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Jett Superior laid this on you on || December 8, 2003 || 12:04 am

This one’s a long one, so settle in or skip on by.

I don’t know why the events of Labor Day weekend 1992 keep coming back to me in the last couple of weeks. I suspect it is because of the constant flow of reports about injured and dead coming in from Over Yonder and that weekend showed me what munitions do to the bodies of young, able men who are in the wrong place at the right time.

Two young men, twin ICU rooms with glassed-in walls, both swollen beyond recognition, both near-buried in a snakelike configuration of tubing and wiring meant to sustain nearly-extinguished lives, both covered in a curtain of stillness punctuated by the quiet, steady clack-rattle and beeping of machinery. Neither of them, frankly, was supposed to have lived.

Labor Day weekends aren’t scripted to end like that. You’re supposed to come off of them mourning the end of your long weekend, not fearful of the future as your life or the life of your loved one hangs precariously in the balance.

It was a hellish sort of four days, so I didn’t pay attention to the boy next door like I should have (or ordinarily would have). I was a little shell-shocked, working past my fatigue and fear with the blanket resolve that I am fortunate enough to be blessed with.

The accidents occurred within a couple hours of one another early Labor Day afternoon, in different parts of the state, for different reasons. As I sat in a dim hallway alcove and waited for my young husband to come out of surgery for his gunshot wound, they wheeled the wreckage of what I assumed to be another young man past me and in through the pneumatic doors of the ICU. I watched him, wide-eyed, the flat of my palm pressed hard against my abdomen and the flutter of girlbaby growing inside. Had I not already been in some degree of shock, I would have openly wept for the mess of a human being that lie there.

He was a sci-fi-like configuration of staples and stitches and tufts of hair and impossibly-stretched shiny, contused skin. How is he still alive??

The first few hours after they brought my husband out of surgery were a big mental fog. I sort of wandered around the room, brain clutching at this thought and that, unsure of the next five minutes, the next five hours, the next few days. I held his hand, bent over the bed of this man (who was barely alive when the medical team got to him, yet who still managed to tell them to call me Beth rather than Elizabeth when they phoned so that I would not immediately become alarmed and know how truly bad things were) till my head and sacrum ached, whispering fervently into his ear.

“Don’t you die on me, don’t you go anywhere. You’re only twenty-two; you’re too young. We have plans and I have a huge surprise for you when you’re stronger….” I hadn’t yet told him of the blessing in my belly; we were being transferred to Redstone Arsenal in less than a month and I hadn’t wanted him to be overprotective of a pregnant me in the days surrounding the move. Hell, when I was pregnant with Sam, he’d forbade me to go to the gym, to shovel snow, to sweep the walk.

After several hours had passed thickly and impossibly slowly, a nurse came in to check his vitals for the twentieth time. She announced him stable enough so that she could clean the muddy blood-and-dirt mixture that was caked across his hands, his arms, his abdomen, his buttocks. The femoral artery bleeds an ungodly amount, you see.

“You go,” she said, “Go and get something to eat,” and she turned me out of the glass case where my spouse was displayed. Wake up, wake up….Sleeping Beauty is supposed to lie in the glass box, not The Prince….

Well, hell, I couldn’t eat, but I thought a Pepsi might settle my stomach, so I agreed to go. As I passed the neighboring room, I turned my fatigue-swollen eyes toward the bed it contained.

“He’s stationed at Fort Rich, too,” one of the nurses behind the desk said. I halted.

Really.”

“Yes. He came in about three or four hours before your husband did.” It had taken a relay-team combination of off-road vehicle, ambulance and life flight copter three-and-a-half hours to get Biff out of Alaska’s interior. Their injuries, they had occurred very near one another on the timeline.

“What in God’s name happened to him?” I mean, my husband was flirting heavily with death, but you could still make him out beneath all the pale, swollen flesh. This kid didn’t look human, much less able to sustain life.

“They were setting explosives and one charge went off too early, cracking an I-beam in two and sending one half through a jeep and the other half into that boy’s face.” I withered a little bit.

“Why is there no one here with him?” I asked, and she shrugged.

