The last few days of Combat Medic School, or as the Army called it: A.I.T. (Advanced Individual Training), were devoted entirely to mass casualty triage. The idea behind the training was how to properly approach, triage, treat and evacuate multiple wounded soldiers in a combat type scenario. It was a simple idea that was to show Combat Medics a “realistic as possible” combat scenario without actually being in combat. This training method would be the model of training most units use throughout the U.S. Army, and we would receive this training at least annually, was what we were told. In an infantry unit one medic could be directly responsible for sometimes up to 50 soldiers. This was a sobering thought.
We began training by reviewing all 10 modules of the previous weeks of school. Our instructors ran us through each module in a very organized, quick and professional manner. They highlighted each injury and illness that may apply to the test. They also reviewed how to treat those injuries and illnesses and repeated the importance of not causing further injuries. They stressed the importance of how an incapacitated soldier needs protection. Every day for the previous 9 weeks they told us the importance of protecting wounded soldiers. They went over examples of Medics throughout history who had protected their wounded with their own bodies, even at the risk of loosing their own life. Next, they went over how to categorize each soldier in an order of priority and taught us how to properly tag each soldier then load and carry a litter from the battlefield to the evacuation vehicle. We also had to learn how to call for an evacuation over the radio, the different types of vehicles used by the Army to evacuate its wounded and how to carry casualties and litters. Lastly, we would learn how to stack litters into vehicles in an order of priority so at the next level of medical care the staff would know the priority of treatment. The entire week was overwhelming. Both of our instructors spoke of these instructions, as always, with a life or death seriousness that was almost chilling. The C.M.B.’s on their chests reminded us daily just how serious they took these instructions.
On Thursday, the 28th of September, 1989 I received my orders for my next permanent party station. I was to report to the 21st Replacement Battalion, Frankfurt Germany on October 21st, 1989. The triage test was Friday. I had a departure plane ticket from Dallas Ft. Worth to Midway Airport Chicago for Saturday and an approved leave signed by the C.O. authorizing 21 days of leave (paid vacation). I also had a departure plane ticket from Chicago Ohare Airport with an Arrival in London Heathrow Airport, England and a second departure ticket from London to Frankfurt am Main International Airport Germany. I had typed directions on what to do once I landed in Germany. Things were now beginning to feel very real. I tried to blot out the anxiety with imagining the way mom’s spaghetti smelled. Also, even though I was only 19 years old, I thought my father and I could sit down somewhere… anywhere… and drink a beer while talking about medic stuff. I was looking forward to going home.
Friday morning, after P.T., we were instructed to report back in formation with full battle gear. We didn’t have the full gear we had in Basic Training, since this was a different school, however we had enough to feel uncomfortable in the Texas autumn humidity. We were then told to “camo up” (paint any exposed skin on our neck and faces with O.D. green, tan and brown wax sticks that were G.I. and intended to hide bone structure and skin). We marched to the Mass Casualty test singing cadence about dying in battle, watching soldiers die and ‘Jody’… the rich kid fucking our girlfriends at home. By this time of our training our Cadre usually marched us proudly because we were loud, enthusiastic and rhythmically following their lead. Today was no different. Perhaps we sang louder than normal since it was our last day.
We stopped at an edge of a wood line (the beginning row of trees in a forest preserve or thicker), were ordered to drink a full canteen of water and to take a knee while waiting for further orders. This was a deliberate warning to me. A full canteen of water? The last time during training I was ordered to drink that much water was during the “Gas Chamber” exercise during Basic Training. The Gas Chamber was a cement block room filled with Drill Sergeants all in donned gas masks. The room only had one door. That door was guarded, on the inside, by a Drill Sergeant. We marched into this room with our masks on, a Drill Sergeant “popped” a C.S. Gas grenade then we were ordered to remove our masks. Ironically, Drill Sergeants left their masks on. We were not allowed to leave that room until we could prove to them what we had for breakfast chow. It was a painful lesson on how useful our gas mask would become when we needed them. I was now nervous about what laid ahead, beyond the wood line. I drank my canteen silently.
We sounded off by numbers ,one through four, then we organized into four person teams. Each team was issued a litter and we were lined up by a small trail entering the wood line. At the command of “Go” we were to sprint into the trail and “take care of business”. As this was happening our Cadre were slowly, one by one, entering the wood line along the trail… disappearing from sight. This was really starting to fucking bother me now. Back in Chicago, I would never have run aimlessly down a forest trail with a bunch of kids with make up on. That was what we called “falling for the okee doke”. Compared to just saying, ” Aww shucks mister. You want me to run in there where all the Cadre are when you say Go? Duh… okee doke!”. This was unrealistic to me. However, the three goof balls I was with wanted to go first. So we lined up accordingly.
My heart seemed to stop for a long moment when I heard the loud “BOOM’. It was the loudest explosion I had ever heard. I felt the noise vibrate my organs in my chest. If anyone near me was talking I couldn’t hear them. My ears were now ringing. Smoke began to billow out of the trail and between the trees. I smelled burnt gun powder and it seemed to get a lot hotter. Then we heard a faint “GO”! We picked up our litter, and ran blindly down the trail.