Michael's Dispatches

Whispers

 

Afghan National Army soldier.

Two wounded ANA were loaded.   The crew didn’t know how or where they were wounded.  Maybe they had come from the Marjah fight just nearby.  When I spoke English to them, neither seemed to understand, but this one seemed very happy and broke out in a grin every time I said “Okay?” and gave a thumbs up.

This ANA soldier responded with anger in his eyes.  His face radiated hatred.

The two ANA are loaded on the left (we are facing the cockpit), with two U.S. Marines loaded on the left behind them.  The Marines are in the foreground.  The feet on the right belong to the wounded Canadian soldier, so now we have five litter patients, one ambulatory, and eight medical staff.  Care was close and constant as we flew from Camp Bastion to Bagram.  From Bagram, those who were going home would get on a C-17 and probably stop in Landstuhl, Germany, before making the cross-Atlantic journey.

The Marine on the top was not wounded.  Something went wrong with his leg.  The malady remained undiagnosed.  We talked for a few minutes and he seemed to be in good spirits.

Kat Hamblin came up to administer medicine and suddenly it was like the Marine had five cups of coffee.

He sat right up.

Kat started helping other patients, which seemed to pull out his power pack.

In the bunk below was Corporal Tommy Michael, U.S. Marines, from St. Louis, Missouri.  Tommy had a thick bandage on his right hand and a nasty nose wound.  I asked what happened and Tommy said his platoon had been fighting near Marjah, in a firefight that had been going on for about ten minutes.  Tommy said he was in a 4x4 MRAP, in the hatch putting down suppressive fire with his .50 cal when he heard a whistle and BANG!  Some kind of round, maybe a mortar, struck the MRAP and fragged his right hand and nearly blew off his nose.  I asked if all his buddies inside were okay and he said they didn’t get a scratch. I asked if that sort of MRAP is any good, and Tommy thought they were.  I asked if his hand is bad and he said there is some nerve damage. As for his nose, he said it was like a horror movie where the guy gets his arm cut off and it’s squirting blood across the room.  It took 200 stitches to close or sew back on.  I said to Tommy that his nose didn’t look so hot and he was going to have a cool scar, to which Tommy laughed and grinned and said, “Yeah.”  He seemed sad for just a moment, because he wants to go back to his platoon. We both knew it wasn’t going to happen with that hand or nose.  Tommy had done a light tour in Iraq in 2008-2009, but this was his first in Afghanistan.  He said he is now with the 2nd Combat Engineer Battalion with Route Clearance Platoon 4.  Though he just got wounded, Tommy already missed his buddies.  “Are you married?” I asked.  “No Sir.”  “Did you call your mom and dad?”  “Yes, I called them.”  “Good,” I said, “because if you don’t they will go crazy.  Make sure to call them again from Bagram.”  Tommy said he would.

Some troops don’t call their parents or loved ones when they get hit.  Then the loved ones get the word from the Department of Defense that “your son got shot,” and it freaks them out.  When you get hit, it’s important to call home ASAP to avoid stressing out your family.

The medical staff never stopped working.  I didn’t even get a chance to talk with Major Lucy Lehker because she was so focused on the Canadian soldier, who was the only truly critical patient.  When the Canadian soldier began to wake up, Lucy caressed his head, and whispered to him where he was, how he got there, who she is, and what his injuries were.

Lucy kept whispering.

She kept talking until the soldier relaxed.

Later, it was revealed that “Lucy’s” real name is Deborah, but her Air Force friends call her Lucy, as in “I Love Lucy.”  They say she is lovable and naïve, just like Lucy.  This is Lucy’s 4th activation (she is AF Reserve) since 9/11, and her third overseas tour, having served in Kuwait and Iraq.  Her time in Iraq was at Balad from September 2006 to February 2007.  Those who know something about the war will recognize that Lucy was at a four-way intersection of trauma during some horrible times.  Despite all that, she is the one whispering into a soldier’s ear.

We landed at Bagram and Tommy gave me a thumbs-up and a smile as they hauled him out.  Boy his nose looked bad, but he’s going to have bragging rights with that scar.

The crew grabbed dinner and we actually picked up a patient to fly from Bagram to Kandahar.  The patient was Australian.  An Australian nurse was by his side.  I asked what happened to his eye and he said it got blown out by an IED.  He had been wearing ballistic glasses, and suffering no other wounds, but the eye was gone.  He seemed in good spirits.  The Australians have an excellent reputation here.

During the flights the pilots had adjusted the temperature to keep the patients comfortable, but something was wrong with the system and the cockpit was very cold.  The pilots’ feet were freezing.  When the Australian’s eye started hurting because of the altitude, the pilot adjusted the cabin pressure to mimic 5,000 feet above sea level.  There are quirks to aerospace physiology requiring specialized training, and the airplanes complicate matters.  Cabin temperatures can swing dramatically which can have particularly detrimental effects on burn patients.  Pressure changes and gas laws must be considered, while vibrations and noise are big stressors.  Matt Blonde said that during CCATT flights using KC-135s, which typically are refuelers, his feet might be freezing while his forehead is sweating.  So, in addition to knowing their medicine, air medical technicians must understand the nuance of various aircraft, and the impact on patients’ injuries or illnesses.

During the flight back to Kandahar, alerts kept coming in about new RAZs (restricted air zones) as jets and an AC-130 went “hot” on different targets along the way.  We diverted at least once.  Closer to Kandahar we could see the eerie orange glow from artillery illumination rounds, floating down under parachutes in several areas, far below us and distant.

And then a radio call came in.  The mission was “refragged,” meaning it had been extended.  The crew was to drop off the Australian patient in Kandahar, pick up four more patients and fly them to Bagram and then return to Kandahar.

Four wounded US Army soldiers are carried into the C-130J.

We landed in Kandahar and the first critical care team disembarked.  The Canadian had been their 70th patient.

The new patients were all U.S. soldiers from the same unit.  Two were critical and came with a new CCATT.  The two soldiers with lighter wounds were loaded first, and the one on the bottom litter kept turning around, straining to see when the two critical patients would be loaded.  He obviously was their superior.  I’d seen that look of deep concern many times.  A leader was looking out for his boys.

The soldier in the top bunk was named Steve, and he was from 1-12 Infantry of 4/4.  Steve said they had been hit by a suicide bomber earlier in the day on Highway 1 in nearby Zhari District.  The bomber was on a three-wheeled motorcycle and when he detonated it killed three buddies, and wounded the four on this airplane.  Two kids, about five years old, apparently also were wounded.  Steve wanted to talk but he could hardly keep his eyes open so I left him alone.

The lightly wounded soldier who was concerned about the two behind him was Staff Sergeant Joshua Danison, the acting platoon sergeant.  Josh said the attack had occurred at about 10:15 in the morning. The bomber approached on the 3-wheeled motorcycle, with the bomb hidden under bags of the colorful homemade chips that are sold in markets.

Josh said his wounds weren’t bad—he got a frag behind a knee—and he was still able to treat wounded.  While that was going on, at least two other enemy tried to plant another bomb about 50 meters away and our guys caught them. Luckily the medevac birds were very fast, landing in about 25 minutes.

Tom Parsons on paperwork.

And that’s really about it.  This crew and medical personnel say this is a normal day for them.

 

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