The Fading Names Upon My Palm: Afghanistan Update 13 NOV 2012

(Originally written and published on 13 November, 2012, at a remote Village Stability Platform (VSP), Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.  Originally written to friends and family back in America.)

(Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan, or CJSOTF-A, required that no matter what, a Village Stability Platform or VSP always had to have one US Special Operations Forces Soldier on the premises.  I was that SOF Soldier, with six other conventional Army soldiers that day.  We had no medical personnel with us that day, and the rest of the reduced platoon-sized element was miles away.  This is our story.)

In times like these, the clock seems to stand still.  Yet when it’s over, one realizes just how much time has passed.  My eyes have grown weary.  The pots of coffee I have concocted continue to be made, with the utmost need to fill the coffee grounds filter to the limit.

The lines on my face feel more and more existent.  Some of our brothers are outside the wire as we hold down our Kandahar Province “Alamo.”  It’s our home, our fortress that was once a village elder’s large Qalat, or compound.  Its venerable mud walls shield us from prying Taliban and civilian eyes alike.  Seven men currently stand fast in this place while the rest have left to accomplish a mission.  We are the vanguard before they come back; we are on our own.

What transpired today will remain heavy, but for good in due time, on my heart.

It happened just before noon.  I had come from my four hour radio watch shift.  3 men accomplish this task in our operations center as we operate under the auspice of a skeleton crew.  The guard tower, what’s Mk 19 grenade machine gun and M249 Squad Automatic Weapon arm it; is occupied by the remaining 4 men.  A Special Operations Forces PSYOP Sergeant (me), some infantrymen, a cook, and a mechanic; we’re bonded by the hardship of “holding this shit down” while everyone else is gone.

I was just settling in to take a nap before I would have to come back on guard; when I got word that a MEDEVAC would need to be called.  My heart sank.  Just weeks ago, my comrade Sergeant Clinton Keith Ruiz was murdered by an Afghan Police Officer in a different province in Afghanistan.  This still weighed heavily on me.

At the moment, I tried running through the list of names, and the faces that held them.  The eyes, the smiles, the laughs of each of these men with whom I am bound by a cause, and a brotherhood.  Which one was it out there on that mission?  Was it gunfire?  An Improvised Explosive Device (IED)?  Something more sinister, like a rogue interpreter, or Afghan soldier who finally sank his cause’s teeth into an American soldier?

Quickly, I confirmed what this was.  Fortunately, I was quickly informed that it was actually two local civilians.  They had hit an IED, and were now outside our compound gate.  In a way, my feelings made more of a lateral move than a step forward or back in how my emotions ran.  This was still a bad situation.

We were undermanned, and we needed to think fast.  K, the other Sergeant still here, and I quickly formed a plan.  We were able to maintain security, keep at bay the worried and belligerent Afghans who brought the casualties here, keep the radio watch going, keep the tower manned, have the casualties brought in to the compound to be treated, and the other civilians who brought them here informed once this was complete.  We were “holding this shit down.”

B, an infantryman, and I began scrambling through the medical shed, grabbing and prepping all that we would need to treat and stabilize these two Afghans before a MEDEVAC bird could be called.  18 gauge intravenous needles, Ringer’s Lactate intravenous fluid, intravenous lines, medical tape, Ace bandages, tourniquets, rags, Combat Gauze, alcohol wipes, medical gloves, stretchers and saw horses on which they would lie, casualty feeder cards, blood pressure monitors, stethoscopes, trauma sheers, and numbers of other tools of the medical trade.

As it stands, when an American or partner nation military member is wounded, treatment does not have to be complete prior to a bird being called.  Time is of the essence to save a warrior’s life.  Civilian casualties, however, must be fully treated and stabilized in order to receive MEDEVAC.  This is to ensure all birds currently on station are being utilized at the utmost to support the fight, and the people fighting it.  It’s just the way it is; I don’t make the decisions.

My Combat Life Saver training, and other tidbits of medical knowledge, quickly flowed through the front lobe of my brain like some sort of fire hydrant completely open.  Tourniquets were applied to shattered legs.  I would tell them through my Afghan interpreter that the excruciating pain they felt from the tourniquets was a good thing.

“It means your leg is still alive, and the pain means the tourniquet is tight enough to stop your leg from bleeding.”

Ace bandages were wrapped around charred and bleeding shins that had been padded with hemostatic Combat Gauze.  The smell of blood and voided bowels have since been well known to my senses from this deployment; this situation was no different.  Afghan clothes were soaked with blood, one man had quite frankly shit himself, and his hand had been torn apart from the IED blast.  I maintained awareness of the situation, but tensions were high.

