Chapter From Reclaiming Our Dreams
by David Ahlson
“Fuck man, I just woke up. Can’t you shut it, at least until I’ve pissed and smoked? You’re such a fucking asshole.” I roll off my cot and slide out of my mummy bag. I can’t wait to sleep in a real bed again. I check my boots for camel spiders, keeping my handgun trained on my boots as I do so. Evil demons, camel spiders but they’re all clear this morning. I walk out of the tent, flipping the door closed behind me. I look at the sun rising behind the mountains they call the “Roof of the World.” It looks like the deep purple rent by spidery veins of molten reds, yellows, and oranges is set atop those black peaks. Black they are, right down to the deep hearts of the mountains that harbor those Taliban fucks, as if they are the black blood flowing through those veins. Somewhere to the south across those plains lies a remote desolate place called Tora Bora. The world doesn’t know about these places yet, but someday. Someday they will – once we’ve caught Osama.
I brush the sand from my pants and hands and pull out my cock. Damn it’s cold this morning. I blow into my hands in a futile attempt to coax my unusually shy member into cooperating. Steam billows from the stream of hot piss that I pour into this foreign land. Sand. Sand is everywhere. It’s in my clothes, beard, ears, nose, mouth, boots. Hell, I even shit sand these days. We all do. Coarse and red. Not the nice sand like in Arabia. This is awful dirt/sand, like nothing I’ve seen before. I used to love sand, not so much now, but a trip to Lincoln City will cure me of that, I’m sure. Almost a year since I’ve seen home. Marc hasn’t been home in just as long. Only three days though. Just three days left. We exfil tomorrow. Standing down today, we’ll pack tomorrow and be out of here the day after. Debrief after two days of travel and we are back in the good old Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. Huh. Back to a country of people who will never understand what we went through out here. Masses of people who will never fully appreciate that the world in which they live only exists because of all the guys dying here. They won’t ever understand the wars that are fought while they watch people’s lives destroyed, all from the comfort of their couches at home.
“You know, Marc, the only thing I’m going to miss about this place…that sunrise. God is pouring liquid fire onto that velvet sky. I always half expect him to come walking over those mountains. I’ve never seen the skies look like that. Not even the Northern Lights compare to Afghanistan’s dusks and dawns.”
“Ahlson, you’re a fucking poet at heart, dude. Why do you do this medic shit? You are such a dick! You just pissed on my boots, you asshole!” Marc leaps backward out of the steaming stream of the nearly clear contents of my bladder.
“That’s for sounding just like my dad. He keeps saying that I should write. That I have a ‘gift.’ It will be a waste if I don’t use it…blah blah blah… He thinks that saving people is a waste of my life! We SAVE people, Marc! We pull their sorry asses from the jaws of fucking death! We swoop in like angels over a battlefield and spare them an awful fate! How could writing a book ever compare? Seriously?!”
“Ahlson, you are the only one who can always make the best arguments against yourself! People don’t talk or think like you. I know that you think they do but they don’t. You never notice how people look at you when you talk. They listen, man. Something about when you talk to people, it just connects for them. You really should tell some of our stories. It’d be really cool. Like all that Clancy shit you’re always reading.”
“I’m not a goddamned writer. Please, just drop that shit, or else I’m gonna shove your ass outta the fucking helo! Is your all shit packed up yet?” I scowl as I think of the tensions between my father and myself still unresolved.
“Jesus man, calm the fuck down. We don’t gotta talk about it if you don’t want. Just sayin’ if more than one person is saying that you’re really good at something, shouldn’t you maybe, I dunno, listen? And yes, for the 10,000th time you OCD motherfucker, we’ve packed everything except for our jump bags, packs, and weapons. Not that we need that shit anymore. I packed my vest and spare boots, too, so thanks again for pissing on mine! Let’s chow!” Marc looks a little cowed, but I can tell we will be broaching this subject again, sooner than I would like.
“Okay, we’ll eat then go hang out in the CP (Command Post). Choppers will start rolling in in about an hour. Let’s chow light and wind down to go home. I still want to run a basic health screen for those Pashtun natives to the west. They seemed cool enough. Really eager to help get rid of the Taliban for sure.”
