How to be an invisible visitor…

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Before the war began, we dealt with casualties mostly from accidents of one form or another. Two men were buried alive in a foxhole that collapsed. They were brought to 12th Evac barely alive. Neither soldier lived. An accident involving a Blackhawk helicopter carrying patients to our location misjudged its approach and its rotor caught the 12 foot sand berm surrounding our perimeter. The pilot was killed on impact, the copilot was seriously injured but survived. The patients being transported, due to being strapped in, survived the crash as well. Also, two soldiers were fatally struck by lightning in the back of their metal transport carrier. However, during the war we saw few fatalities.

After the war, however, the role of the hospital became more complex. As coalition forces swept through Kuwait and Iraq we began to receive refugees from both places. Iraqi soldiers, whilst departing Kuwait, practiced a “scorch the earth” policy: they lit hundreds of active oil wells on fire. Also, apparently, they decided to murder and torture the citizens of Kuwait and Iraqi rebels. These victims included women and children.

I was reassigned to treat the wounded E.P.W.’s. by the chain of command. As were ten other twenty-something male soldiers from various parts of the hospital.

Chinook helicopters filled with over 30 passengers each, victims and their families, started to arrive. At the same time, Iraqi soldiers who were retreating, captured or injured during battle started to arrive. The hospital began to serve as both a refugee camp and an Enemy Prisoner of War Camp. I remember spending entire shifts treating burns, gunshot wounds and severe amputations of Enemy Prisoners. After my shift as I walked back to my sleeping tent I had to walk through the Intensive Care Unit. There I would pass rows of tortured children screaming as their treatments were occurring. Day after day I would hear their screams.

One particular night, as I was getting off shift, an E.P.W. with a broken ankle was being served his dinner chow of steak provided by the United States government. As I left the hospital, in route to my sleeping tent, I walked past a 4 year old Kuwaiti child who had been submerged in boiling water by an Iraqi soldier.

I was stuffing a lot of emotional confusion, general fear and extreme rage.

By this point in our deployment, we had interpreters and armed guards throughout the hospital. There were no available Military Police so the guards were Combat Medics carrying M16’s. Interpreters dealt mostly with the prisoners and refugees, however they started to mingle with some of the American staff as well. I wanted no part of them. I tried to avoid them, however the treatment of wounded required communication. When they would confront me for information about E.P.W.’s I would become irate with them. One in particular, I believe, disliked me as much as I disliked him. I slept with a bayonet under my pillow. I wasn’t sleeping anyway so I just waited for him.

He never came.

On April 9, 1991 the 12th Evacuation Hospital closed its doors to new patients, and the next day flew all remaining patients to hospitals at a Saudi Arabian military base. In 101 days of hospital operations, the 12th Evac saw 10,309 outpatients and 1,299 inpatients; the average exceeded 100 per day, but the intensity of operations fluctuated. At final tally, 22 Iraqi prisoners, 130 civilians (both Kuwaiti and Iraqi), and 10 Coalition military personnel had been treated; the rest were Americans.

The last month of our deployment, even without the stress of actual combat, was the longest. Our hospital was being torn down, however we didn’t know the date we would leave. We knew we were one of the first units to deploy from Germany. General Schwarzkopf had promised us “first in-first out” priority. Ironically, I didn’t care about anything but leaving the “sand box”. As the days turned into weeks during April the severe boredom seemed almost physically painful. The gambling games and over told stories were of no interest to any of us.

Towards the end of April as our unit was deploying back to Germany I volunteered to stay back on “rear detachment” to ensure our equipment and supplies would pass the vigorous customs checks required to leave the country. As I watched my friends leave the desert on a long caravan of Army vehicles heading back to Dhahran Airport, I noticed there was something uniquely different about myself. I wasn’t ready to go home. I wanted to see my family and friends. Maybe, if there was a chance, I could see Elle one night too. However, I didn’t want anyone to see me. I wanted to be an invisible visitor quietly observing the people I cared about. I knew this was unrealistic and had no idea how to sort this feeling out. So, as a result, I didn’t want to leave.

I knew the next several days, maybe even weeks, would be spent cleaning and re cleaning equipment and vehicles.We spent a week living in a parking garage in Dhahran intensely cleaning everything we had deployed with to Saudi Arabia. We took things apart, washed them, left them out to dry, replaced them and started the process over again too many times to accurately recall the amount. The N.C.O. left in charge of rear detachment was desperately afraid to fail the customs inspection. The parking garage, at night, was filled with rumors about units having to re clean and re clean after failing. He had pages of notes that covered potential failures. He stayed up at night going over things he may have missed. I noticed him because I had long since gave up on sleep myself. However, unlike him, I could care less if we ever left the desert.

May 4, 1991 we approached the customs check point with our equipment and vehicles. Our rear detachment N.C.O. had prepared a speech to give to the customs agents. He hand washed his uniform in a bucket and left it in the desert sun to dry the day before. His boots were polished and his hair was cut neatly into “high and tight”.

We approached the customs agent as a team. The M.P. customs inspector, a female, looked to be in her early 20’s. She looked at us individually as she took our paperwork. The inspection was slotted to take a few hours depending on the agent. She did a once over of the paper work then looked at me. She asked me just one simple question.

“Who sings ‘Just Like Heaven’?”

I answered calmly, “The Cure”.

She waived us through the customs checkpoint…. the entire cargo load.

I flew home to Germany the next day, May 5, 1991. Five months to the day that I flew into Saudi Arabia.

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