DISTANT DEATH HITS HOME
Name: Eric Coulson
Posting date: 5/9/07
Stationed in: Ramadi, Iraq
Hometown: St. Louis, MO
Milblog url: badgersforward.blogspot.com
This post treads on sacred ground. I am well aware of that. It has been some time in the making and has been subject to editing and review by several people, including Soldiers that were there that night. It should be obvious, but I will make it explicit. The family of this Soldier has been notified. I believe, from their comments to the news media, they would be okay with this story. The Task Force should be proud, in a dark hour, the leadership and the Soliders stood up. A final note, I find writing and reading in the first person compelling, but this is not my story, I am simply the camera.
“All personnel with O positive blood report to Charlie Med.”
The Big Voice boomed from the loudspeakers around camp. I was sitting in my office contemplating bed, irritated that my civilian internet service was down for the second day in a row. Then one of my radio operators piped up.
“Sir, another company has been hit. The request for blood is for our Task Force. They have also called for a communications blackout.”
Ah –- a communications blackout. My lack of civilian internet is now moot. Since I have O positive blood, I decide to head over to Charlie Med.
“I’m going to the Charlie Med,” I announce.
“Sir, they won’t let you give blood, you have had a tattoo in the last year.” A reference to the tattoos a number of us received together before we left for Iraq.
“OK, well I am still heading over.”
I stop in my First Sergeant’s room.
“First Sergeant. I’m heading over to Charlie Med. Another company took a hit.”
“Roger that Sir.”
I head out the back door and turn to my left, heading down the walkways we have built. I run into another Company Commander, his First Sergeant, and one of the Staff Officers. We are all headed in the same direction. We move out at a brisk pace.
“Anyone know what happened? I have not seen a SIGACT yet,” I ask.
“No. Just that they got hit and their security element brought the wounded Soldier back.”
In truth I was not overly concerned at this point. We have had plenty of Soldiers go to Charlie Med as a precautionary measure. The request for blood obviously was a concern, but it could be just another opportunity to fill the blood bank. It’s of little use to jump to conclusions and automatically assume the worst.
We walked, mostly in silence, contemplating what we might find at Charlie Med. Approximately 100m from Charlie Med, we run into a Task Force Soldier headed back.
“If you are going to give blood, they are turning people away.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” we say.
We still want to see what, if anything, we can do.
If they have decided to turn potential donors away, that has to be a good sign, right?
We arrive shortly thereafter, over 100 Soldiers in line to donate blood. Soldiers and Marines from all over the Camp. It is gratifying to see all the people not part of our Task Force turning out to help.
With the need for blood alleviated, we find the Battalion Commander and the Company Commander of the wounded Soldier. They are both moving in and out of the treatment area. We wait around, both to gather accurate information and to stand by, ready to render assistance in anyway we can.
Soon a medic rushes past with a pint of blood. And then another medic and another pint of blood. And again. These medics swiftly move away from the patient care area back to the blood bank and return with more plastic pints of dark red life. They make this trip several times. I can’t help but count...and worry about the significance of the wounds that this Soldier sustained in order to be receiving this quantity of blood.
The report from the BC and my friend, this Soldier’s Company Commander, is that he is in surgery and it will be at least 45 minutes before he is out.
Some of the Task Force leadership makes the tough decision to return to the Battalion area; there are still missions going on. With all my Soldiers in the wire I decide to stay.
The next several hours are like any you have experienced at a hospital when a loved one is in surgery. It’s a big family, dirty and uniformed, but a family nonetheless. The “older” family members, whether by rank or age, move from group to group. The Soldiers have questions, but we have few satisfactory answers. At this point we know little, but the fact that surgery is still going on is a good sign. He’s fighting and the doctors and nurses are doing all they can.
Men fight back tears, they seek solace in each other’s company. As medical personnel come and go, we ask questions and receive the typical noncommittal answers. One can hardly fault them for that; no one wants false hope, only to have that dashed later. We are all adults here and we know what the stakes are.
Finally, the surgery is complete. The Soldier's Commander and I are invited into the surgical suite, such as it is. Surgery was performed on an elevated stretcher, empty blood bags litter the floor, as do other remnants of the procedures. His wounds and the other incisions made to repair his wounds temporarily bound with antiseptic materials. The medics lift him gently into blankets and a specialized covering for his transport to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH pronounced “cash”).
They have bundled him up, the oxygen and portable respirator, the various blood products and IVs secure and attached for the trip to the CSH. A blanket surrounds his head. His chest rises and falls in cadence with the respirator’s clicks. Once he is set, he looks safe and secure, warm. Having just seen his injuries, I know that he has a long way to go if he is going to make it, not a sure bet at all at this point. Yet I am comforted by his appearance, now ready for the MEDEVAC flight.
