He was laying face down on a backboard, soot all over him. Most of his clothes were cut away except for his boots and t-shirt. I told him, “hang on this is really going to hurt.”
A .50 cal round had “cooked off” and hit his leg. I started shoving gauze in the half dollar sized exit wound in the back of his leg. The second I did, he started squirming and screaming writhing in pain. At first he just screamed then he started saying things.
“Oh God! Stop! Please! Stop Doc!” he screamed.
I gritted my teeth and tried to ignore him. You have to plug these wounds. A tourniquet simply won’t do it. Plugging it will prevent infection, speed the healing, and is one of the quickest ways to start clotting in, but it hurts so much. And so on this day I put a man through unbelievable amounts of agony to save him.
“I can’t stop, man, I’ve got to do this”
If you can imagine, an abrasion that’s getting cleaned, but far worse because its inside your body. I put half a roll into his leg which probably only took 15-30 seconds. But it’s 15-30 seconds that are seared into my memory. It wasn’t the first or the last time I had done such things.
By far the worst thing every medic is trained for, but truly dreads, we call The Choice. There is no formal name for it, aside for a french name that somehow doesn’t relay the horror of what is before you. Who lives, and who dies. One look from a trained Medic is usually all it takes to know that a man is far beyond help. The burns will be too bad, or the wounds in the wrong place. They will scream and holler, call for you, beg and plead, but there’s nothing you can do to save them. And you know it.
I have heard men ask me “am I going to be ok?”
You never say no, but you never tell the truth. Sometimes you don’t speak, but more often than not you lie. You can’t tell a man who’s scared to death that he has only a few minutes to live. You have to force a smile and give them as much comfort as you can. Later this moment will haunt you. It will haunt you that you lied, and you will wish that you could somehow have made those words true. You send him off to whatever lies after death, with a lie. But it is better you tell this lie, than a poor young man spends his last minutes in abject terror.
Thankfully I have only had to lie to a person like this just once, though the person I told was not the one dying. In every war where there is medical support, there will be moments like this. Rare is the heart that is so hard that does not break at such moments. you hold onto your composure as much as you can in those moments, you use your mind as much as possible to keep yourself rational, but you always feel for them. Later, in the quiet moments, then it’ll all come back, with a vengeance. It is hard to show mercy in war. But this job is vital. You must have the will to overpower revulsion, and do what is your duty.
There will be times you must treat men and women who, moments before, were trying to kill you. There will be children who have the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. You must somehow give the same dispassionate care to these as you would yo your own soldiers that you’ve lived with ate with slept with and generally suffered with. The life of a Medic or Corpsman is not an easy one, indeed it is one of the most taxing, emotionally speaking, of any job in the military. Only commanders have more responsibility, but their burden is lightened by the distance they keep from their troops. Truth is, there is not a Soldier, Marine, Airman or Sailor out there that isn’t eternally grateful that their Medics and Corpsmen will risk their life and come running when they give the cry.
Before God, Before their Mothers, they call for me. I am the Medic, and I will always come for you.
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