A Path with Heart—Afghanistan, part 13
By Sergeant Thomas Bauschke
Good morning, dear reader. It’s Oct. 11 already. Summer is finally waning here in Afghanistan. The nights grow cooler, and the corn has largely been harvested. The enemy has stepped up his efforts of late. Taliban fighters attacked our Badel COP (Combat Out Post) four times in 24 hours the other day. Across the Kunar River, near the Pakistan border, the attacks and roadside bombs intensify as well. The end of this year’s fighting season draws ever closer. We can only hope these are last-ditch efforts of the enemy before cold and snow in the mountain passes shut them down for the winter.
In my first installment of this series, I promised you would know my highs and lows, the good, the bad and the ugly of my deployment. I’ve covered every one of those, except the ugly. I submit that this will be the only ugliness I will need to convey to you. There is no need for me to wallow in violence that we must sometimes participate in. The following article is not suitable for children.
Sept. 24, 2120 hours: A convoy had just passed by my FOB (Forward Operating Base) and was hit by an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade). One casualty—ETA 5 minutes. I was on the FOB that night. As soon as their vehicle pulled up to the aid station, I could smell the blood; the inside was covered in it. Five of us teamed up to quickly get him out and onto a litter. Both his legs seemed to be dangling by little more than skin and tissue.
The patient was conscious. Once in the aid station, he was a stunning sight. He was driving a Humvee when an armor-piercing RPG round penetrated his door, nearly severing his legs. His medic was with him every step of the way, and had applied tourniquets to both legs. These were the only thing saving his life at this point. His right leg was nearly amputated halfway between his knee and hip, with only some skin attaching it to his body. His left leg was still attached by bone and muscle, nearly severed at mid femur as well. He also had taken shrapnel to his left arm, where a pressure bandage controlled that bleeding.
I measured his blood pressure: 80/55, which was very low from losing so much blood. The patient was still conscious and talking. His medic had given him a 10 mg auto-injector of morphine, but he still complained of pain. We incrementally gave him another 10 mg of morphine through the IV line we had started to give him fluids of normal saline and a blood volume expander called Hextend.
Tourniquets are very painful, over and above pain of the injury, but are vital to preserving the supply of blood the body needs to survive. We had to put a second tourniquet on his right leg to stop stubborn bleeding; probably his femur, as bones bleed, too—not just arteries and veins. An aid station such as ours could only provide emergency trauma care while a helicopter was en route to get the patient to a Forward Surgical Team in Asadabad.
We kept him on 100 percent oxygen and kept him talking while wrapping and splinting his legs and left arm. “What’s your religious preference, rock and roll?” I asked. He smiled, “Independent Pentecostal.” Whoa! There’s one I don’t hear every day. He was a brave kid (I’m 44 years old) and retained his sense of humor all the way to the chopper. I admired his spirit and bravery in the face of seeing his legs… knowing… and I am not fit to hang up his coat.
I was just as impressed with his medic, PFC Ruhl (4th ID). She had bloodshot eyes, ringing ears and was coughing from smoke inhalation. You see, she was in the vehicle with the patient when they were hit. Most medics would be in shock themselves and would stand back and let the trauma team treat their patient to regroup themselves (and I wouldn’t blame them AT ALL). PFC Ruhl stayed directly involved with the care of her patient all the way onto the chopper. The tourniquets that she applied to his legs saved his life—we at FOB Fortress aid station only maintained it. The patient later lost his right leg above the knee and may lose his left as well. But he will return home to his family alive and still a man (I won’t elaborate on that). That is one tough medic, America. I would go on a mission with her anytime. And that’s coming from an Infantry Line Medic. PFC Ruhl, you’re my hero. And if I ever run into you somewhere, the drinks are on me—NO strings attached.
There aren’t nearly as many women serving here as men, but women are every bit as involved in this fight as men and often find themselves in front-line situations. Female cooks ride with us to search female Afghanis at road-check points and during foot patrols. One of our cooks, Corporal Supko, was recently awarded an Army Commendation Medal with a V device (for Valor) for her involvement in a fire fight up north. From fighter pilots to doctors, fuelers, drivers, cooks and medics, to name a few, women are definitely pulling their weight in the war on terror.
Oct. 8, 1445 hours: I had 15 minutes left on my guard duty shift. Abruptly, through the lazy afternoon quiet—shots fired! I hunkered down in the turret of my truck and tried to see where the shots were coming from. Suddenly, a bullet popped by my head, so close it made me blink. I felt the pressure wave near my right ear; a lucky shot from 700 meters. When a bullet whizzes by you, it’s maybe 20-30 feet away; when a bullet crackles, maybe 5-10 feet. But when a bullet pops/snaps, it’s within inches of you.
It was just chance or luck that I happened to be looking at the position he fired at me from. I saw his muzzle flash. I knew exactly where he was. Without taking my eyes off that spot, I immediately lined up the sights of my gun and sent five rounds directly at him. His position erupted in a cloud of dust and shards of rock. I saw no more muzzle flashes from that area, and a couple minutes later, two 105mm HE (High Energy) artillery rounds pummeled the site, engulfing it with dust, shrapnel and flying rock fragments.
I am a medic, dear reader. I came here to save life—NOT to take life. But first and foremost, I am a soldier. My platoon already knows I will treat their wounds, even while under enemy fire, because they have seen me do so. Now, my guys also know that I will defend them with weapons, but only if I have to. This was the first time, hopefully the last time, that I have ever fired a weapon in combat.
I told myself that the artillery rounds got him. At midnight, after my next guard shift, I smoked a cigarette in the pitch dark of a bunker. I closed my eyes and whispered to myself: “I did not kill a man today. I relieved the pain of an ear ache for a beautiful 5-year-old girl.” I have treated hundreds of local people here over the last nine months, mostly kids. I’ve treated everything from scraped knees and fevers to donkey bites. I have touched many lives and families here, and felt like I had done some good amid this mayhem. Is all that good now washed away in blood? Am I now reduced to merely a killer of men?
There is no way to know if I hit my target, or if he got away altogether. I would have had to actually climb up there to see for myself. That would have been suicide. His comrades would have long since carried him off (or at least the pieces of him, anyway). Yes, even the Taliban have burial ceremonies.
I wish I could say I’ve killed no one here. Now, I am not so sure I can. Duty, Honor, Country meant somehow less when the choice came down to me or him. I chose him. May God have mercy on my soul. May he forgive all our sins—Christian and Muslim alike. And may he give us peace to somehow finally end this incessant madness.
From the October 28-November 3, 2009 issue
Print This Article