Some of you will know of of my medical/nursing background in the armed services of Australia. I found this story in this month’s “Reveille” magazine, which is the voice of the NSW Serving and Ex-Service men and women. I was particulary touched by this story which occurred some time ago in Afghanistan. When you read it I know that you too will feel for both the injured soldier and the padre who was only identified as “Chaplain John”. This is his story, but it just had to be told again here!
“MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC”
You never forget the first time you hear those words scream through the flight room speakers. Dragged from precious slumber, the team races through the darkness across crushed rock to the silent helicopter in a couple of minutes.
You never want to be the one who delays the take-off.
The crew thud into their seats, pull their protective webbing across their chest, click the lap sash and tighten, click the shoulder straps and tighten, check their mike and call, “Crew Ready” as they give the OK sign to each other. They are airborne within minutes.
Somewhere, someone lies wounded, amidst the dust of Afghanistan, surrounded by colleagues providing first aid, waiting for the reassuring whoof-whoof-whoof of the Dust-off [call sign] helicopter approaching through the night sky.
On this occasion it is a US Special Forces soldier who lies bloodied and broken upon the rocky Afghan battlefield. An American flight crew flies to his aid and brings with them an Australian medic.
As the Black Hawk returns to base, the Australian medic is faced with seemingly impossible decisions in-flight. Through the green light of his NVG he notes that the soldier’s vital signs are not conducive with life. With a significant head injury and critical injuries to all four limbs, an emergency procedure is needed to keep the patient alive long enough to reach the surgical team.
In a scene reminiscent of M*A*S*H, a desert-coloured ambulance whisks the patient away from the helipad to the Forward Surgical Element, an American Role 2 medical facility. The medic announces vital details – mechanism of injury, injuries, symptoms and treatment – “Improvised-explosive device; bilateral lower limb amputation, head injury, injuries to hands and arms; next-to-no blood pressure; blood sats low and loss of blood volume; ‘trachy’ and fluid lines are in,” he says.
The soldier is taken straight to the operating theatre (OR). After a quick assessment of the patient, the anaesthetist pages the padre. A screeching BEEP BEEP BEEP rallies me from my sleep. At the same time the phone rings and the caller alerts me to the situation in the OR.
I’m deployed with the Special Operations Task Group as the unit’s chaplain. It is day 68 and, being a Sunday, I’ve conducted two church services this morning and had lunch with the other coalition chaplains
At 1845, one of our officers is readying for a night mission. He comes to see me and we read some scripture and pray together.
I call my wife in Sydney to wish her a happy anniversary. I’m comforted by knowing that my children are safe in our Sydney home and express my love and gratitude to my wife of 18 years who is holding the fort at home during my seven month deployment. We agree to celebrate on my return.
In America a young bride has just turned 19 and does not yet know that her life is about to be irreversibly changed as her husband of seven months has been critically injured.
In the operating room, I provide sips of water and words of reassurance for the medical team as they work through the heat of a stifling August Afghanistan night. The small OR is about six foot by eight foot square and holds to operating tables. Shelves and equipment line the walls.
I wonder who this man on the table is. I can see that he is young and fit and his dog tags say that he is a Christian. I think of all the people I’ve prayed over in the hospital and in our other coalition hospital and I fear that this might be another one who doesn’t make it.
I’m one of about a dozen people in the theatre and with great concern they quietly talk out loud about the injuries. “He’s already lost his legs today. I don’t want to take his arms as well. He’ll be in Rammstein, Germany within 24-48 hours. We’ll leave the hands on to give them something to work with,” says one of the surgeons.
For three hours I pray for guidance for the medical teams as they make their decisions.
The soldier is stabilised as he is readied for transportation to the next level medical facility. We stand shoulder to shoulder in the different uniforms that denote the different nations and services for which we serve. We all lay our hands on this young man as I say a few words of prayer. Over the next few days he travels to Germany and then home to the United States.
Within a week his wife has started an internet blog to keep concerned friends and relatives informed. Her only request, at the bottom of each post, is “Please pray for Brian”. Through his recovery, return to the US and subsequent rehabilitation, I am constantly moved by her strength and commitment to her husband and her belief in the power of prayer.
Back in my small cell-like room, I consider the paradox of this day and the last three hours. I have again been faced with the horror of war and recall my grandfather’s words from 30 years ago.
With youthful enthusiasm, I’d offered him a lift to a Remembrance Day service. His retort was sharp: I don’t need a special day to remember, I remember it every bloody day”.
He died in February 2008, just before I was deployed to Timor Leste.
He was a tank commander and lived through the fall of France, D-Day and the North West Europe campaign, being wounded in action himself on a number of occasions. I have the flag off his tank, medals and ribbons, sergeant’s chevrons and some old photos. One day I’ll get them framed.
Throughout this deployment I’ve been touched by the humility of the high performing medical teams, their experience and compassion, and the strength in the face of adversity of people from all over the world working together.
In the midst of the horror, good can prevail.
This wounded soldier is making progress and now has prosthetic legs. His arms and hands were saved. He and his wife are now expecting their first child, due about the second anniversary of his wounding. Prayers are answered, and miracles do happen.
As a veteran you don’t need a special day to remember, least any of us forget!