BALAD, Iraq -- On a scorching afternoon, while on duty at an Army airfield, Sgt. David J. Borell was approached by an Iraqi who pleaded for help for his three children, burned when they set fire to a bag containing explosive powder left over from war in Iraq.
Borell immediately called for assistance. But the two Army doctors who arrived about an hour later refused to help the children because their injuries were not life-threatening and had not been inflicted by U.S. troops.
Now the two girls and a boy are covered with scabs and the boy cannot use his right leg. And Borell is shattered.
"I have never seen in almost 14 years of Army experience anything that callous," said Borell, who recounted the June 13 incident to The Associated Press.
A U.S. military spokesman said the children's condition did not fall into a category that requires Army physicians to treat them -- and that there was no inappropriate response on the part of the doctors.
The incident comes at a time when U.S. troops are trying to win the confidence of Iraqis, an undertaking that has been overwhelmed by the need to protect themselves against attacks. Boosting security has led to suspicion in encounters between Iraqis and Americans. There are increased pat-downs, raids on homes and arrests in which U.S. troops force people to the ground at gunpoint -- measures the Iraqis believe are meant to humiliate them.
In addition, Iraqis maintain the Americans have not lived up to their promises to improve security and living conditions, and incidents like the turning away of the children only reinforce the belief that Americans are in Iraq only for their own interests.
For Borell, who has been in Iraq since April 17, what happened with the injured children has made him question what it means to be an American soldier.
"What would it have cost us to treat these children? A few dollars perhaps. Some investment of time and resources," said Borell, 30, of Toledo, Ohio.
"I cannot imagine the heartlessness required to look into the eyes of a child in horrid pain and suffering and, with medical resources only a brief trip up the road, ignore their plight as though they are insignificant," he added.
Maj. David Accetta, public affairs officer with the 3rd Corps Support Command, said the children's condition did not fall into a category that requires Army doctors to care for them. Only patients with conditions threatening life, limb or eyesight and not resulting from a chronic illness are considered for treatment.
"Our goal is for the Iraqis to use their own existing infrastructure and become self-sufficient, not dependent on U.S. forces for medical care," Accetta said in an e-mail to AP.
The incident came to light after an AP photographer took a picture of Borell being comforted by a colleague after the doctors refused to care for the children. When Borell's wife, Rachelle Douglas-Borell, saw the photo, she contacted AP with a copy of a letter he sent her describing what happened.
When Borell talks about the children, he pauses between sentences, keeps his head down, clears his throat.
Seated on a cot in a bare room at an Army air base in Balad, 55 miles northwest of Baghdad, Borell said when he saw the three children, especially the girls, Ahlam, 11, and Budur, 10, he visualized his daughters, Ashley, 8, and Brianna, 5.
Borell, who spoke to the family through an Iraqi bystander with some English, did not understand exactly what happened to the children.
But the children's father, Falah Mutlaq, told AP they set fire to a bag of explosives they found on a street in their village, Bihishmeh, a few miles from the base.
Mutlaq, 36, who has 14 children from two wives, said he took the children to a hospital in Balad, but they were turned away because the facility could not treat them. He then took them to the base.
Borell's eyes cloud with pain when he describes the children.
Madeeha Mutlaq was holding her son, Haidar, 10, fanning him with a piece of cardboard. His legs, arms and half of his face were singed. Ahlam, Haidar's full sister, and Budur, his half-sister, had fewer but still extensive burns.
What struck Borell was the children's silence.
"They did not utter a single sound," he said.
Borell radioed his superiors, who contacted the base hospital.
Two Army doctors, both of them majors, responded.
One of them, according to Borell, "looked at (Haidar) ... didn't examine him, didn't ask him questions."
"(He) never looked at the girls," said Borell.
"Through the interpreter, one of the doctors told the father that we didn't have any medicine here ... and were not able to provide them care," said Borell. "And he also expounded on the fact that they needed long-term care."
Borell said the combat hospital was fully stocked.
"Right before they left, I looked at the one doctor, asked him if he could at least give them comfort care," said Borell. "He told me they were not here to be the treatment center for Iraq."
"He didn't show any compassion," the sergeant added.
Borell grabbed his first-aid kit and gave the father some bandages and IV solution to clean the wounds.
Mutlaq, who grows oranges and apples with water he gets from the Tigris River, laughed when he recalled the doctor's words.
"He lied," Mutlaq said. "The world's greatest power going to war without burn medicine? Who can believe that?"
Mutlaq took the children the next day to Baghdad for treatment.
Budur, a chubby, giggly child with light brown eyes, seems to have recovered except for a large scab on her right arm.
Ahlam and Haidar are covered with yellowish scabs scattered over raw red flesh. Haidar keeps his left fingers bent and hops on his left leg because it's too painful to use the right one. A smile rarely leaves his face despite the discomfort.
Mutlaq said he often hears the children whimper at night from the pain.
Despite their suffering, Mutlaq said he feels no bitterness.
"How can I not love the Americans? They helped me with a flat tire the other day," he said.
Borell said he felt betrayed by the Army, which he joined after high school. Besides the letter to his wife, he also wrote to his congresswoman and several media outlets describing the incident.
His superiors have not said a word, said Borell, "although I get the impression that they're probably not very happy."
Borell's wife gave him a silver bracelet that says: "Duty, Honor, Country." He wears it to remind him why he's in Iraq.
"After today, I wonder if I will still be able to carry the title 'soldier' with any pride at all," said Borell.