Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Combat Medic: Dark Presence, Bright Salvation

Michael Bailey, otherwise known as ‘Doc’ Bailey, is the frequent author of the web log titled 'The Madness of the Combat Medic' (also hosted on the Business Insider web log as a guest).  His self-description allows that he was a "Combat Certified Army Medic for 6 years 3 months", having deployed twice to Iraq and served in the "Darnall ER", referring to the emergency room at the Darnall Army Medical Center at Fort Hood, Texas.  He writes in a 'flow of consciousness' sort of style – he has something to say and he needs to say it, so policing up the occasional typo would just slow him down.  He cranks out a good volume of material, and I admire his perseverance and dedication to his creation.

Combat Medic Memorial, Fort Sam Houston, Texas

I bookmark Bailey in my perusals of the blogosphere because he provides an often raw but sincere reminiscence of small unit operations in our recent and on-going conflicts.  There is a beauty and humor that I can admire in his green-collar writing, an earthiness in his style that often can be the only manner to convey the scene.  He is one of my sources who helps connect me between my ever-widening gulf of time from my military career to what I can understand of the current situations with two of my sons – the eldest in heavy vehicles with the 101st Airborne Division, but most particularly with my youngest son, a Combat Medic with the Rangers.

I commend to you one of his recent postings – 'The Hard Choices a Medic Will Face', which provides some tough examples of when he gave vital aid but little comfort to his buddies who had suddenly become his charges.  My grandmother gave me sage advice when I was a little boy – “Bitter bitter makes you better” – to explain the confusion in a child’s mind about why the pain of an injury (or the noxious taste of medicine) must be made worse before the hurt can be fixed, but here Doc Bailey gives us some extremes:
“Oh God!  Stop!  Please!  Stop Doc!” he screamed.
I grit my teeth and tried to ignore his piteous pleas.  You have to plug his wounds.  A tourniquet simply won’t do it.  Plugging it will prevent infection, it will speed the healing, and is one of the quickest [ways] to start clotting in such a wound, but it will hurt so much.  And so on this day I put a man through unbelievable amounts of pain to save him.
“I can’t 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 its 15-30 seconds that are seared into my memory.  It wasn’t the first or the last time I had done such things.
Once I had to help set a man who’d broken Radius and Ulna.  The Orthopedics doctors had given him locals, and he was on some pretty heavy Opoids, but he still cried out.  It was just a simple break or he would have been put under.  I’m here to tell you the sound of bone grinding on bone is something you’ll never forget.  You have to put it out of your mind or you’ll never get the job done.
The one of the worst things to treat are burns.  That stench of burnt hair is something you never forget, neither do you forget burned skin, or muscle.  The worst part is the pain.  You simply can’t touch their pain.  Every touch gives them pain, and it is not a good option to simply put them under.
He continues in this vein, telling of the torture he inflicts to save them and preserve their body as best he can.  But the worst of all:
I have heard men ask me "am I going to be ok?"
Often they will be, but sometimes they won’t.  In those times, he deals with them in the moment, each case different but tragically the same, as they fade away.  And then he deals with it for himself.  To me, that is the toughest call of all.  [Marine LtGen John Kelly has dwelt on this with his eloquent, heart-breaking remarks on the death in combat of his son.]  For all the other examples he lists, his "hard choices", I would apply the variation on Thomas Hobbes and his observation that the state of nature is "nasty, brutish, and short" – that if there is no alternative, there is no problem.  You do what you have to do, period.  But to comfort a man in his final minutes requires sympathy beyond diplomacy.  How do you reassure him, yet give the others gathered around you the confidence that if they become wounded, your reassurance to them will not cause panic instead?  This truth can be a harsh responsibility from which even Solomon would shrink.  But the Medic must take some degree of comfort in the fact that they know you, and they are confident that you are well trained and intelligent, and will do everything in your power to help them.

But that doesn’t extend only to the aid that he can render on the spot.  Often a soldier lies wounded at the precise place that is most dangerous and vulnerable to the enemy – that’s why he’s lying there.  And he and his buddies will call for the Medic or Corpsman (for the Marines), and they know that he will defy what seems to be the most common of senses and zigzag to the side of the wounded, moved as soon as possible (depending on 'possible') to an area described as safe, but only that it is slightly less dangerous than everywhere else.

And finally, this is all on top of the fact that the Medic or Corpsman is a functioning member of a combat unit; he isn’t immune from the fact that the enemy is trying to kill him and his brothers, and thus he is often every bit as much a combatant as the other soldiers.  I recently quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer in another context, but it applies equally well here: "If I see a madman driving a car into a group of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead.  I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver."  My primary experience is in the Marines, where every man is a rifleman, and one of my pieces of advice to my son as he departed for training was that a good Corpsman is often a rifleman with a Unit One bag.  But he is fortunate that he is a Combat Medic with the Rangers – a Medic or Corpsman is typically assigned from a pool to a combat unit, so he fits in on an ad hoc basis, preserving some sort of detachment, but in the Rangers he is a permanent member of a platoon and fully integrated into his Band of Brothers.  But Doc Bailey reminds us that there is still a difference:
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. 
It is well worth reading the whole thing.

1 comment:

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