I was seated within the passenger side of the ambulance awaiting their arrival. An uneasy tumbling of anxiety twisted within my stomach. It was subtle, but it was there. Our ambulance was parked out onto the tarmac under the stealth of night. I scanned the vastness above me in search of the plane, but there was nothing. Just a glitter of stars and a limitless canvas of black. The light pollution from the city to our North boasted an orange hue skyward. You could see the glow, but not the buildings that gave them life. It was a clear night. Almost peaceful, although in the back of my mind I knew that what we were about to do was anything but halcyon…
Earlier that evening my shift had started much like any other; I took the radio from the outgoing crew, logged on with dispatch, checked the supplies and logbook, and just as soon as I had formulated the mere thought of going to the bathroom, ding, ding, ding – the tones go off. We were getting a call. We traipsed from call to call and bounced from hospital to hospital, hallway to hallway until we were well into our shift.
Eventually though, we found ourselves at a station. Cory, my partner, was warming up his food in the communal microwave that wafted a fragrance of varied culinary selections from years of use. Trust me, the smell is not limited to the kitchen… I was checking work e-mails on the computer just down the hallway. A voice cracked in from behind my left shoulder, “Heneghan – “I spun around in time for the shift supervisor to say, “Got a minute? I need to speak with you.” I acknowledged his command and began logging out of the computer while simultaneously racking my brain for what I may have done that had led to the point of needing a one on one with a shift supervisor. Although my mouth can get me into trouble sometimes, I could not think of anything that held recent relevancy.
I entered into his office and stood at the position of at-ease, meaning my hands clasped neatly in behind my back. A lingering effect of my army days.
“Henegh–, why are you standing like that? Relax. Take a seat.” I obliged. Albeit awkwardly in retrospect…
“Heneghan, how’s your shift?”
“Uh, yeah it’s fi – “
“Good! Okay, so, I need to speak with you about something; I want to remove you from your truck for a little while tonight. There’s a group of injured soldiers coming back from the war, and with [you] being a veteran, I think it would be fitting that you be their medic. They need a ride from the airport to the University hospital. They’re pretty banged up. They have doctors and nurses already with them, so you’ll just be a driver, or a helping hand should they need it.” There was a brief silence between us after he had finished saying what he needed to, but he could see that I was paying attention. And believe me, I was.
I allowed for my expression of interest to be known and informed him that of course I will do this! At first, I was excited bordering on elated that I had been selected for such an honorable task. It was in thinking about the honor aspect of said task that elation gave-way to realization; These men were not coming home because the war had suddenly ended. These men were coming home because their war had ended, and badly. I felt almost shameful for ever having any inclination of self-pride towards this task. In an attempt to reign myself in, I posed a serious question to my supervisor, “do we know their injuries, sir?” He paused for a moment before answering, having now seen the stoic expression wash over me I am sure. “No. All we have been told is that they need a few ambulances, some bodies, and that we should be ready to work. That’s it.” If there is anything that will deflate bravado and elation, it is knowing that the very men and women who are defending our right to freedom and arrogance, sometimes need to rely on us in order to get back home…
I walked out of his office and into the bathroom, yelling at myself introspectively as I neared the washroom. I entered in and was met with my reflection in the mirror. I almost wanted to square off and fight with what was staring back at me. I had only been out of the army for a couple of years, still wearing the metal wrist band that held the names of my three fallen brethren and already I had forgotten what honor was!? What kind of thud-fuck am I?!
I leaned on the countertop with my gaze lowered so as not to look at the monster in the mirror. My thoughts began transcending time and reality. Taking me back to a different time, a different reality. A time where the reality saw me standing on the tarmac of an airport. Looking out towards a giant steel bird with bluish-gray skin. It was a plane. A plane that held another soldier that I had once been tasked to remove and look after. And I did. I was dressed to perfection in my army green’s when I removed my fallen brother from that cold steel structure of flight. The silk fabric of our nations flag rested gently atop of the casket that sat upon my shoulders. It pressed firmly into my cheek, ready to absorb the tears I was not allowed to cry.
On that day, there were no lives to preserve nor any ambulances for the task. We were taking him home – to his final home. A place deep into the earth. Tonight though, with being tasked to retrieve these battle-wounded, it marked the first time since burying Andrew, that I was to set foot on a military aircraft… that’s when the nerves started. My stomach groaned. It was subtle, but it was there…
Just as I was beginning to think about getting some oral Gravol from the back of the rig, our radio chimed to life with the news of an incoming aircraft. My stomach would have to wait.
When the plane landed, we were instructed that my partner and I were going to be receiving the most gravely of wounded soldiers. He had suffered the brunt of a roadside bomb while on patrol. We knew that he was intubated, but that was it.
We gathered our stretcher and gear and proceeded to walk under the guidance of ground crews leading us to the plane. The closer we got, the more Andrew returned to mind.
A high-pitched sigh of engine turbines slowing to cessation broke through the night air. There was a hydraulic lift that we were to use to gain access to the entryway of the plane. It wobbled and moaned with metallic annoyance as it was hoisted upwards to the door. Ironically, I was going towards the light, knowing that on the other side, there was near death.
I entered into the plane and my nose was met with a swirling concoction of antiseptic ointments and wipes. There was also the smell of wounded flesh. Places on their bodies where they had been burned by the angry fires of war. The smells came first, then the sights – three soldiers, all swathed wires and tubes from machines and I.V. bags. My patient was in the middle of the plane. He was badly wounded alright; his arms were swaddled in bandages that hinted at seeping injuries beneath. His eyes had clear plastic shields taped to them so as to prevent him from scratching at them when the sedation medication ran too low. It’s likely that in his mind, he was still burning…
I felt uneasy being there. I had once worn the same uniform as these men, but I felt like a stranger. An unworthy observer.
“Heneghan… Good to see you, been a while. You look good.” A deep male voice broke my brooding thoughts and forced my engagement. It was an old officer from my unit, one of my commanding senior officers. He was smiling at me, but you likely would have missed it.
“How ya, doin’, sir?”
“Well, you got a little civy-fat, but the discipline seems to have stayed with ya. I’m good, son.”
“What’do’ya need me to do?” …
That night we all worked together to get these boys where they needed to be. They are alive and presumably well today… And that, I am fucking proud of.