
The exchange -- translated into English as "peace is upon you" "and peace is upon you, too" -- is followed by the Iraqi man offering a handshake to the U.S. soldier.
The man has been in this hospital room since his 12-year-old daughter was admitted with shrapnel wounds from an IED explosion. Nurses say the father has not left his daughter’s side since their arrival.
Anderson, a 31-year-old magician, firefighter, paramedic and Blackhawk pilot from Canby, Ore., could be at the pool or watching TV in his room. Instead he spends part of his day off performing magic tricks in the Intensive Care Unit.
The girl, who had surgery in the morning, now lies beneath a colorful blanket. Bags hang under her eyes. Her olive complexion and freckled cheeks are dulled by the ashen color of the sick.
“When she feels better I’ll go again and do some tricks she can participate in,” says Anderson.
The girl’s broken arms prevent her from holding the two sponge bunnies in the Disappearing, Reappearing Rabbit trick. So her father holds one bunny in his fist as Anderson holds the other bunny in his own fist. Anderson mystically waves his hand over the man’s fist, and within seconds both bunnies spring from the father’s hand.
The father smiles wide and his shoulders shake as he chuckles. For a moment there is laughter-induced lightness in the room, and the illusions distract from the horror of a wounded child, another victim struck by the war.
“It’s tough, it’s not easy,” says Anderson about his trips to the hospital. “I feel like crying every time I walk out.”
Anderson deployed to Afghanistan in 2002 and frequently performed for children at the tent hospital in Bagram.
“In Afghanistan we didn’t go a single day without children the hospital,” says Anderson, who has only known of a few children admitted to Balad Theater Hospital on his current deployment with Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac unit based out of Salem, Ore.
When Charlie Company first came to Balad in May, Anderson performed a magic show to celebrate the opening of the Medevac coffee shop. A crowd of soldiers from Charlie Company, Balad Theater Hospital and the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility showed up to watch the magician’s illusions.
In Army fatigues adorned with a smart black bow-tie Anderson performed various tricks.
The audience favorite was a laughter-inducing stunt where Anderson attached a scarf to a soldier’s collar and pulled a bra from a soldier’s blouse.
“It kind of reminds people of home in the United States and the things we have there, the entertainment,” said Sgt. James Tournay, 36, of Silverton, Ore., after the show.
“Scott’s a good guy to have around actually,” said Rob Boyce, 45, of Keizer, Ore., sitting against one of the concrete barrier as the sun goes down.
“A good morale booster,” added Merissa Merlin, 26, of West Linn, Ore.
Anderson got his start in the magic business 10 years ago after he hurt his back during training with the Army. He started seeing a chiropractor and was sent to five different schools to teach the DARE program until his injury healed. It was a great time for Anderson to show off his magic skills, and people took note.
His first gig was solicited from his chiropractor, who offered him two weeks of free care in exchange for a magic show. Soon Anderson landed a job at a restaurant, The Ram in Lakewood, Wash.. After that he performed regular shows, but it was still just a hobby. Money from the shows went back into buying bigger and better props for the show.
During Hurricane Katrina, Anderson was in Enterprise, Ala., for flight school and put his magic skills into practice. Anderson performed two-hour dinner theater shows at an elegant restaurant and used the profits to buy newer illusions and donated the rest to the Red Cross.
Back home in Oregon, Anderson has worked at high school graduations, corporate banquet awards, Christmas parties, large theaters and other various social functions.
“It’s the best illusion show in the Pacific Northwest,” says Anderson of his show called The Magic, Comedy and Illusion of William Scott Anderson.
It could be considered the best and only illusion show in Iraq.
Since he’s performed magic in the countries he deployed in, he jokes that he is now an international showman.
In Balad, Anderson arrives at the hospital equipped with several tricks designed to entertain children tucked away in his camo backpack. He performs the Magic Coloring Book trick, which turns blank pages into black and white images and then colored images. As he flashes the magic pages before the young girl there is momentary gleam in her eyes.
Then he performs the Hover Ring trick, where a ring magically twirls in mid-air. This illusion is a favorite even among soldiers in Charlie Company. The young girl doesn’t laugh but smiles like someone soaking in a sunny day even though the brightness hurts a little. Her ordeal has drained the carefree energy most 12 year olds exude.
Despite his experiences in Afghanistan, Anderson is not immune to the sterile smell, the tubes, monitors and pain in the child’s eyes.
Anderson finishes the show early.
“It's just too heavy,” he says.
The girl strikes a dissonant chord on his heartstrings. His eyes moisten as he finishes his set of tricks. Anderson quietly packs his props and leans over the girl’s bed, wishing her well with the quiet steady voice of a concerned parent.
“Shukran,” Anderson says to her father on his way out, the word for "thank you." The Iraqi father returns the words of appreciation.
“The father seemed really caring,” says Anderson.
The Iraqi father does not have to use English words to describe to Anderson the helplessness and terror of watching his little girl suffer. Perhaps the magician’s show is not just for children.
“I didn’t think I would get that emotional about it,” says Anderson after he leaves the room and returns to Charlie Company’s stark compound of gravel and high concrete barriers. As he sits down in a chair in one of the trailers, Anderson -- known as a carefree, loud and comic soldier -- doesn’t look like himself.
He just looks tired.
On his first deployment, Anderson was single. Now he is married and has a 5-year-old son.
“As a father I couldn’t imagine my child going through that. For too many families here it is commonplace," he says. "Everyone in American knows someone or knows someone that knows someone deployed here. Everyone here knows someone who has been injured. When you see a kid hurt that bad it really brings it home.”
Unfortunately Anderson can’t wrap his son up in his arms for comfort, so he sits silently as his emotions flood over him.
Several days later Anderson returns to the hospital. They have released the young patient, but she will have to return for many more operations.
“She has a long road ahead of her,” says Anderson who plans on performing more magic for her and other children at the hospital whenever the opportunity arises.
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly.
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