In Arduis Fidelis – Faithful in Adversity
I had been a Combat Medical Technician in the Royal Army Medical Corps for almost three years. A veteran at twenty-two, I was about to find out what it felt like to be taken care of instead of being the caregiver.
I was stationed in Belfast, Northern Ireland; assigned to a squadron consisting mostly of angry inarticulate paratroopers seeking glory. My role was solitary at best, working long hours in the medical center, before being deployed as medical support for a squad out on patrol. As such I always kept a pre-packed Bergen – backpack – close to hand. After the order to move out was given, I threw on my webbing and Bergen, snatched my rifle from the arms locker and jogged to the parade ground to muster with my eight man team. We were hustled into the back of an armored Land Rover and left under the cover of darkness. I was tired after a long days work and soon fell asleep in the back of the rumbling vehicle.
I was awoken by a slap across my face; one of the corporals in my squad informed me. “Wake up, Handbag, time to work.” Clambering out of the vehicle, I took my position at the back of the patrol. The lead man was issued a night scope, while the rest of us waited the ten minutes that it took to gain sufficient night vision for us to continue. We left the Land Rover behind and headed into the welcoming blackness.
At dawn on the second day it happened, it had been raining all night and a heavy fog covered us all in a soaking mist. We made our way across yet another open field using the familiar arrowhead formation. I was watching the back of the lead soldier to keep my position in the squad correct, when the mist reddened above his shoulders; his helmet leapt upwards into the air disappearing from view. Then we all heard the crack of the shot rattle off the valley walls around us. The body began its descent towards the cool earth. I was already sprinting towards him when I vaguely remember the warning cry of “Contact” from someone to my left. Everyone zigzagged a few steps forward before diving for the ground to keep as low as possible. They had all discarded their obese backpacks before I had even made it to the fallen man. I was alone with my heart pounding in my ears as I gulped air into my frosty lungs when I reached him. His blood had drenched the ground I lay on and was soaking through my damp camouflage warming me. It was too risky to evaluate him in the open so, using a zip tie to clamp his hands together, I flung them over my head and with his lifeless body beneath me, I crawled towards the hedge about twenty meters in front of us as fast as I could. Later the others told me how bullets were frothing the ground around us as I salamandered to the cover. Two bullets had pierced my webbing pouches; one went through my water bottle, all unnoticed at the time. Once at the hedge I looked into the man’s head and knew it was over for him, the entire top third of his head was missing along with most of his brain matter. I would spend day’s afterwards picking pieces of him out of my boots while I shivered. Grabbing him by the shoulders, I forced him between the tangles of hedgerow and we plummeted onto the unforgiving gravel farm track, fifteen feet below. A few seconds after we landed the remainder of the section leapt down to inform me that they had spotted the enemy and were heading out to flank his position and record the kill. I knew my task well. These men were highly trained and intimate; infantry units are trained together in boot camp and travel from one unit posting to the next as a team. Medics, we’re different, we move from place to place, wherever there is bloodshed; there is an individual crying out the word “Medic!” My job right now was to bandage this man’s cavernous wound to keep it from the soon to be prying eyes of his family members. They left silently and without any discussion; I never saw the hand signals they shared but I know they would have been accurate and exact. The company I was keeping were the ‘Red Devils’ for a reason.
As I knelt next to this former warrior, I placed my rifle on the ground beside me and slipped my Bergen off of my weary shoulders. It was a wonderful piece of ‘Gucci’ kit, as we referred to it. The whole pack contained everything a medic would need to perform field surgery under battle conditions; it was separated into the four basic sections of life saving treatment: Breathing, bleeding, breaks and burns – the four B’s. Velcro strapping allowed the pack to unroll flat onto the ground, giving me all the access I needed. Each individual pocket was made of clear plastic, allowing me to spot at a glance the item I required without having to open hundreds of little pockets. All I needed this time were field dressings to cover him up and pad out his skull, so it would at least appear complete to the untrained eye. It took only a couple of breathless, well practiced minutes to apply, but the effect would last me a lifetime.
As I began packing away my equipment and bagging the fragments that had come away as I cocooned his head, the hedge above me rustled. My heart skipped a beat as I glared at the hedge directly above me. The bluish gray muzzle of a rifle emerged as, frozen to the spot I hoped it was one of my section returning to check on me. I should have known better, they would not have approached without declaring themselves. As the furniture appeared, I recognized the Russian-made Kalashnikov AK-47; its distinctive beige wood and pressed steel action well known to all soldiers, it is the favorite weapon of just about all of our enemies. By the time the mans bearded face protruded, I was already reaching for my rifle; leaning back on my calves beneath me, my fingers found the pistol grip securely and as I brought the rifle to bear on him, he was already taking aim on me. I don’t remember who fired first, but I do remember the immense pressure I felt in my hip as his round punched through my pelvis and buried itself in the ground. He would never fire another shot in anger again. At first I thought I had only pulled my quad muscles because there was no pain at all, only the feeling you get when you catch a nerve on something hard and precise, numbing you. My rifle fell from my hands as I tried to get up, but my legs wouldn’t follow simple orders anymore. I groaned and collapsed onto my back with my useless limbs flailing under me. Within seconds, my companions arrived. Two of them secured the dead terrorist as the others gathered around me, urging me to stay still despite my reassurances that I was okay, just shook up was all. I will never forget the message their faces portrayed to me. Once again I tried to get up, to show these men I was as tough as them. As I began to lift myself up, my hands plunged into something familiar and sticky. I remember looking to my side and watching the pool of rich, dark blood grow around me as I blacked out.
I awoke, back in the field surrounded by orange smoke and a gale filled with loose grass and dirt as the Lynx helicopter swooped in to pluck us out of this Hades for good. I remember vivid colors filling my mind as friendly faces carried me away. I would have strange waking dreams, brought about because of the morphine for years to come. The other fallen soldier lay shrouded next to me and crowded in with us, sat the solemn, silent survivors, who would forever be my brothers.