Weirdly, I don’t recall what we ate. It was no doubt some awful MRE. No great meal or anything fancy. How come death-row inmates get the meal of their choice before they die, regardless of what it is, but we give “food” warmed up in envelopes by chemical water in a plastic pouch to those who go into battle to die in our service? How the fuck does that make sense? I’ll never know.
After breakfast, we walk over to CSAR OPS/HQ (Combat Search and Rescue Operations/Headquarters) to check in and see what, if anything, is going on. The walk from the chow tent to the CP already hints at the returning oppression of the heat. Whatever else we are accomplishing here, we can’t liberate them from this awful climate. The rough ground crunches under our boots. I can’t wait to throw these boots over the wire as soon as I leave here. I am bringing enough of this place home with me to last a lifetime already. I will leave my boots and the shitty climate here. Only the shitty memories stay with me.
We weren’t required to go to the morning operations and duty briefing as we were technically standing down. Everybody knows that two of the “Docs” are rotating home this week. “Lucky sons-a-bitches” and “dirty bastards,” they call us. “Jealous fuckers,” we reply. Truth is, we all just say that stuff to ease the tension, with the understanding that we all want to make it out of here and go home. We are just closer than most. Or so we all think.
“VALHALLA! VALHALLA! COME IN! VIKING 65 OVER!” There is popping and snapping in that radio comm as it hisses out of the speakers. Somebody is getting shot up right now and sounds like they need a ride.
“Viking 65, this is Valhalla. We read you four by five. Over.”
“Valhalla, Viking 65, requesting IMMEDIATE close air support and medevac! Do you copy?, Request IMMEDIATE stress IMMEDIATE close air support and medevac, over?!”
“Viking 65, please repeat request and clarify, over.”
“Valhalla, Viking 65 requests IMMEDIATE close air support and CSAR medevac. We have three serious casualties. We have established a hot LZ on the southwest side of wadi. We have nowhere to go except hell. Overwhelming enemy numbers. Over!” The sounds of gunfire are nearly continuous and very close by the source of transmission.
I look over to the real-time unit assignment locator screen. The closest active CSAR unit we have is more than ninety minutes to the east. Our other CSAR bird is already on the way to Jalalabad with wounded on the way out of country, both of the other IDMT’s on board. They’ll never make it in time.
“What’s their exact position?” I ask the radio operator. He points out coordinates on the screen. I look up and meet Marc’s eyes. He knew long before what was about to come out of my mouth, just as I knew what would come out of his. We both know, though, that in the end we’ll do it. After all, Ut aliqui vivant, That Others May Live. We have another chance to steal victims from Death. Greedy fucker. I reach over and punch the big scramble button. The siren wails. It wails with all the voices of all the wounded and suffering of this war, screaming for all to hear that suffering and death are thriving; thus, we must issue forth to battle against those universal foes. Now only thirty-five short minutes for us; thirty-five eternally long minutes begin passing for Viking 65’s operators. Marc and I bolt for our gear. We run with the long, fast strides one sees Olympic marathoners use, our boots causing small explosions of red brown dirt/sand.
“We are supposed to be standing down, Ahlson! Going home – you remember!? We are definitely NOT supposed to be going on another fucking run. This one’s still hot, too, you crazy SOB! Leave this one alone. Let the PJ’s bring ’em back! They’ll be fine! We really don’t have to go.”
“Marc, they’ll be way worse off if we don’t go. PJ’s rock man, but they aren’t Docs. We gotta get those guys home if we can. Every single one of our guys I send back home is one more ‘Fuck You,’ right in Haji’s face. You know this! Why are we even having this conversation?! Let’s go get these guys so we go out on top. Saving lives to the last minute! Hoo-RAH! Every single one I keep out of that metal box makes another one who gets back, even missing parts or full of holes. C’mon, do I really need to convince you to do the right thing?”
“Hs! Such a dick! You gotta be president, man! You are such a politician! You’d probably end up some crazy-ass dictator, but everybody would love you. I swear you could charm the Keys of Heaven right out of Peter’s hands! Alright, let’s go save the meat bags. I still can’t shake a nasty feeling, but I’ll follow you anywhere.” Marc laughed as we grabbed our kits and shit.
Tech schools: Texas, Georgia, Florida, Washington, California. Marc is a diligent, studious, and considerate nightmare! He totally immerses himself in his studies. One-hundred percent devotion to his mission; that’s A1C Marc Haas’s mindset. He eats, drinks, and sleeps his lessons.
