There are only so many minds that survive multiple bombs.
I happen to be among the troubled sort that was not killed my first time, second time, all the way through to my fifth time. I have been blown up five separate times.
My formal title was Fleet Marine Force Corpsman. Quite a mouthful, which is likely why the Marines just call us ‘Doc’.
Doc becomes your rank. Becomes your first name. Perhaps most important is that it becomes who you are. Who you will be. It is more than a title, or nickname, or rank. It is an assigned soul. It is an embodiment of every other Doc before you.
The night of June 01, 2009 is an evening that will only end for me when my mind abandons my carcass.
We were in Afghanistan on a Combat Outpost called Barrows. It was pitch black in the lowlands of the first high desert I had ever laid eyes on. We had been in Afghanistan for a mere two weeks or so. It was my first tour overseas.
We got the call at around midnight towards the end of May 31. It was a distress call proclaiming our Battalion Commander, an officer of significant rank, had led his specially assigned squad to escort and protect him into a circumstance that resulted in the flipping of a 32 ton vehicle called an MRAP.
The long and short of this circumstance is that the man decided to roll through the backcountry lowlands of a region of Afghanistan ‘black out’, and flipped his vehicle into something in Arabic known as a ‘watty’, or dried up river bed.
It is a ditch. A significantly wide, significantly deep, monstrous, and dangerous ditch as far as warfighters are concerned.
My squad ended up with the mission to go and assist the Commander remedy his unpleasant, upside down circumstance.
As we lined up that night, about fifteen men strong, several little things began clicking for folks. Many of the Marines that night report that before we rolled out in humvees into that foreboding darkness, they had nasty feelings.
Nasty like, some of them grabbed extra tourniquets. Some of them packed some extra ammo. They had the type of spidey-sense discomfort that gave them realistic apprehension and dread. I don’t remember feeling anything. I didn’t have enough experience to have any real feelings about the air around us. The quality of lack of light hiding the mountains from us. My fear was neutral and untempered. Raw.
We packed into the humvees in the conventional way anyone packs into humvees: tight and uncomfortable. The amount of armor and gear we bring on even routine patrols is significantly bulky, and there is not much space in an up-armored humvee. My only reprieve is that I am pretty small, so I fit a bit more like a finger inside a glove while in full battle rattle within a humvee. Many of the larger Marines fit into humvees resembling a leggy spider folded up and crammed into a thimble. Cramped. Folded. Beady eyes looking out in distress and confusion. The Marines and spider wondering what they signed up for, and how they are supposed to fight in this manner?
It is a four vehicle convoy. All four vehicles are up-armored humvees that at least have a snowball’s chance in hell of making it through small arms fire or a road side bomb blast marginally better than the humvees of the early war. Nearly a decade of fighting had thankfully taught Uncle Sam to provide us with a little more protection by the time I made it to combat. Not always enough, but better odds than my predecessors.
Due to this development, most folks with both of their legs still and want to continue that pattern drive awfully slow while traversing this road. We follow the first vehicle in the exact same tracks through the dust that they carve. The idea is to not stray from the course, which would risk triggering a pressure plate connected to a roadside bomb. A tactic that one would think always works. Easy peasy, right? What could go wrong?
In these early movements, I remember that I didn’t feel much. I don’t think I was thinking much at all. I was 21 years old. A brand new Corpsman attached to a Marine Corps unit on his first combat tour in Afghanistan. You don’t see much during movements if you aren’t in the turret up top or driving. You aren’t told much during these transitions either. Sure, the mission is briefed. You are supposed to be aware of the objective and have a rough idea of the purpose, time frame, contingency plans, etc. But the hour-to-hour rundown all blurs together while actually conducting your job. The exception to this statement is when something goes wrong. Then that blur is interrupted by fire. Flashes. Blood. The things of nightmares come to life.
This story is one such story. A story of interruption. Of fire.
