Inspired by the experiences of Shawn Dickens
Fear, Loathing and a Med Bag
A Corpsman’s tale of deployment with the Marines
by Shawn Dickens
“It is the duty of a hospital corpsman to wait in obscurity most of his life for a crisis that may never come but, when it does come, it is his duty to give it all he has.”
The snow had begun to melt in the warm Afghan sun, with cold mountain streams flowing over rocks smoothed by ages past. New streams that a few weeks ago would not have existed, now carried their thaw to a swelling river, marching on their voyage to the sea, only to repeat the cycle all over again the next winter. But this stream was different, taking with it ribbons and streaks of bloody crimson. Sanguine swirls dancing, spinning together with silt and sweat, the essence of life mixing with its actuality.
Puddles of scarlet spilled across my palms and into the desert sand as I fought to save my injured Marines. Dry and sticky between my fingers, it took a little bit of extra effort to open my hands. And so, for whatever reason, I found myself doing it repeatedly as I knelt in the damp, rocky sand of the bank. Tiny pebbles dug into the soft spots of my knees through the fabric of my uniform. The bloody uniform. Moon-dust-sand and dark life had caked in places across my pants where my hands tried to get clean.
The explosion had done its job, ripping apart steel as though it were flesh, and flesh at though it were nothing. I remember thinking, dazed, about how the twisted wreckage of a truck leaking fluids into a crater resembled a scene out of a war movie. Broken glass and scattered metal littered the ground next to spent brass and bandage wrappers. Chaos.
But I did my job, mending both meat and mind, a line of broken, bandaged Marines in my wake. I waited for the Medevac chopper to carry them away. I only had a backpack full of medical supplies and my training to do this job. Some of them needed more help than I could provide in the shallow ditch on the side of the road.
One of the things you are taught when you take up the responsibility of being a combat corpsman is that you must never show negative emotion when dealing with your patient. No matter how dire the situation, you must be the calm in the storm. An island of tranquility. Both Zen master and poker player, emotionless and cool. Because whatever the wounded see in you, they will mirror tenfold. If you are scared, they will be terrified. If you are sad, they will be inconsolable. Emotion will overtake them and in doing so, will prevent you from doing your job.
So I had purged all emotion from my face, if not my mind. While I moved from one shrapnel torn body to the next, I could feel the storm raging inside. Dark clouds of rage, sadness, and fear swirling together to form a hurricane that tore at the shore of my mind. The pristine coast of my innocence, torn apart by an act of God. I felt like I knew I would never fully repair the damage done on the side of that road.
But the blood washed away. My hands, seemingly working on their own, rubbed sand from the streambed into each other to scrub away the parts that water alone refused to clean. As it returned to its flow, unburdened by my digging into the silt, I caught my reflection in its shallow meanderings. Streaks of blood traversed my face, highlighting where I had wiped away sweat, staining me with a war paint I’d never be able to wash off. A tear escaped my eye and traveled down my nose, a sacrifice falling into the liquid mirror. As the blood washed away, so too did the courage so stoked by adrenaline, leaving behind a void; a vacuum easily filled with fear and doubt. Emotions were compounded by the nagging question of “what if?”
The trickling sound of flowing water drowned out the sound of my own heartbeat in my ears, the wind in the trees now louder than the rifle fire that filled the valley moments before. Birds chirped in the distance, sounding as though they had perched on my shoulders, like Odin’s ravens, Hugin and Munin. Present thought and memory.
And they were screaming into my ears. My mouth was dry from breathing fine dust kicked up by the explosion, so I reached for the hose of my camelbak. I took a long sip and swished it around my mouth, spitting it into the face staring back at me in the water.
It was not until the last trace of blood left my hands and danced down stream across the rocks that I fell apart. My breath, once slow and controlled, came in ragged gasps as I fought back the tears welling up against my control. My fists clenched in the icy water as my emotions finally boiled over. Rage, hate, and fear set my insides on fire. And that heat spread through my body so fast I feared this tiny stream would evaporate under my touch, leaving me staring at steaming stones and mud.
It was more than I could take. Like a second bomb, inspired by the first I exploded. A sound caught in my throat, not quite a scream, not quite a sob. When it finally broke free and escaped my bared teeth, it resounded in a mighty, futile “FUUUUCK!”
Suddenly, a hand grasps my shoulder. I lurched in reaction, falling onto my forearms that landed into the stream. Water splashing onto my face, causing the dirt and blood to run down like a heartbroken woman’s mascara.
“You ok Doc?” my staff sergeant said as he propped his rifle on his hip. “The bird is 5 minutes away.”
I threw more water onto my face and finished rinsing away the last traces of blood as he stood over me.
“Yes, staff sergeant, I’m good.”
The lie fell from my lips before I had a chance to catch it. My allocated moment for emotion had expired. We still had a mission to do and wounded to evacuate.
I picked up my helmet and started up the bank. Once my wounded can see me, I feel the expression drain from my face again. Walking in my direction is the Quick Reaction Force, a group who comes to provide assistance, along with their corpsman, med bag over one shoulder, rifle in the other. Our paths crossed next to where I was sitting in the back of the truck. His eyes scan my body and take note of the blood on my uniform.
“You look like shit!” he laughed. “What’s the damage?”
“Thirteen in the truck, twelve injured, six need medevac, bird is five minutes out.”, I replied.
His eyes scanned the twisted wreckage of the truck.
“Who didn’t get hurt?” he asks.
I just stare at him. My mind focuses on the pain in my knees where the stones had bit in as I kneeled.
“I was sitting against the spare tire; it stopped all the shrapnel.”
He started to respond but I couldn’t hear. The medevac chopper was landing, the other corpsman was yelling at me, and people were calling out to one another for… well, for whatever they needed. But I couldn’t hear them. All I heard was water.