One day not long before we are due to swear our oaths to “do no harm,” or some kinda bullshit no one really means, Marc asks me a serious question.
“Ahlson, do you think it’s ethical to overdose an “E”-graded patient after triage and treatment with narcotic pain meds?” Marc looks at me quite intently.
I look up from the Air Force Instructions and Career Development Courses I am reviewing on battlefield triage protocols in combat zones. An “E” patient is one who is Expectant. That means death is inevitable. There is no saving them, not even if you are in the middle of a trauma ward, no matter what you try.
“What? You mean like pump them full of morphine or meperidine or hydromorphone and let them ride the tides out?” I ask, referencing the floating wave-like feeling such potent narcotics invariably induce in large doses.
“Yeah, I mean, you know that you can’t save them, but is it okay to actually kill them? I mean you are effectively ending their lives. Is that ethical?” Marc looks as though he might vomit, like the very thought of it is making him genuinely ill.
“I totally think it’s okay. I mean in that context as you laid it out, without a doubt. If there is nothing that can be done – they are guaranteed to die – definitely ease their pain. Nobody should have to die like that, dude. Fuckin’ A! It’s bad enough dying at home in your own bed! I can’t really imagine how bad it would be bleeding to death in some fucked-up battle over some rat-shit mountain cave system or nasty, sweaty, swampy jungle hill.
Why? What do you think? Would you do it?” I’m not sure why I ask this. He seems uncomfortable enough and squirms in his seat a bit.
“No. I’m sure that I couldn’t,” he replies.
“Why not!? They are dying anyway, right? No chance?” I ask.
“I’ll still just keep working on them until they stop fighting. I’ll do anything that I can to make sure they know I am doing everything that can be done to save them. I won’t stop until they do. I think that it’s best to give them hope until the very end.”
There is some surprising steel in Marc’s now edgy voice, a tone of voice that, normally, I only hear moments before we launch into a bar fight or a scuffle in response to some ignorant statement. We don’t fight like that much. The brass frowns upon it, sadly. Perhaps, if we were allowed to beat each other’s asses occasionally, it might keep us from being so ready to kill each other. That’s probably their intent. They want all of us frustrated and angry enough to kill, yet still be able to retain the ability to rationalize the destruction of our own kind.
“You mean even if that hope is false?” I am puzzled.
“But isn’t that just lying to them?”
“No. Not just. It’s better to give them hope, false or not, than to send them to the other side by your own hand.”
“Ya know, good luck with that. Because, ya know, ten fuckin’ seconds later that motherfucker is gonna be on his way back from the realm of the dead to torment your ass for lying to him at the end.”
“It’s a total betrayal to give them the coup de grâce rather than tryin’ to save them. They trust us to do everything imaginable we can do to try to save them from the unknown. After all, this life is all we get for sure. It’s all we are guaranteed to get, so I can’t imagine being responsible for taking everything away from anyone.”
“Fuck that! I am not getting haunted by some dude who’s pissed off because I said he was getting more life than he actually was,” I protest.
Marc has obviously been giving this a lot of thought, dwelling on it intensely. He doesn’t usually like to argue this way, or even really discuss issues like this, but something has his passions raging. I wonder what it is. His ears are a shiny, rosy red; the red that you associate with Rudolf’s nose, Santa’s cheeks, or that aunt or uncle’s face who was totally sloshed at the last family gathering. Those ears stick out even farther than my protuberant aural receptors. I remember thinking what a good-looking kid Marc is in spite of those ears. He has slightly almond shaped eyes, not quite Asian, and a beautiful aquiline nose. I wonder if he, like me, has Native American blood in his family. You can almost see the character etched in the lines of his face. I joked once that with the aid of a grey powdered wig, he could make a passable George Washington. (I didn’t learn until later that his parents used to tease him about the same thing. It explains why he hit me so hard when I said it that time!) Like General Washington, though, the content of Marc’s character is unquestionable. He knows what the “right thing” is, and come hell or high water, he will see it done because it is what he and his duty demand of him.
“I disagree entirely, but I guess when it ultimately boils down to it, you’re gonna make your calls, and I’m gonna make my calls. Only we have to live with ourselves afterwards.”