Traveling this way was numbing. Hollow nothingness except the continuous compression of your spine, which you quickly compartmentalize. It is deafening. Bumps turn into normal. This normal turns into minutes. Those minutes into hours. Hours to days. The days turn into a swarm of nothingness. People wonder why we come back and just stare sometimes. Stare into the black that our minds retreated to in endless meditation. Painful meditation. Compartmentalized thoughts. Dreams. Desires. Pain. All boxed together and served hot with dust. The dust becomes the ground up bones of the dead ‘used to be’ of your existence. This is your new reality.
Our patrol had officially begun when we pushed outside the wire. I suppose it began the moment my memory begins. On post with my friend. Laughing and reminiscing about high school era gaming together. Discussing our hometowns. Mine being Jackson, TN and his being Petoskey, MI. We were the same age. He had duty on that post behind an M240 machine gun facing outboard on one of the four corner posts defending our combat outpost. I was just there to pass the time. Watching the blackness with him. Both assuming nothing of note would come out of that blackness that night.
Bumping down the road into that blackness, all I knew was we were headed to assist this Commander and his ass over end vehicle he flipped into a ditch with distinction. I did also know we were the second squad called to assist them. The first squad had failed to make it to the Commander's location because they were struck by a roadside bomb, immobilizing their patrol.
No casualties, but the 7 ton truck the bomb struck was rendered useless and likewise needed to be towed back to their respective combat outpost.
Details like that enabled my continued ignorance. Naivety. My innocence at this time. When you don’t see a bomb up close, and heard the report that no Marines were injured, it reinforces that this is just a long replay of training. There is nothing of note really happening outside in that dark void outside the humvee. All of that nothing you can’t see isn’t real. If it was real, well then it would be dangerous. What’s dangerous about rolling around a minefield in the dark? Surely normalcy bias protects us virgins in times of danger just the same as the lightness maw outside the humvee conceals those dangers.
I bumped along in a neutral mood. Neutral mental state. My existence was in a prolonged state of neutrality. That nothingness I felt, the hollowness in my mind, was innocence.
I was a bunny wearing a helmet with a rifle.
There was a bright flash that exploded through my peripheral vision.
I saw the flash before I heard the boom that accompanied it.
I didn’t realize what had happened. What I did realize is that it was out of the ordinary. Something had happened out of pattern. Out of sequence.
Training doesn’t work like this. They didn’t even warn us first?
The next memory I have is the red.
The red of the brilliant sunset colored light stemming from behind our vehicle. All I could see from my seat through the tiny 1 ft by 1 ft window was the shining colors. The illumination provided by the flames was more light than I had seen all evening. Whether on base before we left, or thus far via artificial lights.
Lots of shouting. Shouting and flames.
That is how I would best describe the initial thoughts my mind recognized given the surroundings.
It seemed like everyone was yelling simultaneously, yet at the same time so many of us also had no idea what was going on. Perhaps the definition of chaos.
Finally after several seconds of confusion which seemed like minutes in my calm, compromised mentality, I got a clue what the problem was. The radio on my squad leader’s flack began singing. Something along the lines of the fourth vehicle had been hit by a bomb.
Okay, I thought. Hit by a bomb. Registered.
I still couldn’t see anything from where I was. I was new after all, and just listening to my squad leader’s radio. Gathering what I could. After hearing the fourth vehicle was hit, my squad leader requested further information. All that was relayed was that the vehicle was on fire. The reporting Marine hadn’t seen anyone leave the vehicle as of yet.
I felt like little flags from my training were beginning to cook off like fireworks.
Fire. Fire. Okay. So a truck is on fire.
There was a blast. A blast! Okay.
A blast. Fire. Me oh my, this seems like it could be bad.
No one has been seen leaving the vehicle as of yet I hear over the radio.
Wait, no one has left. The vehicle is on fire after being struck by a bomb, and no one has left yet?
My skin began to crawl.
