Chapter 9 from Hero’s Highway
VENGEANCE ISN’T CHEAP
As March came to an end, star-shouldered generals gathered for morning meetings to plan troop transfers from Iraq into Afghanistan. None of them seemed to require our input, so Pastorius and I spent our time talking about the slight increase in temperatures. I suppose it was our way to coax the rain to end and the summer to begin because hot days meant that our tour was over. I’d anticipated the warmer weather by switching my wake-up drink from hot chocolate to the frozen chai lattes sold in our Green Beans Coffee shop. Like the theater, Green Beans helped us believe we weren’t really at war. Who’s going to kill a guy with a cappuccino in his hand?
During one of those morning discussions, Pastorius excused himself to go the bathroom. He returned with some intel. “We got a big trauma coming in.”
“How do you know that?”
He pointed to the ceiling speakers. “Wait for it. Wait for it.”
“Trauma call. Trauma call. Trauma times four,” the unseen voice said.
How does he do that? I didn’t have time to ask, but I did suggest he fix his unbuttoned fly.
“It’s about fifteen minutes out,” he said.
“What else do we know?” I reached for my notebook and fed the trashcan a half-consumed chai.
“Nothin’ really. They’re just saying it’s bad: three Americans and their Iraqi translator.
“Just pray they aren’t part of the 3 percent,” I mumbled.
Pastorius took a minute to do the math, not something he did well unless it was to measure shelves for the chapel supply cabinet he was building.
“Right,” he said. Pastorius could be slow, but we both knew that Balad’s mortality rate was 3 percent. Of course that meant we saved 97 percent. In fact, platoon and squad leaders often promised wounded soldiers that if they could get their “sorry ass” to our hospital they would have a 97.4 percent chance of seeing their friends and family again. What they probably didn’t calculate were the odds of actually seeing their friends again, because sometimes soldiers lost their eyes. No one quoted the statistics of soldiers actually able to embrace their families, because sometimes soldiers lost arms. And no one calculated the unspeakable possibility that they’d not make love to their spouses again, because well, sometimes soldiers lost that too.
“Maybe we can hedge their odds.” I nodded toward our newly built supply shelves and Pastorius took the hint by grabbing a few Bibles along with a fistful of rosaries. Beyond knowing ETAs, we knew little of what religious support we needed for the incoming wounded, so we often snatched whatever we could pack in our ABU cargo pockets. In my rush to exit the office, I nearly plowed into Pastorius who had abruptly stopped in the doorway.
“Just a sec,” he said. I’m gonna call our priest and let him know he might be needed.” His wisdom made me wonder, Who was this garbage collector? Whoever he was, he was learning hospital ministry fast. When I heard him ask the priest to relay our request to the rabbi, I knew he had this wired.
A minute later, we stood in the ER nursing station eavesdropping on the radio chatter between our hospital and the incoming helicopter. The onboard flight nurse said they were “incoming with one ambulatory and four expectants.” He revised their ETA by five minutes because they had “flat BPs and a CPR in progress.” The ruddy young radioman promised the flight nurse that we’d be ready, even though he likely felt what we were all feeling – there was no way to be ready for this.
Five minutes later, we heard the swop-swop-swop of the twin-bladed Blackhawk UH-60L on final approach into the February sun. The helo kicked gravel bits on the backside of our emergency room, signaling specially trained stretcher-bearers to go to the helo pad with two-wheeled contraptions that resembled a cot. The stretchers were affixed to a rickshaw and balanced by bicycle wheels that allowed for a quick pivot in tight spaces.
Within moments, a parade of eight medics pushed four gurneys through the swinging doors like they were running to a firefight. Determined staff docked each gurney into curtained cubicles while teams of experts stood with gloved hands held at shoulder height waiting for orders. Steely doctors expelled Hail Mary orders in a prayer for the impossible.
Trauma responses are timed and the seconds are filled with the intensity of a final quarter in a close-scoring basketball game. If we couldn’t clear patients from the ER within thirty minutes, game over. Precious seconds ticked by in a room immersed in absolute anarchy. I was leaning so far over the line, hoping the staff would call for their chaplain, that I was half expecting someone to call me on a line foul.
