This weekend sort of sucks for about 1% of the US population. Every year we are given a sobering reminder that we are missing friends and loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of this country. For those who survive the horrors of war, it is hard to pull up the past and take a hard look in the eye of how in the world you managed to put it behind you. One rationalizes mortality in a way that is somewhat messed up when applied to life back home with your family.
Well, for the sake of research and my degree, I dug all this up. For those curious but afraid to ask, here is a raw look at what I went through. It is a mere 30 minute glimpse but enough to exhaust me from writing for the rest of the weekend.
Please don’t forget that Veterans are thanked on Veteran’s Day, and the fallen are remembered on Memorial Day. Today is not about me. It’s about those that did not make it home.
“Abner! Take thirty minutes and go clean up,” her shift leader commanded.
Karen was dismissed from her shift after only working three of her twelve hours. She had not bothered to look down at herself since the first combat casualty rolled in missing both legs and another whose left side of her body clung to limbs by thin white threads of tendons and ligaments. Karen’s digital patterned army uniform was saturated with blood, not her own. Her hands were clean, though, up to her wrists.
She walked out the door into the night instead of taking the shortcut through the well-lit air-conditioned hallways of the Iraqi hospital. She stopped at the gazebo where four benches faced inward at a large metal bucket filled with sand. It was midnight, and empty for the moment.
The sound of her velcroid pocket was muffled by the adrenaline still pumping through her body. She pulled out a pack of American branded cigarettes, dry and fragile from the desert climate. A brisk wind blew at her exposed neck, drying the sweat and blood and giving her a chill as she lit the end and took two long drags.
She stared. Into the night, she looked at an object a thousand miles away in silence. Her mind blank but also running as fast as her heart was beating.
Her body was still, but her mind ran backward until she was standing at the head of the bed of a soldier, talking to him because he so desperately wanted to sleep but Karen knew if he fell asleep too soon they would lose him.
What’s your name where are you from do you have someone special back home? Well, we’re gonna get you back there just hold tight and look at me focus on me listen to my voice. Wow, you have some very nice eyes young man, just hold on a bit longer we’re going to take care of you. No water for you buddy we are going to get you up to surgery stay with me the doctor is coming over in just a second just hold on until the doctor gets here. You look worse off than I will ever let you know man. I have no idea if you’re going to make it but I will say everything I possibly can to keep your blood pressure in check for just a few more minutes. Then you can go to sleep while a machine breathes for you and they do their best to save your life in the operating room. Are you binge-watching anything cool at the moment? Oh, I’ve never seen that but hang on, I’m gonna move to the side and let the doctor talk to you okay, I’m right here just answer the doctor’s questions and well get you upstairs. I’m telling you small white lies because once you are intubated, I have to leave you and go to the next guy that is probably going to lose his hand. I’ll continue this rotation, one after another until you are all out of the emergency room and what was once organized chaos, turns to quiet. When I can sit down and think about everything I just witnessed and your blood dries stiff on my uniform.
Michael did have some handsome blue eyes. Later, she would ask for the survival rate of the mass casualty event that took up only the first part of her shift, but she would not ask for who, if any, did not make it. If Michael were among the lost, Karen would have lied to a dead man. At 23, that would be a long life of a mistake she couldn’t make right. 98% was the average survival rate, but even that meant that by the end of the fifteen-month deployment, 150 US soldiers would come into her emergency room and not make it out.
Cleaned and the contaminated uniform and boots stuffed into a bag, she plastered her hair to her head with product and secured the rest into a tight bun on the back of her head. A small amount of makeup powder sent to her in a care package from home hid the dark circles that were permanent under her eyes. She opened the glass door to her balcony and sat in silence, lighting another cigarette. This was against the rules, but looking down the hospital incinerator blew smoke up the side of the four-story apartment building in which her unit lived. They might not die on the battlefield, but in thirty years, most of them would probably pass from lung cancer, smokers and nonsmokers alike.
Smoking was not allowed on the balcony, not because it was inconsiderate to her neighbors or a fire hazard, but it made her a sniper target. High about the tall Texas concrete barriers, the city of Baghdad was black but for a few street lights. Windows of buildings had been painted, so even though the lights we on in her room, that bright red cherry light of her cigarette was an easy target in the otherwise black night.
But most attacks were not small arms fire. They were rockets. Ten months into the deployment and explosions lost their novelty. One’s mortality was already determined. If a missile hit where ever you were at the time, it was just meant to be. Nothing you could have done differently. Walk, run. Go left or right. Stay in bed or take cover. The sirens that detected the incoming bombs would sound and most would look at one another, take one more drag from their cigarette and wait to hear where the first one landed. If the impact were a distance away, they would make their way back into the building. If the first bomb were close by, they would drop to the ground and wait for the next before running for their lives into a nearby bunker.
She continued her smoke, looking across the street to the once regal looking government build. It now had a giant hole in the side. In the daylight, she could see all five floors of marble-tiled floors and the exposed elaborate dome of the internal ceiling. The pools and palm trees still left a ghost of an impression that Baghdad was once a beautiful metropolis that functioned just like the capital of her own home.
These people want freedom, they want safety, they want to go back to the way things were before women and children were murdered by the hundreds with chemical warfare. Could it ever be again the home that these people were forced out of? There are so many children still left within the city while just south the smoke was still rising from the liberation of the terrorist sect in Sadar City. It had been burning for days. The hospital; staff even took casualties from that fight as the rebellions thought little of the Geneva Convention. How do we fight an enemy that has no rules and looks like everyone else? That sacrifice their own children as acceptable collateral damage. She’d seen it. A little boy sat quietly on a gurney in the hallway. He sat upright with his knees bent and his intestines poked out of a gash in his belly. He was not critical, but that poor little boy was alone. Would he ever get back to his family or would he even survive after he left would he succumb to infection where are his parents? Would the hospital staff even do anything to locate them or anyone in the boy’s family or would they just drop them off at the gates of the mythical Iraqi Med City where thousands of local nationals die before receiving appropriate care? Do they care?
The dry tobacco burnt so fast, the cigarette had gone out before she’d noticed. She collected the soiled garments and took them down to in the incinerator to be burned with the rest of the medical waste. Her sleeve caught on something sharp inside of a red bag. She winced and pulled free. She’d bandage her scratch when she got back to the ER, but she could hear the inbound Blackhawks approaching and made her way to treat the next set of casualties.
Though I have struggled to understand the Modern Movement of literature pronounced in the early 1900s, I have attempted to intertwine “stream of consciousness” as well as “determinism” into the experience of a female soldier working in Baghdad ER. Virginia Woolf wrote many stories that focused on the inner thoughts of her characters versus the actual events of the story. This technique is sometimes marked by disconnected prose as well as a lack of punctuation. Authors like DH Lawrence focused on Freudian Determinism in that free will is nonexistent. One dies when they are meant to die which is predetermined by the universe. I have illustrated this in the way a soldier might rationalize the massive loss of life at war in an attempt to cope with the horrors, file them away, and continue to live life after the war is over.