It may have been one of the most poignant feelings of my entire life. Also one of the most eerie. My brain began to work.
A vehicle in the convoy had exploded and was burning, nobody had been seen yet leaving the vehicle.
Every fiber of my little Corpsman existence lit up red. Signals were flaring.
I remember asking my squad leader for clarification. I wanted to make sure I had heard what I thought I had just heard, ripping me from my slow analytical thoughts. The innocent nothingness.
I had heard correctly. My squad leader also didn’t exactly know what to do, either. He left the vehicle from the passenger seat, a position we call the Vehicle Commander position.
My mind was racing.
Fifteen men were on this patrol. Fourteen of them were Marines, one of us was Navy.
By billet, eleven of them were acting as Marines are generally thought of acting. They were the bullets against bullets. The fight against a fight. Muscle versus muscle. One of them was a radio operator. One of them was a combat engineer. A living metal detector. Trained to locate potential roadside bombs with a detecting device. One was a squad leader. Responsible for leadership to forward the mission toward the objective, complete the objective, and return us all to base. That’s fourteen folks in four different roles within the squad of fifteen.
Only one role remained; only one of us was Navy.
Only one of us was specifically trained to remedy the specific horrors of combating death within a squad with circumstances beginning to play out like this.
It took me what seemed a lifetime from my seat inside of that humvee for all of these dots to connect. My billet, my job, screamed at me inside my mind. It was likely only seconds, but felt longer. My purpose exploded through me like lightning.
Our squad leader had already left the truck. He was outside conducting who knows what. The fire was still burning, I could see it out of my partially opaque, bullet proof window. The only radio was now outside of the vehicle as well. Time is of the essence.
I began getting my rifle situated and my med bag together. Ready to move.
A couple of the Marines began to stir.
The driver, a sergeant, looked at me and asked what I was doing.
I told him I was going to go out and see what I could do with the situation.
He ordered me to stay inside the humvee.
I paused, looking at him incredulously.
“Doc, look I don’t know what’s going on out there, but you should stay inside. It's for your own good.”
I was floored, but also determined.
“But, the word is that the fourth vic exploded. It is on fire. Nobody has been seen leaving the vehicle. I need to be down there. I need to be there to make sur-”
“You need to stay inside the vehicle. It is far too unsafe for you to go investigating. Take my word for it, stay here. I order you to stand down.”
At this point, my mind had already begun changing. So many things were rushing through my head. Mainly the fact that men were inside of a flaming vehicle. Maybe burning alive. Maybe they are all dead. Maybe they are in need of my help. Of anybody’s help. There was no way within any universe, within any reality, that they didn’t at least need help.
Maybe this was the moment that would change everything. The moment the nature of my existence began to shift. All starting with disobeying a direct order from a superior. To hell with the consequences, I thought. I’m not about to let men die because I’m afraid to face the music for disobeying him.
I ignored the sergeant for a moment, and looked to the combat engineer.
“Will you mine me down there? Can you go with me?”
He looked me in the eyes and didn’t hesitate.
“Yes Doc. Absolutely.”
I continued gathering my med bag and waited for the engineer to be ready to dismount.
The Sergeant glared at me from the driver’s seat.
“Doc, I order you to stay in this vehicle!”
I looked at him, and made my decision. I said nothing. I just looked at him. Stared a moment, then motioned to the engineer. He confirmed that he was with me. I opened my door, and stepped outside into the chaos.
The types of things that happened next are the types of things that are more experiences than memories themselves.
I remember stepping from the vehicle into the night. How it seemed to swallow me. I could only see in one direction: the direction of the fire. The fourth humvee of our convoy was aflame. It wouldn’t have mattered as much to me had I not heard that no one had been seen leaving the vehicle yet. I had heard it on my Squad Leader’s radio.
