Boca Grande, Florida, United States
|Photo by Cpl. Katherine Keleher|
Lt. Colonel Stone’s pulse pounded from the adrenaline rush of the resuscitation. The career Army medical officer was in the trauma bay of a surgical hospital he commanded in Afghanistan. A Navy SEAL had been shot in the chest and femoral artery. Stone had stemmed the bleeding in the man’s mutilated leg. He had inserted a chest tube in his left pleural cavity to expand a collapsed lung. In the SEAL’s left subclavian vein, Stone had placed a large bore line and rapidly infused a crystalloid solution that brought the soldier out of shock. The patient was now in the operating room having his leg amputated. The floor was dappled with blood that looked like it had been flung from a brush. Stone exhaled a long deep breath and slumped into a chair. The strain of war lined his narrow face. He was pleased with the way he and his team had performed. A leg lost but a life saved. He had developed a way of thinking that made the maimed seem not quite so maimed.
It was the day before Stone’s tour of duty was over. For a moment, he thought of tomorrow when he would fly home from this bleak and savaged country. The idea of going from war to peace seemed somehow daunting to Stone. It was as if he had lost touch with all the beauty and wonders of life.
The telephone on the nurse’s desk rang. An African American master sergeant in scrubs answered it. He looked up at Stone and offered him the receiver.
“It’s for you, sir,” he said. “The morgue.”
“Colonel Stone here.”
“Sorry to bother you, sir,” an accented voice said. “This is Sergeant Martinez. We need you for a death certification.”
Stone could have assigned the task of filling out death certificates to a lower ranking medical officer, but he chose to do it himself. It kept him in touch with the darkness of war and cognizant of the human sacrifices battle required.
“I’ll be right there.”
Stone stepped out into the Afghan afternoon. A blast of scorched air greeted him. The sun beat down and made him squint. He put on a pair of silver aviator shades that blanked his eyes. On a sand path, he headed toward the ramshackle, tin-roofed building near the air strip that served as the morgue. Stone’s blue shadow moved by scraggly trees and piles of rock. From somewhere in the distance came the thud of artillery fire. Stone felt weary, weary of a war he believed nobody knew how to win. He wasn’t even certain what winning would be.
Stone opened the metal door to the morgue and stepped inside. He was relieved to be out of heat and wind. The pungent odor of embalming fluid stung his nostrils.
Martinez, a muscular sergeant on the mortuary affairs staff, saluted him. He wore a rubber apron over an olive drab tee shirt and fatigue pants. He was a member of an Army Reserve unit from San Juan. His cheeks were acne scared. His crew-cut black hair and mustache were turning gray. There was something sorrowful in the way he moved, his downcast eyes.
“Good morning, Sir,” he said in a hushed voice.
“Buenos dias, Martinez,” Stone said. “How’s it going?”
“Like always, Sir.”
Martinez lead him to a stainless steel embalming table. On it lay a body encased in a heavy-duty, black vinyl bag. Stone worked his hands into a pair of latex gloves. There was a chemical taste in his mouth that he tried to swallow away. He reached down and slowly, almost reluctantly unzipped the body bag so he could examine the remains. In his deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, Stone had seen the most mutilating wounds possible — decapitations and quadruple amputations from IEDs, children with half of their faces blown away by bombs. Sometimes there were just body parts. In spite of all his years as a war surgeon, he always dreaded what he might find inside a body bag.
Stone looked down at a mangled soldier. His face was scorched. His hair and eye brows had been burned away. Stone picked up the soldier’s left arm. It was stiff with rigor mortis. The fingers of his hand were gone. White bones and tendons were exposed. The heat of the explosion had melted the kevlar strike plate of the man’s body armor and welded it to his chest. Stone thought he had seen everything that weaponry could do but this was something new. He shook his head. He wondered who the young man was in the real world. Somebody’s son, he thought. Somebody’s brother. Maybe he was married. Maybe he had kids. Stone picked up the dog tag that was on a chain around the man’s neck. He looked up at Martinez.
