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.
To Dad and in memory of my grandfather, with love.
“It’s snowing harder, Peter.”
Peter glanced nervously at Rob. “Think we ought to go back?” he asked, convincingly indifferent.
Robert guffawed and glared out the window. The debate had gotten old long ago.
Glancing at him again, Peter rubbed his scant beard. He scowled and let the jeep chug to a stop, cranked the wheel hard to the right, and put the vehicle in reverse.
“What now, Skipper?”
“Going back,” Peter responded grudgingly.
Five minutes passed in silence. Peter could just see the edge of Rob’s face, enough to tell that the young man’s mouth was working hard, but before the expected tongue-lashing could happen, Rob exclaimed sharply, and the jeep jerked to a stop, skidding a bit on the icy logging road as Peter slammed the brakes. “What is it?” he cried.
“Well, it’s gone now!” Rob sounded as if Peter was to blame for this as well. “It was a light or something, outside the window. Hey, it’s there again.”
Reluctantly, Peter peered into the blind darkness. There was a light, about the size of a tennis ball and hovering two yards or so away. Peter contemplated at it doubtfully and turned his worried eyes on the road ahead.
“It’s been keeping up with the jeep since last time we stopped,” Rob said fifteen minutes later.
“Just a reflection on the window,” Peter said distrustfully.
“From what?” Rob shot back. “See”, he assured, rolling down the window. “It can’t be.”
“Oh, just shut the window.”
“And…it’s still there.” Rob mused.
At Peter’s indulgent invitation to climb out and investigate, Rob looked stonily at Peter. “Your family goes to church, don’t they?”
“Why do you care?”
“Why don’t you ever go?” Rob countered.
“I’m not into that sort of…being religious and drinking the wine…” He shrugged let out a deep breath. “I just figured that any God who lets the world get into as much of a mess as it’s in now isn’t worth my time.” He glanced over at Rob to gage his response. “Take…oh, wars, or sickness. If He can’t keep that from happening, or doesn’t have interest in keeping that from happening, than I don’t have time for Him.”
“I don’t know. I’ve never cared for that sort of thing myself, but sometimes it seems so…easy.”
“Right, you just have to believe the stuff, and that’s easy,” Peter scoffed. “You’ve never talked like this before,” he said critically. “Why now?”
Rob looked thoughtful, but said nothing.
They drove for twenty minutes more and never came to the main road, Rob in a brown study over the light outside the window and Peter growing steadily more uneasy.
“We must have just gotten off the road somehow. Could we follow the tracks back?”
Peter was surprised that Rob had said “we” and not “you”. But the tracks behind them were already blown over. The men stared at the vanished trail and one of them even ventured a prayer under his breath. Peter didn’t notice Rob’s whispered words, and started driving in the direction from which he assumed they had come, his knuckles white. Rob pointed out—to Peter’s frustration and alarm—that the light was now on Peter’s side of the jeep. “It’s not a reflection,” Rob added.
“Then what is it?” Peter snapped.
“A snow angel,” Rob said, then laughed.
“Rob, just stop!” Peter demanded, nearly distracted.
Without warning and for no apparent reason, the jeep died. Nothing was said for what seemed a long time, but the first word spoken sparked an argument that lasted for a quarter of an hour. It ended abruptly with Rob’s observation that the light was now gone. Exasperated and disgusted, Peter snatched his flashlight from the back seat, fought the door open, and stumbled out into the blizzard.
“What are you doing, Crazy?” Rob shouted.
“Do you care?” Peter spat back, his voice sped away in the howling wind.
“Heck, I’m not staying here,” Rob said heatedly.
In vicious silence, the boys wandered aimlessly, the small beam from the flashlight pounded out by the wind.
Unexpectedly Rob stopped. They were on the lee side of a small cliff and the snow was gentler, sifting through a thick covering of trees and trickling eerily down the face of the rock. “We’re being stupid, Peter,” he said earnestly.
Peter’s anger flared, but disappeared when he saw Rob’s foot slip on the icy road. Peter tried to cry a warning but he wasn’t quick enough. His gloved hand only brushed Rob’s sleeve as Rob tumbled headlong into a crevice of rock. Recovering his self possession, Peter sprang after him, coming to the bottom next to his friend, who lay senseless in the snow. “Rob!” Peter cried, “Rob!” From the faint beam of light Peter could see a stream of blood running down Rob’s forehead. A feeling of dread settled in his stomach and he shook the young man roughly to rouse him, but when he got no response, he mustered his strength and lifted him bodily.
He was never sure how he managed to get back to the jeep, for Rob was a big man, at least as big as Peter was, and the cold was almost disabling.
Once inside, Peter tried turning the inside lights on. He bit back a curse but at the fifth or sixth attempt, they flickered on. He nearly breathed a prayer out of true gratefulness but even then he muttered, “Foolishness.”