We begin walking. The engineer out front using his metal detector in front of us. Walking slower than you would expect, we made our way across what we knew to be likely chalk full of bombs. The fact that one took out the last vehicle in a sequence didn’t bode well for it being an isolated incident.
When I was in training to be a Marine Corps Corpsman, we watched many videos of Corpsman that reacted too fast, or too slow, or improperly.
It was hardwired into my brain at this point to take my time, but don’t dally.
This one video which I have never forgotten, featured a 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines Corpsman seeing a Marine step on a bomb. He then charged in after the fallen Marine, into the dust and smoke, only to be blown up himself. A term we use called ‘pink mist’. The point being, there is nothing left after an encounter like that. The Marine was likely dead. Now they both are full dead. There is no way around it.
As we trudged further, I replayed that over and over again in my mind. All the while listening. Watching. Trying my best to see into the flamy, shadowed doom that awaited around fifty meters away. I still couldn’t see anything. The fiery humvee ruined my night vision more than it helped me see. I felt lost following the engineer.
Then from the blackness, my squad leader appeared.
“I’m going with you two.”
We gave no objection. I was happy to see anyone else to be honest. A Taliban soldier could have walked up to join us and I would have possibly entertained his company.
Before likely deciding to kill him.
Out of the darkness, I finally heard something besides the searing flames tens of feet away. A hoarse yell careened from the black.
The words came out strained. Forced. Harsh. I could barely recognize it, but I did.
It was my best friend’s voice. It was Josh’s voice.
Corpsman up is a very simple, but heavy phrase. It is the phrase taught to Marines and to Corpsman for when a Marine must summon a Corpsman to their side for a combat casualty. Although all Marines are taught it, I have never responded to a false call for ‘Corpsman up’. It is always actually terrifying, and actually an emergency. The Marines do not abuse this call in my experience.
The little hairs on the back of my neck began to stand on end as icy dread swept through me on swift currents. The final red flag had been raised. The castle walls had been breached. I needed to get over there. Resisting the urge to run, I kept my breathing steady and pressed on with my two comrades. It was critical I stayed behind the engineer in case there was another bomb meant for exactly this scenario. To take out the rescuing team. Just add a big ‘fuck you’ to an already awful reality. If the three of us stepped on a bomb without a vehicle, we would all be killed. Then likewise, whoever needs help in that downed flaming dragon ahead of us would surely follow suit.
A loud beeping went off.
The combat engineer froze and threw both of his hands out wide.
The squad leader and I also froze. Everything stopped except for the cackle, pop, and whooshing of the blazing vehicle. He had gotten a hit. Right in front of us.
The engineer turned to us with wide, fierce eyes,
“Follow my lead. Every step. Very carefully.”
We nodded without pause with likewise wide eyes. Both of our expressions grim.
He led us sweeping widely with his detector clear of that metallic signature. We walked with trepidation and fear as we got steps closer to our fallen friends. This is one of the shittiest feelings I believe I have ever had. Utter helplessness while staring at dusty footprints in the ground. Trying to step exactly where he was stepping by firelight. Listening to the downed vehicle pop, sizzle, and gush flame. Listen to the shuffling in the darkness and labored grunts and moans ahead, but able to do nothing about it yet. We had to be smart. Failure was death.
After what felt like an hour, we arrived. The scene is locked into my mind’s eye for life.
Five men were in the truck when we began this patrol. I remember four of them were scattered on the ground in front of me. Thankfully, I saw a lot of eyeballs looking up at me from the shadow shifting firelight of the flaming humvee only a handful of feet away at this point. Someone looked at me and said flatly,
“Alex is dead.”
My brain wasn’t really listening at this point. I was evaluating. Calculating. I did a lightning fast, training and pressure induced survey of the scene. Three sets of eyes watched me, one figure was standing and surveying the surrounding night with his rifle. A tall figure. I realized it was my best friend. At least he was standing, I thought.