My friend, his Commander, leans down and whispers to his Soldier for several minutes. I am deeply moved by this simple, kind act. I place my hand on my friend’s back and talk to one of the doctors at the same time.
“Doc, obviously we can tell what the worst case scenario is. What’s the best case scenario?”
My comfort at his appearance is gone.
The helicopter is inbound. Four medics carefully lift the stretcher and move out to the ambulance. We follow him out.
The flight nurse ensures he has blood, equipment, and a weapon as he mounts the ambulance. The medics slide the Soldier in and we are joined by the BC, the Sergeant Major, and it appears the bulk of his Company.
We walk behind the ambulance as we make the 100m journey to the MEDEVAC helipad. Some people are talking in hushed tones, but for the most part we are silent. There is nothing more to say. We are all lost in our own thoughts, prayers, and questions.
I think about a myriad of different things. The funeral-like procession out to the flight line bothers me, but that is because it seems so appropriate. I wonder about this young Soldier’s family about whom I know nothing. I want them to know that people were there with him, that he was treated both professionally and kindly, and that his adopted military family, at least for this mission, was around him. And of course, I wonder about the war, because at this very moment, the big picture arguments seem so very hard hold onto, as this young Soldier struggles to hold onto life.
We are now on the flight line. The medics hold us up and have us all remove our headgear and tell us that once the chopper is inbound we need to seek cover behind the berm or the ambulance. And now we wait.
I am accustomed to long waits for helicopter rides in theatre, but as is appropriate for the seriousness of this situation, it is only moments before I hear the UH-60 Black Hawk. It is flying without lights, but the moon is such that the blackness of the chopper is set off against the indigo of the night sky. I stand long enough to watch the bird come in, only crouching down and shielding my eyes from the blowing rock and dust at the last minute.
Once the dust settles, I look up. I see the crew chief dismount and a soft green hue illuminate the passenger compartment. Then the door slides open. The Cobra gunship that has escorted the Black Hawk settles in behind the MEDEVAC bird, waiting for the signal to go.
Now that the helicopter door is open, the medics open up the ambulance and slide the litter out. They do it quickly and efficiently, but gently and respectfully. No time to waste, they move to the bird with the flight nurse in tow. He is on and secured so fast it is surprising to one who expects a longer wait for military movements to begin.
The Black Hawk pilot throttles up and the dust begins to fly. The Black Hawk rises into the sky quickly and sets a course for the CSH, the guardian angel gunship in tow. We watch the Black Hawk until it disappears and becomes one with the night sky.
We congregate at the edge of the helipad and the chaplain offers a prayer for the Soldier, his family, the Soldiers here, and the medical professionals that treated him. With that concluded, we begin to walk back to the Battalion area.
The Company of the injured Soldier heads off for their area. Those of us not in the Company decide to let them come together and support each other as a family.
Walking back to Badger Main, I realize just how cold it is and I am grateful for my jacket.
When I return to the TOC, it seems inappropriate to go to sleep, which seems too comfortable, and I do not feel like comfort is something I should seek right now. But there is nothing more I can do and tomorrow is another busy day.
I settle down into my sleeping bag and realize how draining the last several hours have been. I quickly fall asleep. It’s 0100.
When I awaken, it is particularly dark. I hear the coffee percolating and look at the clock; it’s 0730. The only image I have in my head is of the Soldier on the litter. I put on some shorts, slide into my shower shoes and my fleece, and I grab my coffee cup and fill it with the hot brew. I head out the door to the other Company TOC. I want to see if there is more information available.
It has rained in the night and I almost slip and fall. Hot coffee splashes out of my cup hitting my very cold feet. It is very quiet as I enter the other TOC. I approach the NCO on duty.“Any word from the CSH?”
“You probably want to speak to the Commander or the First Sergeant, Sir. They have both stepped out to speak with the company.”
That tells me everything I need to know. The only other answers would have been no or he’s stable/improving or something else noncommittal and vague.
“Alright,” I say, “I’ll catch up with them later.”
I leave and the NCO comes out the door after me.
“Sir...We just got a phone call. I’m not supposed...”
“Sergeant. Thanks. I understand. You are doing your job responsibly. You don’t need to tell me a thing. I already know.”
I come back into the TOC looking for my First Sergeant. He’s out on the main board walk. I step out the front door and motion him over.
“I was just over in the other Company TOC. They just go a phone call from the CSH and the Commander went down to talk to the company. Let’s get ready.”
“Roger that Sir. We’ll wait until it’s official.”