The gash on Rob’s forehead wasn’t as deep as Peter had feared, but when half an hour later he still hadn’t come to, Peter tucked as many blankets as they had around Rob and ventured into the cold once more.
He wandered for thirty minutes, trying to find a fence line to follow. When he stopped to get his bearings, he realized with shock that he had no idea where he—or the jeep—was. Then the unthinkable happened. The batteries in his flashlight gave out.
Appalled beyond belief, Peter hurled his flashlight from him with a choked cry, fell to his knees, and with another shout he pounded his fist onto the frozen ground. The pain brought him back to reality, and he sat there panting, his brain revolting at the conviction of what his fate could be.
Desperately he began walking, stumbling, falling and tripping and getting up again, determined to survive. He was not going to die. Over and over, he mumbled that to himself, slowly realizing that it had become not a statement but a prayer. Three hours he wandered, simply trying to keep warm, quite convinced that he couldn’t survive until morning, but determined that cold was never the way he’d go. The snow stung his face and he felt ice on his eyelashes. The muffler covering his mouth was stiff with frost and his feet felt like lead.
Weary and exhausted and on the verge of despair, he saw twin lights in the distance, moving slowly in circles. He knew immediately what it was: the jeep was working again and Rob was driving it, hoping Peter could see to get back! But when he topped the ridge, the jeep was there just as he’d left it.
Peter staggered to the jeep and tumbled inside. Rob still was unconscious. Peter shook him gently, and he moaned, looking blearily at Peter. “Where were you?” he murmured. “I woke up and you were gone…Passed out again…” He swallowed with a little difficulty. “My head hurts…” His voice trailed off.
The next morning, the sun came up warm and golden. Peter clambered out of the jeep and checked the engine, his fingers clumsy and slow. There was nothing wrong with it that he could see.
Hopelessly, he got back in the jeep. At the first attempt, the engine turned over and engaged.
Other than faint tracks in sheltered places, their trail was blown over, and before they reached the main road they came upon something that shook them both considerably.
Faint tracks could be seen where a mere two feet of ground was all that guarded the east side of the road from a drop off of at least thirty feet. “I drove over this last night?” Peter’s mouth was agape with a sort of horror.
“Do you believe in angels?” Rob said slowly.
“Why?” Peter demanded.
“Well,” Rob began, “You didn’t know what that light was, but maybe I do. I remember if following us right about here, actually.”
Author’s note: My late grandfather passed on a story of his younger days, and a blizzard he drove through years ago with some friends of his. Hovering outside their window at an unknown distance was a light. They decided it wasn’t a reflection, and since it followed them for miles they knew it couldn’t be a farm light. They rolled down their window, and did probably everything short of getting out to investigate. My grandfather, who was a WWII veteran, a rancher, and a small-town veterinarian, was the last person on earth who would have made up a story like that—He was honest and forthright, and he went to his grave not knowing what that light outside his window had been.
Words jump out at me. They mix and shift and create horrific grammatical errors. They embody misinterpreted, misrepresented ideas and notions. Sometimes these words only speak to their author; sometimes not even then.
But I don’t care about the author or their ideas. I only care about the gross overuse of commas, the “there” that should be a “their” and those nonsensical, dangling participles. I live to round up the rogue periods that typically reside within the borders of quotation marks. I get excited when I find the elusive, extra “L” hiding in “always”.
An old friend of mine, as well as an editing compatriot, told me that he could never work in the company of noise. I am quite the opposite. Music flows throw my headphones and batters my eardrums as I work. My desk is cluttered with business cards, notes, a thesaurus, a dictionary, pens, pencils – all dimly lit by the only source of light in the room, a laptop beaten by time and constant use.
A word document stares at me from the laptop. I stare back. Eyes shift, left to right. It’s 2 a.m. so the pace quickens. There is a deadline to consider. Music still pulses in my head, but it doesn’t distract from the task at hand.
There! The effect of “affect” might have derailed this entire sentence. But I saved it. Continuing on, my mind begins to do the worst possible thing. It begins to wander.
It’s the tail end of a Friday night. What the hell are you doing here?
Why not humor the voice in my head?
“I have to get this done. I still have homework to do.”
Had I not said this aloud, I might have trudged on, unscathed. My mind however, decides this is not to be. A dam opens somewhere and questions and thoughts began to pour out, pooling somewhere between my memories and my concerns.
Why are you still awake? What good is this doing you? You won’t be able to wake up tomorrow. Class will be hell. There’s no time for homework tonight. Another failing grade and you’re flunking. Where are all your friends? You won’t get more than three hours of sleep now. You’re broke. You’re out of gas. You’re falling behind.
Questions without answers. Statements without rebuttals. The music hurts my ears now. The laptop is no longer dim, but harsh and painful to look at. I gently close it and am immediately enveloped by darkness. I am alone in the dark with my thoughts.
Nothing jumps out at me now.