“What do you know about Private Nelson?” he asked.
“He was a door gunner, Sir,” the sergeant said. “His Black Hawk was shot down yesterday. An RPG hit the fuel tank. His body was retrieved early today.”
“Where’d it happen?”
“Zhari district, up by Kandahar,” the sergeant said. “If you want to watch his chopper crash you can see it on an Islamic web site. It shows towel heads dragging him by his ankles through the street.”
A moist bile rose up in Stone’s throat. He swallowed hard. He tried to find some meaning in Private Nelson’s death. But he found none. He had come to believe that only in living was there significance. Stone stripped off the rubber gloves and dropped them in a waste basket.
“You know,” he said. “Dying should be an old man’s game.”
“Yes, Sir,” Martinez said. “But it won’t be. Long as there’s wars.”
“Sad but true,” Stone said.
He turned and walked slowly to a desk in the corner of the morgue. From a file he pulled out a death certificate form. It occurred to him that medical school had taught to be a keeper of life, but now he was a certifier of death. The thought depressed him.
Stone sat on a stool and stared at the wall. He couldn’t stop brooding about the dead door gunner. He wondered why Nelson had joined the army. Was it starry-eyed patriotism? A broken heart? Maybe he couldn’t find a job. Maybe he just wanted to fight. Stone started filling out the form, but he kept thinking about the young soldier. Why had this happened to him? Why did it happen the way it did? Everything about war seemed accidental and random and made no sense. When he finished with the form, Stone took out a leather bound journal from the pocket of his fatigues. Recorded in its pages were the names of all the men whose death certificates he had signed. Keeping score that way made their deaths seem more real to him. As he entered Nelson’s name in the journal, a heaviness bore down on him that pushed him deep inside himself. Stone wanted to cry but didn’t. Stone had come to doubt that there was a loving god. But he bowed his head and silently asked the Lord to bless Nelson’s soul and end the war.
The phone rang. Martinez answered it. He covered the receiver with his hand and called to Stone, “Trauma bay, sir. They need you. They’ve got a wounded Taliban.”
“Oh, good,” Stone said. “He stable?”
“I don’t know. They said, “stat.” It might be the guy who killed Nelson. I wouldn’t be in any hurry.”
“Unfortunately, that’s not the way it works,” Stone said. “Tell em I’m on the way.”
Stone rose from his chair. He hurried out the door into a hot wind. He could feel ground heat rising through the cleated soles of his rapid deployment combat boots.
The following day, Stone walked toward the helicopter that was to take him on the first leg of his trip out of Afghanistan. The air was hot and dry, the sky the color of smoke. A fierce wind blew the stench of burning garbage to him. From the entry to the morgue, Martinez appeared in his rubber apron. He came to attention and saluted Stone. The colonel returned the salute and gave him a thumbs up. Beside the sergeant was Pvt. Nelson’s metal casket draped in an American flag. The coffin was waiting for an honor guard to load it onto a C-130 that would transport the dead soldier to the States. For a moment, Stone pictured the horror Nelson had been through — his chopper bursting into flames, the Kevlar body armor fusing to his chest. The name politicians in Washington gave soldiers like Nelson came to Stone and echoed in his mind. Boots on the ground.
Stone took a deep breath. He turned and headed toward the helicopter. From the mountains to the north came the thump of artillery fire. Stone’s footsteps left powdery tracks in the dust.
DALY WALKER is a retired general surgeon. He served as a battalion surgeon in the Vietnam war. His essays and fiction have appeared in The Atlantic, the Sewanee Review, The Louisville Review, the Southampton Review, Hospital Drive as well as Hektoen International. His work has been short listed for Best American Short Stories and an O’Henry award. His collection of short stories, Surgeon Stories was published by Fleur-de-Lis Press.