One was not like the rest. He was laying motionless in the dust before me. I hadn't even stopped walking at this point. All of this happened as I rolled up. In one fluid motion I was on him. Assessing. I don’t believe I ever replied to the Marine who informed me someone was dead. I say someone because even though this broken form in front of me that was about to change my life forever was one of the first Marines I met when I checked into my Battalion, I did not recognize him. He was just a body. A body that needed me.
He was laying on his back. I conducted my initial assessments for vital signs. I put my fingers against the side of the throat. He had a pulse. That’s the first thing that makes sense tonight, I thought. Next I put my cheek so close to his nose and mouth that our skin was almost touching to feel for breath.
I focused, really focused. Confirmed. I felt nothing.
I sat up straight and started fumbling with my med bag.
“Are any other of you hurt?” I heard myself ask.
Each replied in kind that they were hurt, but they were ‘okay’. Which is Marine Corps speak for ‘I’m conscious, Doc’. I asked if they could treat each other with my instruction or personal knowledge. They replied yes. My personal hell began at that moment.
During my fumbling I retrieved a nasal pharyngeal, a type of artificial airway that inserts through a nostril to form a pathway from the throat to the open air. It's the most basic type of artificial airway. It seemed like common sense. Hands shaking, his face badly swollen and disfigured beyond my recognition of who it was, and with shaky hands, I tried to put the intervention into his nose.
The damn thing wouldn’t go in. I shifted it here, or there. It wouldn’t sink. I took it out to try to reinsert it for maybe a better angle, but when I saw it after I pulled it out, shock exploded through me.
It was slick with bright red blood.
At that moment, a long line the length of my cocoon cracked as I began to emerge. That moment happened right then. The moment I realized for the very first time that this was not a training exercise. This was not a scenario I was training for. This person in front of me is actually dying.
This is why I am here.
The bloody realization washed over me like someone blasting ice water on my face.
I was awake.
Immediately, my hands stopped shaking. I ripped off both of my armored gloves and reassessed his breathing. Still nothing. A second realization kicked in.
I grabbed his far blouse sleeve and yanked him towards me, rolling him over face down. If he was drowning in his own blood from that catastrophic facial trauma, gravity would help hold that jaw and crushed facial bones downward, perhaps enabling blood to drain out. Maybe he could begin breathing. No shit I couldn’t get a pharyngeal in. His face is massively broken. I decided to feel stupid later.
He was covered in blood. The next step any first responder would know is blood sweep. Lemme tell you what, I didn’t need an initial blood sweep. What I did need to do was find the wounds. One was pretty obvious.
His right leg was bent in the wrong direction, twice. Catastrophic broken femur and the lower bones, tibia and fibula. Splinting can happen later.
I take out a tourniquet and apply it to his upper right thigh. The plastic windlass snaps under the pressure. I apply a second tourniquet. It holds. I reach down into his destroyed, open, mangled, and meaty calf with my bare hand to feel for fresh lifeblood. I felt none. Bleeding stopped.
His other leg looks to be intact. I did a quick stability check above and below the knee for broken long bones. The test came back negative, but this leg was still soaked with blood. I threw a tourniquet on this leg just to be sure.
I check his arms. Lots of blood on the right. Big gash there on his bicep. Fuck a stability check. The man still isn’t breathing. Another tourniquet.
No more blood will be leaving this Marine goddamnit. Not on my watch.
Then I’m face down in the sand with him. We are shoulder to shoulder as I partially prop him up to get close to his face. I listen for breathing. Damnit. Still nothing. I’m beginning to get an odd emotion: anger. I’m actually furious that he isn’t breathing.
As I prop myself up on my right elbow, right shoulder against his, I slip my left hand against that poor destroyed cheek. I turn his head very slowly trying to ignore the crunching from his face, hoping to unkink something.
A large gasp escaped him.
He began breathing again.
I take a deep breath. Okay, I can hold him like this. Hold him like this until he either wakes up or-
My head snapped up, the rest of my body didn’t flinch.