That’s about the time I locked eyes with a young lieutenant walking toward me and cradling his flight helmet with the cocky confidence of a Top Gun. He had a shaved head and bloody nose, but he carried the unyielding bent of a military academy graduate. My first guess was that his Ray-Bans made him a flight nurse just as he likely figured my stiffened stance and gray hair made me a doctor. It didn’t matter to him whether I was a doctor or chaplain; he was the one giving the orders.
“Take care of my guys first, Doc!” he said. His expression commanded me to understand what he meant.
“Absolutely. We will, but I’m just the chaplain,” I said.
If he heard that, he didn’t much care. He simply raised a bloodied hand to display his second priority. “I think I took a bullet too,” he said.
My first thought was Oh God, they shot the flight nurse, but before I had a chance to react, our chief nurse stepped from behind me.
“Let’s take a look at that, son,” said Colonel William Osborne. Osborne was six-foot-six and he fit the stereotype of a high-ranking doctor or at least an aging linebacker. He cradled the lieutenant’s hand and examined it at the distance required by his farsighted eyes.
“We’ll be taking care of that now, son,” he said. He motioned his nursing team to sequester the lieutenant in the urgent care room adjoining the ER. I followed the team into the curtained cubicle where the staff peppered the twenty-six-year-old platoon leader with pre-surgical questions designed to distract him.
“What’s your name? What unit are you from? When did this happen?” I’ve heard the same rapid-fire questions from ER clerks at home when they interview the parent of a critically injured pediatric patient. While the answers are sometimes helpful, the questions stall the inventible telling of bad news.
The lieutenant didn’t want any bad news, but he spoke in staccato sentences like a POW releasing guarded information to interrogators. He wasn’t the flight nurse at all. He was Jim Young, serial number 555-12-1234, and for the past fifteen months he’d commanded the 5th Squadron from the 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
“Please make sure they are taking care of my guys,” he said. He didn’t have to say it twice. I stepped outside the curtain and into the main trauma room where I saw staff cutting off clothes and doctors barking orders for IVs and crash carts. I knew we were taking care of them when I saw Dr. Dubose circling his entourage around the patient in Trauma Bay No.1, Corporal Michael Mayne. The blond, blue-eyed, soldier was a twenty-one-year-old former Eagle Scout from Burlington Flats, New York, who everyone was hoping to include in the 97 percent of survivors. Nurses optimistically wheeled in the crash cart and pulled premeasured doses of epinephrine while technicians prepped blood test vials.
But Dubose didn’t need to test for dead. He grabbed the defibrillator paddles, rubbed them together, and blended his orders with confidence and chance.
“Charge – clear – shock – charge – clear – shock.”
“One ampule epinephrine.” Dubose spoke with the demeanor of someone ordering a double espresso.
More compressions and more shock.
Heads turned to the monitor. Nothing.
Dubose placed his stethoscope on Mayne’s chest.
“I’m calling it,” he said.
“Anyone have any objections?”
I did, but said nothing. We’d been checkmated and Mayne joined the 3 percent club.
Dubose snapped loose his rubber gloves and exchanged them for fresh ones.
“Chap!” he called.
I joined Dubose at the gurney.
“We’ve pronounced. Can you say a few words?”
I looked down at the bare-chested soldier and placed my hand on his still warm forehead. Say what? I wondered. What the hell kind of response did I have for what I saw in Mayne’s open-eyed stare? I wasn’t ready for this. We saw the previous deaths coming from afar, down a long track. The warning signs began when the doctors labeled the soldiers “expectant.” It signaled me that I’d be at bat in the upcoming hours while the staff withdrew life support. “Expectant” meant death would not surprise us.
But when I looked at Mayne’s bullet-ridden body, I could see that it was a train wreck. It’s as if DuBose had told me, “Bam! This dude is dead. Now say something profound, Chaplain, or just say something pretend. Say any damn thing you want, but I gotta do something that’ll really work.”
I prayed a quick prayer, but Dubose wasn’t waiting for a second opinion. He consigned Mayne to the three-percent report and crossed the room to supervise the team working on twenty-one-year-old Corporal Zacchary Nordmeyer of Indianapolis. The corporal hadn’t gone down easy. According to the bits and pieces I had heard the lieutenant say earlier, “Nordmeyer was hit in the arm, went down, got his weapon, returned fire, took a round in the leg, went down, stood up, returned fire again, and took a shot to the chest.”
