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Greeting our wounded warriors on American soil

Gary Caruso | Thursday, September 13, 2007

Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 3:55 p.m. the Mississippi Air National Guard lands a massive C-17 Globemaster military cargo jet outside of our nation’s capital at Andrews Air Force Base. They return our injured military personnel who have shed blood in Iraq. A dozen highly skilled military medical staff unload the wounded into busses for Walter Reed, Bethesda Naval and Andrews hospital facilities. Twice now, I had the honor to be one of a select few civilians allowed to climb into the plane and first welcome our combat heroes back home. The task is both humbling and horrific.

My visits brought me face to face with men and women who have endured much. The first soldier I saw was an African-American who looked like a professional football tackle. The left side of his face was severely burned, and his left arm and leg were in casts. Along the shell of the plane sat traumatized soldiers peering out of blankets on their heads with what is commonly called “the stare.” In two rows along the middle of the fuselage others lay on gurneys stacked three high, with only a foot clearance.

These cargo planes land on time with clockwork regularity like they have now for more than four years. The integrated health care delivery system begins on the ground in Iraq, transports the injured to Ramstein Hospital in Germany and returns to Andrews. On average, depending on their condition, the wounded arrive on American soil 36 hours after an injury. The operational efficiency and world-class care provided is always beyond reproach, even when conditions last Sunday warranted an additional aeromedical evacuation flight.

Returning the wounded quickly back to American soil is a two-part story – first, of those who care and transport the injured, and secondly, of the personal stories of the wounded. In August, I accompanied Deputy Surgeon General and Air Force Major General Charles “Bruce” Green to meet a medical transport plane. The process was choreographed with such precision that the injured had left the tarmac within 45 minutes.

Upon arrival, customs officials cleared the plane. Doctors then boarded to check every patient’s status while senior officers personally greeted each of the troops. After removing the luggage, medical personnel used thumbs-up and crossed forearms signals to deplane the patients. Others stood along the side of the plane’s ramp to prevent a misstep off the edge.

I watched unconscious, intebated warriors half-covered with medical life support equipment carried off on hospital litters (gurneys) by eight people. Six carried those with less severe injuries while the least injured required four personnel. Uncharacteristic of protocol, a full-bird colonel assisted the lowest ranking airman as they moved patients down the ramp to the busses.

I could easily see who had lost legs or feet. One soldier’s arm wrapped in an ace bandage oozed with yellow fluid and red blood. As a litter came headfirst towards me, I noticed that a foot in a cast had red toe nails. Forgetting that women also get wounded, I thought that someone had played a joke by painting those toenails. Finally, those who were mobile walked to the Andrews busses.

At the Andrews Hospital intake area the injured left their helmets and armor. It struck me that the dried sweat rings around the collars had been fresh just two days prior. It interested me that one was solid tan, some were of a green camouflage design, but most were of a desert tan camouflage pattern. I could hardly lift a set of gear that weighed nearly 50 pounds with side armor. I noticed the names of a few who had walked off the plane: Peck, Coats, Smith, Halderson and Reyes.

Last Friday I met David, an active duty soldier from Wyoming stationed out of San Antonio, who wanted to tell his story. His lumberjack build reminded me of a mountain man typical of the western states. His head lay at my eye level on the top row of gurneys near the front of the plane. The skin on his forehead, nose and cheeks had pealed from burns. David’s hand and arms were heavily bandaged while each of his fingers on his right hand had been individually wrapped. David also broke his leg when thrown free of his humvee during a roadside explosion.

The explosives were laced with an accelerant that created a Napalm effect. The driver and David, in Iraq for about a year, rode with two others in Iraq for about a month. As the driver sat trapped in the burning humvee, David crawled back to save him, but to no avail. Watching David approach, his friend smiled and sat back to die. The fire raged so intensely that the humvee interior extinguishing system and attempts from four others with extinguishers failed. David lay without rescue while the hand grenades from his vest … also ripped from his body … exploded nearby.

We huddled our heads close together and spoke of personal things while tears streamed from our eyes. David wanted to tell his story, partly to seek comfort from others, partly to understand his survival, but partly to hear that his friend’s death was not his fault. He will heal and eventually see his four-year-old daughter because of great medical treatment and a quick evacuation.

For David and his fellow heroes Peck, Coats, Smith, Halderson and Reyes, the journey has temporarily paused. Regardless of whether we support or oppose the invasion of Iraq, only once are the injured greeted on American soil. I am proud to have been there to share a word and a tear.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, is a communications strategist who served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.