“His mom and dad are stationed in Germany and are trying to get a flight out.” I hadn’t been referring to family, though. It was a foolish question; I knew military procedure all too well. There was no one there because all those closest to him –the men in his unit– were busy being questioned, making statements and signing their names in triplicate.

I faced the window, crossing myself then, kissing my fingertips, put my hand to the glass. “What is his name?”

“Bradley.”

“Look, I’m going for some air, but when I come back would it be okay if I go in there and talk to him for a little bit?” Having had an ICU nurse for a grandmother, I knew this was asking the nigh on impossible, so I was surprised when she said yes.

I went downstairs, threw up in some bushes when I got outside, cursed my inability to smoke (little wee one, remember?) and went back inside, desperately wishing that they put bars next to the gift shops in hospitals. I could’ve used a stiff shot of something, anything, but I settled instead for a soda.

When I got back up to the ICU, I quietly went into Bradley’s room. My God, but was he a mess. His head looked like bruised, stitched cauliflower. The only thing you could really make out was his mouth, and that was only because there was a giant tube coming out of it.

Not wanting to inadvertently hurt him, but unsure if his ears were working properly, I found a small patch of intact skin on the top of his head and began stroking it with the thumb of my right hand so that he would know someone was there. I loosely threaded the fingers of my left hand through those on his left hand and began to speak to him. I don’t remember what I said, but I know exactly how I said it: Easy, velvet tone, no jagged peaks or sudden starts in my voice. Being focused on the task helped ease my nausea; it helped abate my own terror to try and bring some measure of comfort to this tattered man-boy.

I think it’s what a lot of military people do, because we are a family of sorts. You take care of someone when it is called for (and even when it’s not) because, hopefully, when your brother or husband or father or cousin or uncle who is far away from you geographically needs it, someone will offer them care and comfort. Say what you will about the U.S. military, but esprit de corps is not lost on it, regardless of branch.

I stayed for little under an hour, holding his hand, caressing various unmarred parts of him, talking-talking-talking. I left out to go back to my husband in the next room some twenty minutes before the chaplain and base commander came rolling in to visit both the guys. I saw so much brass in that four fucking day span that I could’ve started a housewares store. When the General in command of the entire Pacific Northwest flies in to gladhand you, you know that they consider the situation a ‘BFD‘, for whatever reason.

(Okay, I didn’t mean that to sound so cynical. My husband was a good soldier, very decorated, very dedicated, very loved and respected by his men…ones he served with, whether he was leading or following. It could have gone either way, really….)

Eventually, Bradley’s squadmates were allowed to visit, two by two into the Ark of the ICU. It actually worked out well, as some of these men were fellas we knew as well. I talked a long while with Sgt. Mantz when he came in. He went to church with us, was in the same Sunday School class, and he had held Bradley’s face together–literally. He told me of how he was just behind and to the left of the boy during this training mission. He was standing, while Bradley was kneeling: “Man, Beth, if he’d been standing up, he’d be dead for sure now.”

Working on instinct, just as he had been trained, Mantz started assessing and acting quickly. One eye was pushed back in the boy’s head, one was hanging by the optic nerve down and out of the socket. Sgt. Mantz scooped the man’s eye up, shaking water over it, and popped it back into place. There were teeth broken off and embedded in Bradley’s face, and Mantz removed those he could quickly.

“I just kept on talking to him, Beth, I just kept on talking and I held his face together while we loaded him up and took him to the hospital.” I hugged Sgt. Mantz to me long and hard, but I imagine there is small measure of comfort in any gesture after you’ve seen something like that happen to a friend and compatriot.

TO BE CONTINUED, as it’s late, I’m tired, there’s more studying to be done, and this is taking more out of me than I thought it would. Alrighty then.

4 worked it out »

  1. Sgt. Mac 12.8.2003

    Compassion, Military, Human Feelings all wrapped up in one hell of a Southern Bell…..No wonder we luv ya so much!

    You are one special lady….;)

     
  2. waistdog 12.8.2003

    And I’m betting that voice of yours would be very soothing to be hearing.

     
  3. ali 12.8.2003

    God bless you.

     
  4. Guy 12.8.2003

    JEEEEEEzus, Beth. All this right on top of Pearl Harbor day. I hope I get a nurse like you’re gonna be if and when I need one.

     

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