“They aren’t just patients, for fuck’s sake. Man, Ahlson, one day you’ll see through this bullshit of ‘objectivity’ they preach. Objectification is more like it. We don’t stop being people just ’cause we need a medic. I think we are at our most human then. We want, more than anything, another human being there with us, not some mechanical imitation of one. You can’t just treat people like things. People are way too precious and complex to categorize them like that.”
“Really, not that I am eager for the opportunity or anything, but I wouldn’t mind you working on me if I needed it,” I say.
“Someday, you’ll understand what I’m saying; it’ll sink into that genius brain of yours, the one you show off all the time and waste on getting into all those skanks’ pants. You’ll be amazing then. After you learn to quit fighting humanity and embrace it, that is. Maybe we’ll be able to change the world together. It’ll be mind-blowing, I think.”
“Your eyes are positively screaming that you’d never let me die. You’ll never give up, will you?” I am in awe of my friend.
“Goddamn right! I wouldn’t want you or anyone else to ever give up on me, either!”
I’ve never heard Marc talk like this before. He is really opening up. My eyes narrow and search his, as if I am sifting his soul for some clue as to what was really going on behind his eyes.
“Are you feeling okay? You haven’t been drinking already, have you? Or sneaking into some meds or something? Oh, shit! You’re not about to tell me that you’re in love with me and that you’ve loved me ever since you saw my tight ass and big dick in the showers, are you?!” I nearly fall off my top bunk from the sheer force of laughing so hard.
Marc’s ears don’t change color, but his face quickly matches them shade for shade, morphing chameleon-like.
“Go fuck yourself, you asshat! I’ve witnessed how all those skanks limp outta here, and I don’t want any part of that business, thanks! You’re Senior Airman ‘Rule Nazi,’ anyway, remember? You can’t play with boys anymore; it’s illegal now, you degenerate prick!” Marc chuckles
“Seriously though, I am totally fine. I’ve just been reading some stuff that really makes you think. When we’re done in the Air Force, I was thinking about a career in bioethics and research like that. I kind of enjoy thinking this way. Oh well!”
Marc cuts off abruptly, leaps up from his lower bunk, whirls to face me, and before I know it, the fucker is kissing me full on my mouth! He pulls back laughing like a maniac, and says, “Although you do shake that ass pretty fuckin’ well. At least, all those fairies down in the Castro last weekend thought so, didn’t they? Four hundred and ninety bucks! You’re a shameless fuckin’ pervert! C’mon, you owe me some drinks over at the Delta Breeze!” He bolts out the door, chased by my laughing string of obscenities. We drink the night away in a semi-rare decompression during school.
I treasure those memories now. I still slept well and dreamed peacefully back then. What a wake-up we got merely thirteen weeks later. Little did we suspect that Afghanistan was the next target on ol’ Uncle George W’s chopping block. Even less known to us was that we’d be the ax getting swung at it, but hey, what did that matter? We just got “free” school, huge tax breaks, and better benefits! All brought to you courtesy of the same assholes who sponsored Viet Nam, Nicaragua, Somalia, Grenada, Persian Gulf I, all in the name of better amusements and cheaper consumer goods.
Sure enough, about thirty-five minutes after I hear the call, Valkyrie 62 (my chopper) and Valkyrie 27 (our PJ’s chopper) arrive on scene over a small village. One side looks to be crawling with the Taliban, and on the opposite side, a surprisingly large number of our operators have dug in and formed a perimeter. We wait for smoke to guide us into where they have prepped our patients.
“Valkyrie 6, that suck is chaos right now! We can’t go down there! Merciful God, that’s TOO HOT!” Marc sounds a little panicked at this point. That’s quite unusual for him.
“Can it, Valkyrie 2, we’re here. We aren’t leaving without these casualties. Let’s rock ’n’ roll. I see smoke over to the southeastern corner of that wall!”
I see the smoke billowing up from the grenade canister there, right on the edge of where the wadi meets the walls of the village. But something is not quite right about it. It rolls into the sky too lazily. The rotors have slowed, and I hear them beating the air with the rhythmic chop of a chef’s knife on a cutting board. Everything moves at half-speed. Our chopper banks hard to the starboard side. We don’t risk using the miniguns for fear of hitting our own fighters. No smoke trails yet. That’s good. RPG’s just make shit so much worse. Birthed and perfected here in Afghanistan, the art of shooting down aircraft with rockets is at its pinnacle. RPG’s are much worse than the American-made Stingers (left over from when we supplied them to the Mujahideen to use against the Russians when I was only a kid) and Soviet-made Red Eyes (the Soviet analog to the Stingers), simply because they are unguided, and so there’s no alternative but to try to dodge them.
