Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Soldier Without a Face.

It was December 2004.  My brigade, 2nd Brigade 25th ID, had been in Iraq for almost a year and we were due to go home soon.  I was assigned to Charlie Company 225th Forward Support Battalion, and as part of Ambulance platoon, part of a two man ambulance team assigned to FOB Gaines Mills to provide ground evacuation, and medical coverage.  Gaines Mills used to be a palace for Chemical Ali, and was pretty nice for Iraq.  It had a peach orchard, many buildings, and lots of room to run around in.  It was early morning and I was asleep having been on watch that night.  I was half asleep when a runner from the Bravo Battery 2/11 FA TOC came running into the Aid Station. 

“We need an ambulance to Cold Steel Base Now!” he said.  He didn’t shout or scream but his voice carried through the Aid Station. 

I reacted quickly.  My senior medic already dressed threw on his IBA, grabbed his K-pot and weapon and ran out the door.  I was shortly behind him.  I threw everything on as quickly as I could, and ran to my ambulance the engine started on my FLA just as I got out the door.  I normally drove but since Eggs was already in the drivers seat I ran to the TC side and as soon as I closed the door he gunned the engine and we drove like a bat out of hell to “Cold Steel Base” where Charlie company 1st Battalion 27th Infantry Regiment was set up.

As soon as we got there, the company’s senior medic Specialist Ells, came to the TC door, and told me to get in the back.  I wanted to argue but that wasn’t the time.  I ran to the back of the ambulance opened one of the doors and made a jump to get in.  Seeing as the doors ere at throat level and I was wearing my IBA and ammo (an added 60 pounds +/-) I had to do a kind of jump and roll to get in.  As soon as I closed the door, Eggs started driving off.     

“What have we got?” I asked sitting on the little bench in the middle of the back portion, and peaking my head through the hatch to the drivers compartment. 

“they say one KIA one WIA, but we’re not going to take their word on the KIA, get ready with Airway, we may have to tube this guy”

“Got it I called back”

Eggs was silent.  I spent the next few minuets preparing the left (port) side lower berth to take the most critical patient, and the other side to take the least injured.  We were only 10 minuets away from FOB Warrior, and the engineers had been hit just before the traffic circle we usually went past to turn into FOB warrior, so we got there in about 7-8 minuets.  Eggs went over a median, and stopped.  I looked out the drivers window just in time to see the Dust-off bird flare for its landing. 

I turned to grab my Aid Bag, which was always kept in the back of my Ambulance.  Ells opened the door and grabbed one as well, handing it to Eggs, who ran off to the injured soldier.

I was momentarily annoyed the ladder wasn’t pulled down but jumped out of the back and ran behind Ells towards where a Humvee sat, it had obviously been hit.  It wasn’t an up-armored humvee, it was a cargo, that had had add on armor kits put over the wooden panels in back where the troops sat, and had an Armored door add on kit.  Neither had done this particular Humvee, or its occupants a damn it of good. 
As I got closer I could see one of the panels which had been secured with a rachet strap, and looked pretty heavy had been nearly blown off.  The sight in the middle is what caught my attention the most though.  A body.  Right leg bent back behind it, and obviously dead.  His back was to me, and he was slightly at a diagonal angle away from me.

“why did they throw the body in the back like that?” I thought.

I didn’t stop running but everything seemed to slow.  Ells got there first, and log rolled him towards us.  To my dying day I’ll never forget the sight that I saw then.  From just below his eyebrows, down to the very beginning of his trachea was just. . . Gone.  Anything recognizable as a face, all the skin, nose mouth eyes, it was all hamburger.  The skin along his cheeks were just little flaps of skin, and curled forwards as if trying to cover up some part of this sight.  I stared at him, for I don’t know how long.  Before a tall soldier came up behind me.  I saw him come out of the corner of my eye, and he just started crying, and practically screaming. 

“No.  Oh God no!  Please God No.”  He grabbed the fallen soldier’s shoulder and shook him, looking for a sign of life.  The platoon sergeant and two other men came over and pulled him away.  He was crying and screaming and they actually had to wrestle him to the ground. 
Ells turned to me and said “get a stretcher and a blanket.”

I didn’t bother to argue.  I ran back to the FLA, and pulled out one of the collapsed stretchers, as well as a blanket form a blanket bag in the compartment just behind the forward hatch.  I ran back to Ells with both, and together we got the poor soldier down to the ground and covered the top of his body with the blanket.  The Platoon Sergeant came up to me and pointed to the soldier who was still struggling to come over.

“can we put him on the bird?”

I don’t know what I said.  Psychological casualties aren’t strictly supposed to go on birds, but it seemed like he’d have to go somewhere.  I’m pretty sure I said something like “stand by” 
I turned my attention to the fallen soldier and ells got another two people to carry him over to the FLA, whose doors were waiting.  Open.  We raised him up, and put him feet first into the Ambulance, but one of the tie straps got caught up on the center bar and the litter started to collapse.  I got up there and fixed the problem, and kicked the bar so the litter would stay open.  When they finished sliding the soldier in, I was about to hop out, when his squad leader came up

“I need his sensitive items”

I waved him up and he came up and he started feeling in the soldier’s cargo pockets, and asked me to help him search for his NVGs and a radio.  I pulled some of the ammo pouches open, then lifted his right hand, which promptly bent back and touched his elbow, as if he had no bones in his for arm.  I dropped his arm, and raised up my hand.  The Staff Sergeant and I looked at each other, and shared a moment of revulsion at the task we had to perform. 

The search continued for a few more seconds before I found his NVGs. 
I was done with this.  I wanted to get the hell out of the back of this ambulance, but then Ells came up and said I had to ride in the back till we got to FOB Warrior.  I wanted to say hell no.  I wanted to do anything but sit in the back but I wasn’t about to say that.  I just nodded.  And got back in.  They closed up the back and Eggs got back into the drivers seat.  Sitting on the seat I looked at the Soldier’s boots,  As we started driving they nicked around as if he were taking a nap.  In fact, because the light was dim in the back I almost convinced myself that he was just asleep.  But every time that thought would float to the surface, it would be crushed by knowledge of what his face looked like. 

I tried to pray.  It was all I could do.  For 10 minuets I sat in the back with the body.  I tired hard not to look at him.  I tried to pretend I was sitting with a fellow soldier while he was just taking a nap, but then I’d think of the rubbery way his arm had felt when I’d lifted it.  It was a very long ten minuets. 

Finally we pulled into the Ivory Combat Clinic at FOB Warrior.  Eggs drove around to the back, where you were supposed to take expectant casualties.  As soon as the doors opened I leapt at the chance to get out. The battalion Chaplin came over and prayed over the body, and I left to go to the bathroom. 

When I got to the crappy little trailer where they had the bathrooms I found a toilet and threw up the breakfast I’d had a few hours ago.  I spent a few minuets dry heaving too.  When I was sure that I was done I got up and left.  Ells stayed on FOB Warrior, so I got to drive back to Gaines Mills.  For a long time I tried to pretend to sleep, but in the end I just stared at the wall.  So close to going home.  So far


Pondorf said...

I can't relate directly at all. I saw body bags, but that is about it.

I can, and do, empathize though.

McMurray said...

I was in C 1-27 and that day my platoon was on QRF my squad took the FLA to that incident. I also will never forget what I saw...