June 06, 2007
"Two wounded inbound. IED attack," the Army coordinator says. We go to the OR, turn on the lights, start warming fluids, ensure the oxygen generator is turned on along with the anesthesia machine. After that we wait, as always, with a mixture of anticipation and anxiety.
"Headlights coming down the alley!" yells one of the surgeons. Four soldiers quickly unload a casualty off the Humvee and run into the trauma bay as we direct foot traffic. I'm standing in casualty receiving, and start to follow the patient in when I'm frozen in my tracks: he is so dark from dirt and mud that he doesn't look like he has a uniform on and I can't make out his facial features. He has to be Iraqi civilian. I'm a little confused because the word was two Army soldiers. I do a double-take and don't see anything beyond the upper portion of his thighs. Nothing there but empty space.
The medic is on their heels, and he looks as pale as a silverlit moon. His uniform is caked with dirt. Sweat streaming down his face into his eyes; he doesn't even notice, because he's practically running blind into the trauma bay when the chaplain and I stop him. Chaplain asks him if he's the medic, and he can only shake his head in the affirmative. We quickly thank him for doing such an outstanding job of getting the patient to us, and "Chaps" takes him aside to talk to him and comfort him.
I follow on the heels of the litterbearers into the OR. Staff is streaming in to help. I position myself on the soldier's right flank and establish IV access while simultaneously putting monitor equipment on. I do a quick scan of the room to see if crowd control is needed, and spot an unknown visitor wearing a tan flight suit with no identification. I quickly walk over, introduce myself, and request he immediately identify himself. "Company Commander," he says. We talk for a bit, and I ask about the patient. "Just married a few months ago while on R and R. Such a good guy," he says. What to say back?...We both stand in silence for a few moments. I ask him if he's okay with staying, and he seems fine. I quickly go back to work. The orthopedic surgeon, Tim, and general surgeon, Martin, are working on the extremities at the same time. Mark and I take great care to package him up for the flight to Al Asad. We start giving sedatives and pain medications immediately.
His unit: their love for him is unquestionable. His buddies press into the OR the second we finish working on what's left of his legs. A few with shellshock and patched up arms and legs from the blast are at his side and don't want to leave, hollow look in their eyes and mouths stuck permanently in "O" mode. Eric talks to them about how well their battle buddy, their brother in arms, did with the surgery.
They are so upset with themselves, as if they were to blame. Eric gives one a bear hug; reassures them it isn't their fault. We let them -- no, we are honored to let them -- be the litterbearers back to the ambulance for the short ride to the helo pad.
I help load him into the ambulance for Mark, and turn to run ahead to the helo pad, and as I turn I come to a screeching halt for the second time tonight. His entire unit is lined up and at attention along the route to the helo pad. As the ambulance slowly pulls out, they render colors to their wounded brother. I was so proud of them all; they would see one of their own through anything. The air heavy and charged with emotion, I find myself stumbling on knocking knees because this time it's my turn to be blinded by my own tears as I try to make it to the landing area before the ambulance.
They all walk behind the ambulance to the helo pad, and help Mark and I load him onto the Blackhawk. We stand together one last time as the Blackhawk spins up rotors and gently wisks him to the 399th CSH at Al Asad. Not a muscle twitches until helo and patient are out of sight. Now we wait for the updates and pray that he will continue to have a good life with his new bride beyond this violent collision of reality. Who deserves it more than this man?