“All right! Listen up! It’s game time. Valkyrie 27 will roll in behind 62, PJ’s will grab the two closest casualties and IDMT’s will grab the really bad guy. Boots dirty in forty-five seconds. We’ll run in low. Keep the wheels up. These hajis like to nigger-rig shit to blow up, and they are pretty crazy about where they put shit. Hey, 2, stick to my ass, we gotta run past that wall there to get to this guy. Uh, 5,8,14, you guys grab the other two and bolt. Let’s roll!”
“Tally-Ho, 6!” “Copy That!” “Roger! On it, 6!” and “We’re right behind you” sound through my headset.
I feel the whir of the now nearly silent rotor blades. The helicopter “rocks” us in, charging with nose steeply angled down and then flaring the nose up sharply bringing us to a near dead stop almost immediately. There’s a huge cloud of red dirt/sand. Time now crawls. Even now, if I try to recall this at any speed other than super-slow-mo, I begin to panic and sweat and my mouth goes dry. I taste dirt/sand and smell Death’s poignant cologne. If only I had known how close he was right then.
The dry, dirty, rusty flavor of the hot air fills my head. The rusty iron clouds armor us from the enemies’ sight but also shield them from ours. There’s a long drop as I jump to the ground. My trained feet are already running as I hit the ground; I’m heading towards the corner of the wadi, crouched, running in the prop wash. We must move so quickly. These helos are a sweet target for any of these hajis with an RPG. I can hear the rustle of the rusty sand blasting across everything. It scrapes over me, trying to steal me a grain at a time. I hear louder hissing. Staccato rapid distinct. HISS! HISS! HISS! HISS! My brain reports that those are bullets flying past me. I feel my asshole tighten, the familiar triggered response that lets me know I’m deep in the shit already. I no longer hear the rumble of the turbofans from the helicopter. I can hear the unmistakable snaps that are automatic small-weapons fire. I realize that there are geysers of rusty sand dancing around my immediate vicinity. The small explosions are coming in from the front and to the right. At a 45-degree angle from me, I see the offending AK-47. So many of those things in this country, you’d have thought the Russians had figured out how to grow them on trees. Fucking guns! Stupid fucking war!
– THWACK! THWACK THWACK!! THWOCK! –
That wet, meaty slapping sound, slightly hollow. If you have ever tenderized a thick steak with a mallet, you know the sound I mean, only with a slightly wetter slap. That sound means that someone has just gotten shot. Did I just get shot? I look down for an instant and see nothing other than my dusty garb, no blood. Instantly I know that I am fine, but then who? The only other person who should be close enough for me to have heard the sounds is – Marc. I hear the deafening loudness of his “UUUUUHHHHHNNNhhhh…” grunted as the bullets drill holes in his lungs, driving the air out of them and rapidly replacing it with blood. FUCK!!! I see his eyes go wide, wider than I have ever seen eyes go. I think I might be able to see the curves of the eyeball itself. He’s already falling backwards. Two more snaps right by his right foot, just in front of my left foot. Haji is still shooting. I’ve got to stop him before he kills me, before he shoots more of us. Where did he come from? Is that a tunnel in the side of the wadi? It must lead inside that building. I begin to spin towards the tunnel and the AK-47. I can smell sweat and dirty and gunpowder and blood. I smell my friend’s blood soaking into this cursed soil. I’ll never forget the look of blood clumping in sand. Damn, there it is right there. The AK-47 is right in his grubby, filthy, bloodstained hands screaming for more blood. My eyes flick up, just behind the sights. I want to look into the eyes of the thing holding the weapon that just shot my friend. My right hand has been moving since I began my spin, what seems like ages ago. It is now on its way back up from its journey to my thigh. My eyes are glued to the haji’s face. I see it twist with some emotion. The bolt of his rifle locks back. The magazine begins a fall towards the earth that I never see end. His eyes are widening as he sees the blocky metal in my hand, understanding. It dawns on his face just like the liquid fire I watched pour out over the mountains this morning. No matter how fast he thought he is, he will be too slow. He knows this. I see the dark gleam of metal as it passes over his chest. Three white dots align across his chest. I squeeze my hand, and the sun blossoms with a roar that pounds my chest and hammers my ears. The world goes completely silent. The three dots align five more times, each followed by the explosion of the sun and the muting of the world. The last