Dr. Tamara Chin led the team working on Nordmeyer. The rusty-haired oncologist who did double duty in our ER stubbornly tried to reciprocate the corporal’s determination. Chin called “clear” and then leaned on the paddles with all her 112 pounds to send nearly 1,000 volts through Nordmeyer’s body in hopes of coaxing him back. Her grit made it seem as if she was listening to the voices of Nordmeyer’s family urging her to work harder.
Perhaps she heard the rally of Nordmeyer’s high school ROTC cadets say, “Give him epinephrine!” Possibly she gave the second and third shock on behalf of the grandfather who raised Nordmeyer. Whatever Chin heard or imagined, the staff seemed to work with an awareness of an unseen presence. Possibly they heard the pleading voice of Nordmeyer’s fiancé, his elementary school sweetheart, who was planning a summer wedding. “Doctor, please, can’t you try just one more time?”
One more shock. Once more, nothing.
“He’s done, too,” Dubose concluded. Chin nodded and her team agreed.
“Chap! Over here,” Dubose called. I was standing right beside him, but he didn’t see me because his hyper-focus compromised his peripheral vision
I took my position near Nordmeyer’s head and got my first look at the kid. Like so many of them, he’d shaved his head for battle. His face and neck were smoothly tanned with desert experience. His ears settled in an off-center place where they seemed permanently vigilant for the danger he never heard coming.
I came to Iraq wanting to be close when soldiers died, and I was getting closer than I imagined. Nordmeyer shared the same age and rank as my Marine son, Michael. His arm tattoos matched the ones my son wore. This was as close as I dared get, no closer. But before I could measure the words to pray, I heard a third request.
“Chap! Over here!” called the Czar.
I raised my dazed expression from Nordmeyer’s gurney and stumbled over to Specialist Michael Alleman, where I saw another endgame.
Alleman had the shaven face of an ashen thirty-one-year-old experienced fifth grade teacher from Nibley Elementary School. Alleman often told his squad about leaving his teaching job, two kids and a wife in Cache County, Utah, so he could “fight for his country.”
“Can you say another prayer?” asked a face in the crowd.
If she meant, “Did I have another prayer,” the answer was no. None of the other prayers worked. They were all dead. I couldn’t do resurrectory prayers, but I prayed anyway.
When Alleman joined the 3 percent, silence briefly enveloped our room like a dust storm. All I could hear was the simultaneous snapping sound made by staff removing their elastic gloves in disgust as we realized that the three soldiers were dead on arrival. The interpreter had taken two headshots and was already in the refer.
“We’re done here, people,” said Dubose. “Nothing more to see.”
With that, I walked back to the red line where Pastorius was hanging up the phone in the nurse’s station. He phoned in a play-by-play to our boss, Chaplain Hartwell, who was sending for the priest and the rabbi. Pastorius stepped from behind the counter, put a broad hand on my back, and tried to find the eyes I wouldn’t give him. We all felt so useless: me with my ineffectual prayers, the staff with their last-ditch efforts, and the lieutenant in his inability to save his men. There was nothing anyone could do: no prayers to say, no drugs to administer, no resuscitations to be made. What had seemed like forty-five minutes of hard work took place in less than ten.
“Come on, let’s help the PAT,” Pastorius suggested. The PAT was the Patient Administration Team who sifted through the personal effects of the dead. It was a job no one wanted, and those who worked to save lives usually kept their distance from the PAT. However, Pastorius and I worked somewhere between the middle of helping the living and honoring the dead. So we busied ourselves pulling dog tags from their chests or from their boots. We stripped patches from their uniforms and went through pockets taking pens, coins, and papers. Beside me, a PAT airman removed pictures of Alleman’s wife standing with two small children.
“Are you alright?” I asked. She wiped her eyes on her shoulder and seemed young enough to be Alleman’s sister.
