Reader’s note: In honor of Memorial Day, today’s column is an abridged chapter from my book, “Hero’s Highway.” Next week, I’ll return with the last of the three-column series, “Where Has Our Religion Gone?”
By Norris Burkes, May 30 2021
On Feb. 23, 2009, I was in the middle of a four-month deployment serving at the Air Force Field Hospital in Balad, Iraq. From inside the hospital, I could hear the helicopters approaching our landing pad with urgent hope. Their pilots knew that if they could get their patient into our emergency room, the wounded had a 98 percent chance of seeing their families again.
The first person off the helicopter was a young lieutenant who rushed to the nurses’ station where I was standing. Mistaking me for someone in charge, he urged me to look after his three buddies.
Then he raised his bloodied hand and added, “I think I’ve got a bullet wound, too.” I shot a wide-eyed look to the chief nurse who began prepping the lieutenant for surgery.
As the lieutenant awaited treatment, he told me his men were part of the 5th Squadron he’d commanded from the 1st Cavalry Regiment, 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright, Alaska.
Across the trauma room from the wounded commander, our staff worked feverishly to keep his soldiers together and make them part of our 98 percent survivor rate.
Clothes were cut off. IVs inserted. Chest compressions made.
The doctor grabbed defibrillator paddles and rubbed them together, merging confidence and chance.
“Charge – clear – shock – charge – clear – shock.”
“One ampule epinephrine,” called a doctor from the far bay of the trauma room
More compressions and more shock.
Heads turned to the monitor. Nothing.
The doc placed his stethoscope on his patient’s chest.
“I’m calling it,” he said.
“Chap!” summoned the doctor. “We’ve pronounced. You want to say a few words?”
I looked down at the young Army corporal staring up at me and prayed a quick prayer as someone else called out, “We need you over here too Chap!” I crossed the room to another bay to see the staff covering a 31-year-old soldier with a sheet.
A minute later, I crossed the room again to say a third prayer. The prayers quickly became benedictions. All three were dead. The staff stepped back from the gurney and stared at their own bloody boots.
Short sobs could be heard over the deafening silence that had enveloped the room like one of our dust storms. The snap of elastic gloves being removed in disgust announced each team’s realization that the three soldiers were dead on arrival.
There was nothing more we could do except don more gloves and go through
the pockets of these young men. Coins, pens and papers were pulled from their pockets. Patches were stripped from the uniforms.
Then a gasp was heard as an airman removed pictures of a soldier’s wife standing with two small children. More tears.
“Are you all right?” I asked the bleary-eyed airman.
“Yes,” she lied.
Soon I walked to the table where the young lieutenant sat shaking his head and making nervous twitches at the confirmation his team members were all dead.
He told me how his platoon was surprised by the enemy as they searched a house. In the return fire, the two surviving members killed the insurgents who had killed their comrades.
“We got the SOBs,” he told me in language soldiers often hide from their chaplain. “They were some bad guys. They were torturing women and children. We paid a terrible price, but we got the SOBs.”
I nodded in sympathetic agreement of the triple price paid.
Corporal Michael Mayne, 21, former Eagle Scout from Burlington Flats, New York.
Corporal Zacchary Nordmeyer 21, of Indianapolis, a graduate of Ben Davis High School where he played baseball and was active in the ROTC program.
Specialist Michael Alleman, 31, father of two, and fifth-grade teacher from Nibley Elementary School in Cache County, Utah.
This Memorial Day weekend, please join me in saying the names of these soldiers as sacrifice recalls the price paid by over 7,000 U.S. service members since 9/11.
To read the entire chapter of this incident, visit Norris’ website at www.thechaplain.net. Contact him at [email protected] or 10556 Combie Rd. Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail (843) 608-9715. Twitter @chaplain.