That being said, we were able to maintain a relative calmness frequently seen in a highly trained warrior doing the right thing.  We, as a group, hardly know each other except for a few weeks of interaction, but our just cause in protecting ourselves, innocent lives, and each other, rang true.  We were like a perfectly working machine, even without the years of team building.  I don’t even know some of my fellow soldiers’ first names, but today I was shoulder to shoulder with heroes, most of them less than 24 years old.

I took vitals on a man, counting his breaths, taking his pulse, constantly asking “Yuckh?  Yuckh?  Ya yuckh?  Jor-ee yuh?”  I would ask him in his native Pashto tonque.  “Cold?  Cold?  Not cold?  Okay?”  I was holding the man’s hand as he looked into my eyes, showing clear pain.  I didn’t want him to become cold, and go into shock.  He shook his head no.

“Ya.. ya..Jor-ee.”  No.. no.. I’m fine.

At one point before the helicopter arrived, he and I made hand gestures, coming to the conclusion that I should just put him in direct sunlight to stay warm.  I nodded, and helped get him there; his ankle was shattered, and the fracture had been open through the skin before we gave it a pressure dressing.

I ran to and from the treatment area and the operations center.  K, the other Sergeant, was busy sending up the MEDEVAC request while I relayed more administrative information to him.  He needed their names.  I quickly ran out to the treatment area, and with nothing but a permanent marker I had used to mark times on tourniquets, wrote the men’s names on the palm of my left hand: Sharafadin, and Sadullah.  Sadullah was beginning to get drowsy, and cold.  I made sure he was covered with a wool U.S. hospital blanket, and worked our interpreter to his limit, making sure he kept talking to the man to keep him awake.  I ran back to the operations center, and passed on the men’s names to K.  The bird was inbound.. Call Sign DUSTOFF.

We did what we could to stabilize them as best as possible, and scrambled to prepare to move them to our helicopter landing zone.  We were covered with their blood.  Used and broken medical gloves, gauze packets, used and bloody tourniquets, torn apart Afghan clothing; remnants of medical care laid everywhere in bloody heaps on the gravel that had been laid in the common areas of our qalat (Afghan compound).  We loaded the two men onto the civilian all terrain vehicles (ATVs) we press into military service.

D and I made our way to an RG-31, and readied it for landing zone security.  We could hear DUSTOFF coming, the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter’s rotors slapping through the sky, creating a static electricity that, had this taken place at night, would create an eerie spinning glow.  K and B moved toward the gate in one ATV as M brought the other.  Our interpreter was there every step of the way, keeping the worse man awake and talking.

DUSTOFF’s pilot strained his voice across the crackling, secured radio communications net, and we gave him the Landing Zone Brief.

“DUSTOFF, LZ is secure, no current threat assessed, method of marking is yellow smoke, and be advised that there is a tall object 70 meters to the west of the HLZ.  Popping smoke.”

DUSTOFF saw the smoke as it rushed from the smoke grenade.  I gunned the RG-31 armored truck out the gate with the ATVs quickly coming behind me.  The UH-60 Blackhawk plunged through a thick cloud of moon dust onto our Helicopter Landing Zone (HLZ).  D manned the M240 machine gun and minigun mounted in the RG-31’s turret as I maneuvered us into our security position.

The village next to us now gave us an audience, one of which I was careful to watch every few seconds.  Dozens of children and adults looked on as the dark machine dropped from the sky with a large red cross on a white background emblazoned along its fuselage.  We were not the first American warriors to sacrifice these moments of fleeting youth to save the innocent; we won’t be the last.

Yellow smoke from the M18 smoke grenade poured out to the west as the rotor wash sent smoke and Afghan moon dust everywhere.  The crew of the helicopter met K, M, and B as they made their way to the helicopter cabin with the casualties.  At this point, we were leaving their well-being in the hands of a higher power, and higher headquarters.  They’d be taking the men to a hospital to be treated.  I don’t think the helicopter was even on the ground for more than two minutes.  It went “wheels up” in another flurry of moon dust, and D seemed entranced by the sheer might and ability of our military and combined arms utilization.

Hours would pass, during which time I wiped down areas where bloody hands had touched surfaces.  Bio-hazardous materials like used gloves, tourniquets, used intravenous supplies, and clothes were burned in the burn barrel.  The medical and triage areas were again prepared for patients; the war doesn’t just stop after something like this.

In these processes, hand sanitizer managed to erase some of the writing on my palm.

I look down at my hands now, and see dirt and grime near permanently affixed to the creases and cracks in my weathered hands.  And on my left palm, the names of Sharafadin and Sadullah are all but gone except for where the ink had soaked deeply.  I feel though, that unlike their fading names, the two men will return to us, and their village, fixed and healthy; so long as their Afghan hospital allows proper healing and treatment to grace them.

Another day down in the history books kept in my mind.  I am expecting six more months of this place.. I’ll talk to you soon.

-EJH

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