In the Span of an Hour

**I’ve decided to post some of my writings I had to do for my graduate school applications- this is one I sent to Chapman University**

Just the night before, we were wrapping up a small-arms firing range. Our commander and first sergeant were both irritated at the lack of proficiency those younger soldiers put on display for them. “You men are soldiers, but you can’t shoot to save your own lives…literally!” That was what I recalled First Sergeant Jimenez saying as he barked his disapproval at those eighteen and nineteen-year old kids. It was only at worst half of the reason why he was so upset; it was nearing midnight, and our exercise wrapped up the next day. That first sergeant was not going to allow those men to get any sleep unless they all qualified- not most of them, not even half of them. All of them. That is at least twenty-three targets hit out of forty total per soldier. Forty soldiers. It was definitely at least two in the morning when we finally finished, probably closer to three. I was one of the lucky few; at least my fellow medics and I had the luxury of witnessing all of these events within the relative comfort of an ambulance Humvee. They finally finished and were rushed off of the range. Something felt wrong about how that evening transpired; at least that’s what I recalled as I sat in front of an investigation board about a week later, trying to help them understand what happened in the events leading up to the morning my friend and fellow soldier Justin was accidentally gunned down and killed.

I still occasionally relive those moments much like I did the day I recalled them to that imposing board of doctors, investigators, and various leaders of impartial and non-associated units. Colonels, lieutenant colonels, command sergeants major- they all sat around me as if I were their chief executive officer, explaining my business decisions to an eager-to-fire board of directors. Nay, I was just a lowly combat medic. I knew just enough about the ways of the Army to keep me out of trouble or get me deeper into it. I am also pretty sure that there might have even been a one-star general listening in over by the door.

There was not really a whole lot of blood at first, but it eventually soaked the bandage so much that we had to change it only ten minutes into the ordeal. But it wasn’t the blood that bothered me so much as the haunting scream of “Medic!” that screeched into my ears as I tossed a paper tray holding the remains of the morning’s green egg concoction into the garbage can. I am fairly confident that I teleported immediately to where I saw one of the new guys standing with a smoking rifle and my friend Justin laying on the ground and holding his gut. “Doc, I’m hit. Doc, I’m hit. Doc, I’m…”. He just kept repeating it, then he would pause or grunt. At one point he stopped talking completely and we had to yell at him to wake up. The hole was literally the size of half the circumference of a dime, maybe smaller. I only saw it once and it didn’t really look like much. It was in a bad spot, though. Four inches below and to the left of his belly button was where he met his fate, and it might have been all of four or five minutes before his abdomen began to distend, filling with blood from a leaky common iliac artery, just below where it meets up with the aorta.

We finally got him to the hasty helicopter landing zone about seventy-five meters away. It was there that I received more help. At the last spot, there must have been at least another medic and what I thought might have had been a special forces soldier that I had no idea was even in our area. With all of those people surrounding the wounded Justin, it seemed like we accomplished nothing; effort after effort, and Justin did not improve. He kept getting worse. Another guy showed up at the landing zone- an intelligence soldier that I got to know in the following years. He tried to give Justin an intravenous line so we could replace his lost blood with saline. It took him a few tries, but he finally hit a vein- something not so easily done with a patient going into late-stage cardiovascular shock, no matter the skill level. This guy was not even a medic, and I remember as I thought back at how impressed I was. Then as quickly as he arrived, the medical help had vanished and now we were getting word, another ten minutes later, that there would be no helicopter coming. I threw Justin into the back of our camouflaged ambulance and now I had a new medic at my side. Dante was experienced, so I was content with his assistance. However now Justin wasn’t breathing. I checked his pulse. Nothing…there it is again…it’s really weak…it’s gone…or was that a beat? I told Dante to see if he had a rescue mask in anticipation for the worst. I remember looking at him and he looking back at me, and I am willing to bet my life on the fact that he was thinking the exact same thing I was: he did not have one and which of us were going to give Justin mouth-to-mouth.

The back door of the ambulance flew open and there waiting was the Honolulu paramedics. Normally when transferring the care of a patient to another party, medical personnel give a handoff of information about the incident: vital signs, injury or illness, interventions attempted, et cetera. That never occurred, then the worst happened within the seemingly seamless transition over to the paramedics’ gurney. They put a three-lead electrocardiogram onto his chest and confirmed it. They then continued the CPR that Dante and I had started, but they did not have to worry about mouth-to-mouth- there were intubation kits in their aid bags. Dante and I were then hurriedly escorted off of the scene, and I never saw Justin again. It had been an hour since I threw my breakfast away.

I remember little of the events that came after I left the paramedics to their duties, but I know I was exhausted. Trauma medicine is hard work, both physically and emotionally. I did not cry over it for awhile. I had seen worse things happen to people in Iraq. I lost more friends and acquaintances, not just to bullets and bombs but to suicide and mental illness. However, the one that always stuck deeper and clearer within my memory was always Justin. I do not believe one has truly lived until they have seen someone die. Sitting in front of that board, I had not yet been blessed with time passed to have grieved or really thought much into what had happened. They questioned my abilities, and so did I. Did I do what I should have done? Did I do enough? Was there something that I had forgotten to do? Did I kill Justin? I sometimes ask myself these questions to this day. The board ultimately determined that I had acted appropriately and within the duties and responsibilities of my position. My supervisors and peers supported all of us on the ground at that tragic event; they supported us and that is one of the most important things that servicemen and women can do for each other. It was what got me through this ordeal.

That tired and angry first sergeant was to blame. Both he and the commander were soon looking for new jobs. The soldier that killed Justin, Chris- we’ve been friends since the day I met him again in Iraq less than a year later. He was court-martialed and found to be not guilty, the investigation placing the blame on the command staff for inadequately and inappropriately operating a firing range and placing soldiers in an unnecessarily dangerous situation. Chris was exonerated and ultimately had a successful career in the military. Justin left behind a wife and a little girl. I had a fulfilling fourteen-year military career, making it to the rank of staff sergeant. Chris got married, bought a motorcycle, and had a few kids. Justin had a whole life ahead of him. So did I, and he was my first casualty of war.


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