At least that is what I was told. That is not, however, what I did.
I don’t know if it was good or bad. I feel like my soul was caught inside the insidious meat grinder of hell.
On the one hand, I had my brothers’ piercing eyes, seemingly judging my every move, their very sanity and composure hanging on the effectiveness of my actions and the sincerity with which I applied my craft.
On the other hand, I had my own precarious psychological state evaporating like ether on a hot day as my actions invited the demons and nightmares to prey on my heart and soul at will.
I knew performing CPR in this moment was futile. My brother was dead. The more time I spent with my lips on his, my nose blending the boundary between my vitality and the burnt flesh of his face, and little bits of that flesh being swallowed by me each time I took a breath throughout the ordeal, I knew I was doing irreparable damage to me.
But I could feel the eyes of those around me. I am sure they were just watching. I am sure they were just hoping for all the good in the world that their brother would open his eyes, cough and sputter, and breathe on his own. I knew as sure as I was kneeling there, that, should I choose to do nothing else, I would never be able to recover that image in their eyes.
Doc. Kneeling next to a dying brother. Doing nothing.
This… This I could not do.
This brother of mine was a really small guy with South American ancestry from New York City. Significantly different from me. The guy had heart. He was one of the smallest guys in the platoon, but he never used that as an excuse for not being able to perform. He never needed an excuse to be honest… he was simply a verifiable little beast. I held a deep respect for him.
He was a “comm guy”, one of the Marines who takes care of the radios and taught the rest of us how to not sound like morons when sending messages across the net. In our living area (hooch), the Corpsmen and the Comm guys had our racks (beds) in the same area. The teams had their own areas around us. Unless there were missions which kept us out of the hooch, I woke up and saw him every morning, shared tuna and protein with him for breakfast or lunch, and talked about culture, religion, and movies before bed.
We were doing a joint team operation in Ramadi, and we staged at one of the combat outposts. Around 2 in the morning the two teams departed friendly lines in order to execute justice in a city in which order and honor were severely lacking.
We were good at what we did. I remember feeling like a ghost. We would drop off the trucks, and disappear… nobody had any idea where we were, and then we would appear when we would choose, get on a truck, and go home. Man, we were good.
So we are slithering around the city, making our way to our destination for the next day’s mission, when all of a sudden the night sky lit up really bright. I remember this happening sometimes while we would be out walking. They sky would light up, a resounding boom would roll across us, and we would find out later that some poor platoon had taken casualties from an IED. I remember thinking that life must be really hard for the guys in that platoon. I mean, they just got blown up. I do not remember ever hearing the explosion. The next thing that I noticed was the debris that started to rain down on me. And then it clicked.
Life got really hard in that moment.
Chaos was ringing out on our radios as each team tried to gain accountability of the team members. “Doc’s good” and then I went silent in order to let the other guys communicate. I looked up and saw that a couple of my Marines were already at the end of the street, gaining entry to a house. We were all right there with them so fast, and the house was secured and being searched.
One of the guys was counting the members of his team and calling out their names as they came through the door. Then the horror set in. We were missing one. And then I heard his name.
I went busting out of the house with my team leader, running without any regard to what could be happening around me, looking for my brother. We found him. He was in a bad way. Really bad.
And I got to work.
I ended up in the back of a truck that was not meant to be used for QRF (Quick Reaction Force). The “rescuers” grabbed the wrong truck. Power steering had failed, the driver’s Night Vision Goggles did not work. We were on such a tight street that the troop carriers could not turn around. I got in the back of one of the small trucks with 2 more guys and off we went.
By ourselves. No gun truck support. No truckload of killing machines in a troop carrier behind us.
I did all I could do and the last thing on the list was CPR. I started. Shortly after that I looked up out of the back of the truck to see where we were and I recognized one of the bridges which took us to Camp Ramadi, home of the Fleet Surgical Resuscitation Team (FSRT). These guys were sharp. Really solid surgical team that set up right in the backyard of “this is where everyone dies” alley. I started to relax a little bit because I knew we were just minutes from the front gate and we would be safe once we crossed that line.
I did not cross it in that truck.
There are these barriers set up in random places in order to control the flow of traffic and prevent vehicle IEDs from making contact with the Marines and Soldiers who guarded the gate. The ones around us at the time were about 6 or 7 feet tall, solid concrete, and shaped like a capital “T” sitting upside down. We hit it. Hard. Both of the Marines who were riding with me were ejected. The driver broke a leg, and his passenger dislocated a shoulder. I slid out of the back and landed on the body of the Marine on which I had been working. I could hear the screams of the injured Marines coming from the front of the truck.
And then it was really calm and silent.
I looked up at the sky. Crystal clear and full of stars. I’ll never forget that, how intensely peaceful and beautiful that sky looked. I cried out from the very pit of despair. I was alone, the dead and injured around me. All that came out of me was a little chuckle and, “Okay… what next? What do I do now?”
The truck with the rest of the team on it came around a minute later, the Marines who were ejected from the back got on the truck with me and the Marine I was working on, and off we went. I performed CPR all the way to the FSRT.
As soon as we pulled up, the FSRT staff unloaded my patient. I got off the truck, took a couple steps, and doubled over on the ground. I don’t know how long I cried, but it had to have been a while. I stood up in time to see one of the FSRT staff coming out of the Operating Suite to tell me that my Marine had passed away.
I was ashamed for crying.
I was ashamed for having had my hands so bloody and having done nothing to keep him alive.
And I was sick. From the stress of what had happened and the little bits of my brothers lips and face which had been burnt and then swallowed by me.
That smell, that taste, those feelings still linger deep in me. I smoked a cigarette that night and got a dip from one of my Marines in order to get that flavor out of my mouth. I cannot smoke a cigar to this day because of that.
Maybe I am weaker than my Marines. Maybe they can carry these kind of painful things and be okay. Not me. I am fighting back the tears as I sit here and recall these memories.
I don’t mope around and I am not depressed. I genuinely love and enjoy my life, but I do have days that are harder to get through than others.
I forgot where I wanted this post to go… For that I’m sorry.
Hopefully some of this helps you understand a little bit better what it feels like…
Thanks for reading. I’m sure I’ll talk more about this night at some point.