“Yes,” she lied. Like me, the bleary-eyed airman had hoped to put the soldier on a breathing machine so we could medevac him to Germany. Once there, a chaplain could say a prayer, doctors would withdraw life support, and his family could watch the heart-monitor line go flat.
When we were done, I walked back to the exam room where the “L-Tee” sat shaking his head and twitching nervously at the news confirming the death of his team members. Lt. Young explained how his squad had been searching a house when they uncovered a “spider hole” much like the one where the disheveled Saddam Hussein hid. The squad surrounded the hole and pointed their muzzles, affixed with flashlights, down the tunnel. Like the jack-in-the-box in the childhood toy, an insurgent popped out and sprayed the room with fire. At least two of our DOAs died before they knew it. The two surviving members of the squad returned fire and killed the insurgent.
I couldn’t help but recall how I’d used the same tactic during my boyhood war-games when I’d pop from a garbage can, brace a broom handle off my hip and sweep it across my flank, baptizing the approaching Landers brothers with a hail of imaginary lead. But this was no game. This wasn’t play. Our soldiers weren’t able to stand and sneak away like Dennis Landers did when I “shot” him in the garbage can ambush.
“We got the sons of bitches,” the lieutenant said. “They were bad guys who tortured women and children. We paid a terrible price, but we got the SOBs.” He spoke in language soldiers often hide from their chaplain, but I nodded in sympathetic agreement, both to his assessment and to his vengeful tone. A few minutes later, patient transport arrived to wheel the lieutenant into surgery.
I left Pastorius in the ER to greet the arriving priest, retreated to my office, and shut the door, ostensibly to plan the Fallen Warrior Ceremony. I tried to work, but all I could say was, “Lord, God, oh God. Why?” I got nothing, so I withdrew into my childhood picture of war where I could see myself blasting the SOBs that did this.
Suddenly, I slammed my fists into my desk and amended my prayer, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
No one, and I mean not even my wife or closest friend, has ever heard me say those words until that moment when Pastorius pushed open the door and entered without warning.
“Chaplain, are you all right?” he said.
“I will be.” It seemed as if lying should be more difficult.
Over the next few hours, but before end-of-shift, we conducted a triple Fallen Warrior Service. At the half-hour ceremony, I acknowledged the uselessness we all felt while trying to resuscitate dead men. When I spoke of my own desire for revenge, startled people looked up from their boots they’d recently bleached of blood.
“The Bible says ‘Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,’” I quoted, “But most of are feeling we’d like a piece of the murderous insurgents that killed our guys.”
I wanted to shred the Geneva Convention claim as a non-combatant. According to the ancient rules, I wasn’t allowed to kill or be killed. If captured, I was supposed to pray and conduct religious services for both sides. More pretend games. The insurgents hadn’t read the rules. It was a day that I wanted to kill for God. God couldn’t have revenge because I wanted it. And I would get it–vicariously, at least.
Later that night, I shuffled into DFAC where the bulging crowd forced me to eat in an unfamiliar corner occupied by three F-16 pilots from south Florida. I exchanged pleasantries, and we quickly established common ground since I had been stationed in Florida where I had once helped recover the body of one of their pilots.
The squadron leader, a tall balding man about my size, told me his squadron spent the last fifty-eight days of their sixty-day rotation doing almost nothing – until that day. In non-specific detail, he said they’d dropped their bombs on some really “bad guys.”
I yawned and offered my day’s story with a “top-this” tone. The pilots returned a look of familiarity.
“Chaplain,” the squadron leader said. “We know the incident you’re talking about. After your patients were medevac’d from that house, we bombed the shit out of the place.”
“Oh, sorry, Chaplain,” he said. It was rehearsed embarrassment, but he continued. “Honest to God, there was nothing left.”
For the first time, I sat straight in my chair. “You got the bastards,” I said.
They glared at me like I had just revealed classified information. I suppose I had. Nevertheless, I imagined myself in their cockpit knowing what I now knew, aiming the cannon for a tight and personal shot. I would, and pardon my chaplain cliché, blow them to hell.
“Fellas, you just made my day,” I told them. And I meant it. For it seemed on that day that vengeance didn’t belong to God or me. I felt unashamedly grateful that vengeance found a surrogate in the cockpits of four screaming F-16s.