time the three dots align, the middle dot is centered just below haji’s right eye. I see it all in perfect high definition. His eyes are no longer meeting mine. Instead, his face is contorted, twisted by pain and horror and terror and understanding. He tries to cry out, but all that comes is a frothy spray and a party popper of organic gray streamers. The foam around his mouth tells me that at least one of my .357 Sig rounds found his lung. My Sig Sauer P226 was loaded with 147-grain jacketed hollow points. I wasn’t even supposed to be carrying a gun, let alone two. (Fuck the Geneva Convention. Fuck politicians, lying bastards playing games with other people’s lives, making up rules for other people to live by, while they enjoy the freedom promised to all of us, freedom lauded as the right of all people, so long as we do what they want us to do with it. Politicians who are thousands of miles from danger, who decide what should happen on battlefields they will never set foot on. Politicians who will never know the fear of death shared with the men beside you. Will we make it? Will he die? Will I die?) I know that if more than one of those rounds has found its mark, haji has no back left. It twists slightly as it falls, that broken wreck holding the AK. As it falls, I see the glory of my actions, the destruction I have created. The back of its head is gone, empty the way an eggshell is after you crack it open. The gray streamers make sense. That must have been my last shot, the one below his eye. The murderer is dead. (Years later, I will realize that he isn’t truly dead. Instead, he is just wearing my boots now. It is like some vile reversal of the childhood game of tag.) I have killed another human being, and it is terrible.
“Dave, Dave, help me man, I can’t get up on my feet. They won’t work.” Cough, cough.
“Oh, Jesus, no! Please, no.”
Time stopped dead. I hoped that was all that would.
Back then I was pissed off about it. I was pissed that God had a plan and that I had no say in it. I was pissed that anyone would have the audacity to tell me what I should do with my life. Typical teenage punk, only with a high IQ, smartest idiot most people knew. It was my anger and rage that drove me to complete some of the Air Force’s toughest advanced training schools in record time. I would prove to everyone that the American Dream was true, what America preached about being “whatever you wanted to be” was true. Regardless of the pressures they exerted on you to become what they thought you should be, you had the choice! You could do anything. So I did. I had lots of stripes and a chest pretty full of ribbons for a nineteen-year-old baby-faced kid. I worked my ass off and played just as hard. I was proud. Too proud. But it wasn’t my pride, my ribbons of achievement, or my burning anger that carried my best friend and me to that helicopter. It had to have been God. I swear it. At nineteen, I hung a measly 115 pounds on a frame that stood just about 6’2” with my combat boots. Marc had a solid forty pounds on me and was a stouter 5’8”. I can’t, to this day, explain to you how I picked him up off the ground so easily. I plucked him off the cursed dirt/sand so rapidly being hallowed by his spilling blood and sprinted him away to that helicopter. It took only a few heartbeats. I remember my feet hitting the ground only three times. I remember the hot air of the turbofan engines washing out over us and the burning in my lungs as I screamed wordlessly for something, anything to happen.
The whole world seems to lurch and fling us into the waiting bay of our helicopter. I see the familiar dust cloud exhaled by the powerful overpressure wave of a large explosion in an enclosed space come belching out of the wadi. The roar that follows destroys reality, along with half the fucking village. “What in the Holy Fuck was that?” I think. The buildings of what seems to be half of the village and walls of the wadi become nothing more than a pile of rocks, dirt/sand, and smoking rubble, in less time than it takes a fart to vanish in the Columbia River Gorge east wind in winter. POOF! It was gone! Out of the dust cloud come two silhouettes, one supporting the other as they run. A PJ and a limping SEAL. I scramble to throw on my headset so I can communicate with the flight crew. As soon as I am plugged in, I shout at the pilot.
“Captain Evers, Sir! We gotta leave right fucking now! We have a wounded doc and I gotta get him home right fucking now. It’s gonna be bad, do you copy?!” As I scream at my superior officer, my hands begin to unbuckle things my shears won’t take care of: web belt, harness straps, pack straps, Tomahawk, shemagh. None would come off fast enough. I am not even listening to the crackling reply from Capt. Evers. I’ve no idea what he just said.
