His piercing emerald eyes still haunt me. The brave, young Marine lost his life by drowning…in the desert. How can this happen? Another chip from the corner of my heart. “Doc, you want to call it?” They’d brought him in on a litter, “bagging” him from the field, throughout the flight all the way to the hospital. I can imagine the disbelief of the fellow Marine or Navy Corpsman who’d called the nine line. All but two of the crew were lost that night. “Doc… you want to call it? His eyes are fixed and dilated”.
I was no stranger to death, formerly a nurse on an oncology floor and, later, as a resident working in the ER at the Naval hospital, but this one bored through my heart like a hot poker. This young man looked “perfect”, except for a small smear of blood on his forehead. About the age of my son, his still corpse lying on the gurney looked out of place. I half expected him to sit up and ask what was going on, why we all looked so concerned. He never did. He just reposed on the table, growing cold; the life had long left his body and the spark from his eyes. That was one of the most difficult nights I’d spent volunteering at the small hospital in Al Asad, Iraq. As the Senior Medical Officer of one of the more remote AID stations, I was not attached to the hospital and had no obligation to enter the rotation, but I felt obligated and I always strove to be a team player. Nights like these gave meaning but also pushed my endurance and emotional stamina to the limits.
When I returned to the Aid station, the Senior Chief and I had a quibble about something ridiculous and I just broke. I know it was in part because of the turmoil of the night’s events, but also because of the lack of sleep. We usually had a great “Officer / Senior enlisted” relationship; I valued his insight and experience, his wisdom and guidance. But this just tipped me over the edge. I raised my voice. THIS…THIS does not matter! What matters is lying in the morgue at the hospital! I recounted the events of the night, and Senior sent me to my hooch, showing up later with some special peanut butter fudge his family had sent him in a care package. Something sweet and something precious to soften the past day’s events. Our care packages from 6000 miles away were infrequent and treasured, and it meant so much that he shared such a precious “peace offering” with me.
That would not be the last death I encountered there. Sure, I wasn’t in the front lines, receiving live fire; nevertheless, as the medical officer, I was one of the few of my unit to actually touch death. I helped clean tiny bits from the walls after one of our sister unit’s Marines purposefully discharged his weapon…into his head. Funny how we dress up the words to soften what it really is. The man was depressed, desperate and alone. He’d killed himself. I now counsel everyone with thoughts of self-harm to never make a permanent decision for a temporary problem. I’d also taken care of one of the “enemy” who’d seriously injured himself trying to implant an IED in the road. And a civilian who’d had a heart attack in the driver’s seat of huge truck, nearly ten feet from the ground. We’d gently laid him into the back of a pick-up and transported his body to the hospital; they went through the motions to resuscitate him, but no one really had hope. He was blue and cyanotic by the time I had arrived. Still, we tenderly cared for him as for one of our Marines. One of the “guys” caught up with me weeks later in the PX and thanked me for our efforts.
My former husband used to tease that I was stationed at “Camp Cupcake” because we had a Pizza Hut, a Green Bean Coffee, and a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the base. Big deal. It was still 120 degrees, everything was the color of dirt, we were 6000 miles from our families, we did receive IDF (Indirect Fire) and I did go on “missions” outside the wire. True, I was more likely to get hit by a bus than killed by the “enemy”, but, it was hard. It was lonely. It was more than a little difficult. It gave me courage. It changed my life. I will never be the same. I will be forever grateful for the experiences I had…even the heart wrenching ones… and to the Marines and sailors I served with. They inspire me to do better, to be more.
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