The Field Hospital
by Jason Howk
The Soldier was yelling with a British accent as he gave me the details of his injuries and his unit name. An IED blast had nearly deafened him and his team. I wrote the information in my notebook and moved on to the next patient. He and his squad-mates went back to the story I interrupted as a friend walked up with some men’s magazines and junk food for his wounded squad leader.
The young nurse relayed the sleeping Soldier’s details to me as he was not often conscious, she knew them all well by now. The next was a US Marine, then another Brit, then a young U.S. Soldier…they were all so young.
I was collecting their stories but not for an article or a report. I wasn’t a medical specialist or a journalist. I was a coffee fetcher, a horse holder– just an aide de camp to a general who would be visiting the recovery room later in the day. I felt like a worthless shit seeing these guys wounded and in pain. The best I could do was relay their stories accurately and ensure my boss could bond with them and give them a small token of thanks for their sacrifice.
After an hour sitting near the front entrance of the Bastion hospital a young sergeant yelled over to me. “Sir, a chopper is inbound with a SOF unit that was hit bad we need help with the litters.”
My mind instantly flashed back six years. I could picture my buddy Mitch being flown to a hospital in Southern Afghanistan after a mission gone wrong. I knew how that flight ended and hoped this wasn’t the case today. I thought about the 9-line medevac that the Special Force’s team would have called in moments earlier. I visualized the one I always kept in my desk that coldly told the final story of my friend in 2003.
We carried the men from the ambulances to the ER, again they were younger than me. Man, these guys were stoic. They were from one of the Nordic countries, were covered with blood, and wore tatters of their uniforms. They weren’t in shock they were in control of their emotions. They seemed angry for getting wounded and being out of the fight.
I sat back down by the door and my thoughts drifted back to my old Rottweiler, I had lost my best friend shortly before I deployed. When I I took him to the vet to be laid to rest– he never made a whimper, he knew his time had come. I had to carry him to the truck, all 120 pounds of him, but when we got to the vet’s office in one last show of his inner strength he stood on his own feet and walked into the vet under his own power. He made it to the back room and collapsed.
Not today– these men did not collapse. They were strong and they fought. They fought like hell in battle and in the hospital. They should make every nation proud to claim them as national treasures.
Finally the Commander of all Coalition Military Forces in Afghanistan (COMISAF) landed by helicopter from his battlefield circulation. He walked up to the hospital with his Afghan counterparts. Today he traveled with the second highest ranking Afghan Army officer and the senior Afghan Police Commander.
After showing them where to drop their combat gear I escorted them into the hospital to make introductions.
We moved throughout the building talking to the medical staff and patients trying not to get in anyone’s way. As we approached the wounded I quietly gave my superiors the details of the patients and then let the Generals talk to the men and women and thank them for their sacrifice.
I knew how much these visits meant to COMISAF. Every night in Kabul his staff brought him fresh blank stationary and addressed envelopes along with the names and circumstances of the service-members that had fallen in the previous days. In his own meticulous handwriting he would craft letters of condolence for their families. It was a solemn and humbling moment each day and a form of therapy for some of us.
We made it around the ward to all the Coalition patients and they each got a handshake, thank you, and award. Next we moved to the other end of the ward and were joined by our interpreter and cultural advisor so we could speak to the wounded Afghans.
COMISAF made this his last stop so that the Afghan generals would have time to talk to their men before we walked over.
General Stan McChrystal approached the bed of the youngest Afghan, a policeman who was originally not from Southern Afghanistan where had ended up fighting. The Afghan Police Commander, General Mangal, asked him to explain again what had happened.
I knew his story so I stepped back from the bed to allow the senior officers to get closer and I looked down at his small frame. Under the sheet he seemed no larger than an eight year old child.
The young policeman was in a small unit that was attacked by a larger Taliban insurgent force and they were finally overwhelmed. He was separated from the rest of the group and held captive during the firefight. His voice volume decreased and the officers leaned closer straining to hear. “They told me they were going to make an example of me. They said I was a traitor and a puppet for the West. They shot me in my legs and I lay bleeding on the ground.”
I watched the faces of the Afghan officers grow more somber as they pictured this young Afghan patriot alone being tortured by his captors. He continued.
“They spit on me and laughed as they watched me bleed. Finally they left me to die and walked away to their pick-ups. They told me that I would die slowly and I deserved it for fighting against Islam.”
The officers all looked down at the place on the bed where the man’s legs should have been. They bent down to comfort the young policeman that would never run with his children or walk with his elderly parents again. He humbly accepted their thanks and kind words about his bravery.
In just 8 hours I witnessed the bravery and sacrifice of many men and women serving their nations in Afghanistan. There are memories you never forget in life and there are moments in time that are hard to relay to your family and friends. Maybe this will help others to visualize how much people will sacrifice for freedom and realize how alike Soldiers from around the world are. I have been lucky to be in the presence of some amazing human beings. Those who survived went home changed heroes. Let us never forget those who did not make it home.
Jason Howk was an Infantry Paratrooper, Engineer, and Foreign Area Officer working on the Afghanistan mission for over a decade.