“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! That hurts like a motherfucker! What the FUCK?! I packed my Kevlar vest last night. Ain’t that a bitch!? I should have made you loan me that ceramic you always rant about, Ahlson.” Marc’s breathing is labored and shallow and rapid. I see his chest rise and fall only on one side. Flail chest it’s called. None of those is a good thing. His body is caked with sweaty dirt/sand. The congealing blood forms a strange mud.
“Shut up! I need you to not talk. You know you shouldn’t talk until I can see what you’ve got going on. You’re hit badly, but I don’t know how badly yet. Gimme a few seconds to figure out what you have going on, Marc.” I grab his left hand and slap the pulse oximeter on his finger. Marc always calls these things “E.T. fingers” because they glow red just like in the movie. His blood saturation is very low. Rapid pulse and low sats are not a good combination.
“Sweet Jesus, what the hell happened? We better get to rockin’.” The voice of Master Sergeant Ross is rough and low of key, just like the man himself. MSgt Ross has been a PJ since sometime just after they had invented the helicopter and he discovered he could jump out of one. He has a tough, leathery look about him, and his eyes are positively predatory. They miss no detail, those eyes. Right now he is looking at Marc and me, as he secures his patient. He should be in the other helo helping with their wounded. My question remains unspoken but flashes across my face nonetheless. The answer I receive is two fingers drawn across a bearded throat and a wistful shake of the head.
“KIA times two. Just before we got here. Nothing we could do for them. I got this guy, and as I came around that wadi towards you, I saw about six of those bastards in there with RPG’s ready to go. So I tossed in a ‘party popper’ and hauled ass to see who you were carrying. Guess there was a shitload more ordnance in that hole than we could see, huh? So what happened here?” He is so fucking calm. I don’t understand it, not this time.
“Obviously we have multiple GSW’s – thoracic – but not sure of specifics yet. Looking now.” Time still hasn’t started moving, but the seconds rush by anyway. They don’t flow in order; rather they swirl like the dirt/sand of this forsaken desert mountain, chaotic and without direction. I can’t know what they are leading me towards. My trauma shears bite through the clothing Marc is wearing, saturated with a muddy mix of dirt and blood, or is it blood and dirt? It’s hard to say which there is more of, precious blood or accursed dirt/sand. Blood. It is definitely more blood. As I yank the shirt open, my eyes scour the broken body of my best friend, lying before me with a body now ravaged by this war. My breath catches. It has nothing to do with the rapidly thinning air as the heli climbs for the flight to Jalalabad and the MAST there. It has everything to do with the fact that this war has just become very, very personal. This isn’t another patient; this is my best friend.
“Fuck me,” MSgt. Ross breathes so quietly that I might have imagined it. “This is gonna get rough before it gets better…”
“We got…,” I reach underneath my friend, who is now naked from neck to waist. “FOUR through! Total of four through and through. I think we are safe on that and that for now.” I point to wounds at 8 o’clock and 4 o’clock. “Can’t worry about them right now ’cause these three…fuck, that’s so close. AND two clean through the lungs. Shit, that one might be having cardiac involvement.” MSgt Ross and I move fluidly and mechanically. Well-oiled precision has three large bore I.V.’s in and running, and four occlusive butterfly dressings on the sucking chest wounds in less than ninety eternal seconds.
Cough, Cough, Spit. “Hey, guys, my hands still work if you need them,” Marc half jokes. “But I can’t wiggle my toes. They won’t work. I think I might have pissed myself, too.”
“Just relax, we are working. Just go slow for me this one time, okay? We will have time to talk on the way home. Lots of time. Breathe slowly and deeply. Burp those butterflies when you feel tight, okay? I gotta look at this center chest, Marc. It’s really close to your heart, man.” My voice and my face are drawn tighter than my asshole now. Pressure. It changes simple coal into diamonds. It crushes you if you aren’t strong. It does really strange things to people.
I pull out a very large syringe of morphine. I hook it into the second I.V. line but leave the plunger lock there and let it hang. It’s an automatic part of my routine in bad cases. Just in case.