“We’ve gotta get out of here! We can’t stay here any longer!”
My best friend is yelling down at me. What is he thinking? Is he out of his bloody mind? I can’t move him like this! It will kill him.
“Josh, I can't do that. He can’t be moved in this condition. I just got him breathing!”
He looked at me honestly concerned, but steadfast.
“Look at the truck, Doc.”
I realize it is behind me. I turn my head still laying in the prone. All around between where I am laying with my patient, the fire lit ground is rippling with impacts in the sand. What in the world could tha-
“The truck is shooting at us. All the ammunition inside is cooking off. We have to move! It’s going to explode!”
I sit up and begin collecting my med bag and rifle to sling onto my shoulder so I can pick up my patient. Just about the time I was all put together and ready to move, the humvee started sparking and hissing. I looked up. The truck looked like it was almost swelling. Pulsing. Swelling, popping, spraying bullets in several directions. Something bigger was also igniting and exploding inside. Jesus Christ, I thought. This is it. I’m fifteen feet away from this thing, tops. I was too slow.
Josh, my best friend, screamed for everyone to get down. All the Marines hit the deck, as low as they could.
Without a second thought, I covered Alex with myself.
The entire world became dark around me instead of his form. I remember no sound, no commands. The other men around me melted away into a void I struggle to describe. It's bright in this void, weightless, but also black. It is a bright blackness. And then I was flying. Flying through the air in involuntary flight. It is a sensation I have only felt one other time during a motorcycle accident when I was eighteen. The nice thing about the motorcycle crash is my head was clear and I could see. This time, my head was not clear. I could not see. I was a flightless bird suddenly soaring.
My eyes open to raining debris. Metal, dust, and rocks rain down on me as I cough and try to take a breath. Holy shit, I thought. Am I alive?
I lazily got up to my hands and knees. I took note my rifle was still attached to me. I got to my feet as fast as I could. Spotted Alex and the Marines some twenty feet away. I ran back to them. One looked up to me, I don’t remember which.
“You alright, Doc?”
“Ya, I think so.”, I replied.
Lots of things hurt. My right arm felt as if a baseball had slammed into my forearm. My right hip was hurting badly enough to not fully support my weight, making my limp. My head was pounding and fuzzy. My left shin was uncomfortable, like something had struck it as well. I wasn't in any mood to look into any of these things. I was alive, so I was fine.
After four of us together carried him further away, I got Alex back into the exact same position in the prone with me. Shoulder to shoulder, head to head, me cradling his face. He continued to wheeze shakily, but steady. He would stop from time to time and I would have to slap his back with all my might, nearly breaking my own hand on his armor sometimes to dislodge a blood clot that would form somewhere and block his airway. A very long time we laid in the dust together, waiting for help to come. Laying in blood mud from his injuries and mine. We made dark red clay together as we waited.
Eventually, help did arrive. Five of us out of the eight men present for the first blast and then the second were injured. We were flown by helicopter to a British Military hospital in Afghanistan.
I received traumatic brain injuries from that and several more bombs before I went home that deployment. My right arm will also never be the same due to the size of the piece of unidentified metal shrapnel I was struck by defending Alex. I left that hospital about a week later and returned to the front with my unit. Josh and Alex were sent to Germany for treatment. Both went back home to Hawaii to recover. Three of us went back to the fight, two went home. I returned home some four and a half months later.
This story ends with me washing my hands in the hospital bathroom after they denied me surgery to remove the metal from my arm. Too deep they said. Could cause more harm than good. I looked up into the mirror in the private little white bathroom. Something changed that day. Something that changed forever. Watching myself in the mirror while washing the blood from my hands and arms. Washing Alex off my hands. Washing myself off my hands. I began to weep softly. The boy that joined the Navy for adventure was gone. He had become what he needed to be to survive and so that others may live.
He became Doc.