“You know, we only had three fuckin’ days left. This is some kind of bullshit.” There is some light red froth starting to form at the corners of Marc’s mouth. “Dave, I know you got this. You are gonna do the best you can do, and that’s the best the Air Force has. I know, I’ve seen it. No one in the whole world I’d rather have working on me right now. Cough, Cough. “I’ve seen you do magic. I know you got some in there for me.” Marc’s coughs are wet and warm. I feel them spray my face. His eyes widen, and his face whitens like charred ash. Some horrible waxy imposter, not my friend and brother, lies before me momentarily. Like a scene spliced flawlessly into a film, it is there and then gone again, the maggoty white face marred only by the rosy froth at the corners of the mouth and speckling the lips.
“Oh shit, is that all mine?” Panic tinges his voice. A cunt hair from losing control, I’d say.
“No, son, you still have some of it left in there, but if you keep yakkin’, it’s gonna make our job keepin’ it in there much harder. Rest easy. Burp that leftmost dressing, please.” MSgt. Ross is one seriously chill badass. “Ahlson, how’s that wound looking? Can we do anything with it?”
“Without films we don’t do shit. It’s way too fucking close to call for sure. If I go in blind and I bump it or god-forbid push it farther in, we could tamponade or dysrhythmia. We need to haul ass to J-Bad and the closest MAST.”
As those words escape my mouth, it crashes through me like tsunami. I have said those words to patients twenty-eight times before today. Each time I’ve framed them a little differently, but the meaning is the same. They mean that the only way you are ever going to see home again is after a long, lonely ride in a cold metal box. Only unlike the twenty-eight previous times, I am not saying them to a patient this time. I am saying them to a person for the first time. More than a person. I love this man. I would give everything for him. And I can do nothing to save him.
All of this training, work, and study, all of it means precisely fucking dick! None of it does me any good. Too much damage, not enough time, not enough life. It is leaking out of my friend, and I am powerless to stop it.
“Dave,” Marc’s voice quakes, “you tell my parents yourself. Promise me that you won’t let them find out by some telephone call, telegram or chaplain’s visit, okay? Just tell them. Dad...love him so much…hope proud. Mom, sorry that we can’t dance.” His eyes slide out of focus as he continues, “Dave – best…best friend, best medic, best of us. Least I won’t die old. That was always my worst fear. No fear, man.” His eyes glass over, and the blood is so stark a contrast to his pale lips and face, precious droplets and rivulets, countless liquid rubies pouring from his broken body. My hands find his hand, and I squeeze.
“Hang on, please. We’re only twenty minutes out. We can do this. We got this, PLEASE! I’m doing everything I can do! Everything in the fucking world! You do your part you sonofabitch! C’mon and fight it, you asshole!” This is what he wants. We had that conversation so long ago, it seems.
Marc’s grip in my hand slackens a little, then suddenly stiffens. Spasms wrack his shattered body. His ragged breathing is labored and fast but still deep. His lips move, but I can’t make out what he’s trying to say. I lean so close. The copper/iron smell of blood is overwhelming. My stomach lurches.
“Remember, how I said that you should keep fighting, trying to save people, no matter what? Not to kill them and betray the trust, even if you couldn’t save them? I was wrong. Your way was better. I like it better, but don’t worry, I saved you from having to do it. I love…” Marc never finishes that last sentence. It’s left unspoken forever. His eyes lose all focus, and his body goes limp.
Never as dramatic as the movies make it out to be, but they also never capture the pure tragedy of the death of a human being. Movies always cheapen it to a poorly acted cliché. Death is billed as tragic, but, sincerely, it has a cost of ownership unrivaled. It has real costs that should terrify. They should never ever become ordinary.
Sgt. Ross lays a rough hand on my shoulder. He is staring at the empty syringe that was so recently full of morphine. It is tucked into the now cooling right hand of a warm-blooded hero.
I lean back down to my friend. My salt tears cut tracks of pink into his bloody grimy face and sunburned cheeks. I cry a river like the Styx, floating his soul to the underworld. I breathe into his deaf ear a message meant to restore the hope lived by except at his own end.
“No, you were right. You are people, not patients. I got it. I will never forget it. I will never lose it. Not once. I swear to God. I will tell your parents, just as soon as I can sneak back home. I understand. I do. I love you. Forever.”
Sgt. Ross closes Marc’s eyes for the last time. He rubs his own. I look to him, so calm and brave and steady. I am lost for words, lost for feelings. I look at MSgt. Ross, eyes questioning, mouth popping open and closed like a goldfish.