by Ryan J. Barry
My trembling fingers grabbed hair and skin and held on tightly as glass rained down on my neck and shoulders. I prayed that the dirty linoleum floor would open and swallow me to provide shelter from the shards. When I looked up, smoke and dust filled the room. The last partygoers ran out through the only door, about twenty yards away. A woman knocked over a candle as she ran out, and an inferno ignited instantly. Panic consumed me. Everything I could see was melting.
Without thinking, I ran for the door. Only after I started running did I realize that I was moving through the flames. Out of breath, I reached for the door; it slammed shut in front of me. As I wrestled with the doorknob, it broke off in my hand. I hissed as I looked at the silver handle. I threw the knob, and it melted when it hit the floor a few feet away.
Through the flames, I noticed a man in an army combat uniform, casually leaning against the far wall. His arms were folded across his chest. He had no face, as if it had been erased from a digital photograph. He was watching me. He was waitingfor me. Through greying tunnel vision, I glared at the man. I wanted to run to him, grab him by the collar, and beat the shit out of him for keeping me in this hell. But, I was stuck.
A thunderstorm of fear and anger boiled within me. Strangely, I felt nothing below my knees. I looked down; my feet melted before me like wet clay. The hungry flames rose. I shrank. As the fire consumed me, a last pained and beastly growl-moan-howl left my open mouth. Through the collapsing window of my eyesight, the expressionless man watched me burn. He remained still. The man did nothing.
As the air rushed into my starving lungs, I awoke to find myself frozen with fear. I sat straight up in bed. I gasped several times. A thick goo of confusion embraced my tired mind; it felt like the bottom of the dark cauldron of overcooked oatmeal. Lost and afraid, I struggled to determine dream from reality. My blurred eyes hurriedly surveyed the room for threats. My ears absorbed the night, searching, analyzing for any sign of danger. The sweat-soaked sheets were torn from the footboard, and were twisted around my legs like a tight bandage. A slightly salty smell emerged as I noticed tears on my cheeks and chin. I was crying. It took a few complete visual inspections of the room before I realized that I was in my own bed; I felt relieved but not calm.
As my eyes adjusted, I saw my wife, Kelly, running toward our daughter’s bed to comfort her. Our two-year-old, screamed loudly. In the toddler’s crying, I heard genuine terror.
Dustin, you’ve gotta get your shit together, brother.
“Oh my god! Are you okay? Jesus Christ, Dustin! You reallyscared us!” Kelly whispered loudly through her own sobs. Her breath was short as she spoke. Kelly cradled Cora tightly to her faded t-shirt.
Her question boiled a white-hot rage within me.
Seriously?!? What the fuck, Kelly? Am I fucking okay?!? I just had to watch myself get melted like a goddamned plastic toy soldier in an oven. No, I am not okay. In fact, I’m pretty fucking un-okay!
I looked at her, not entirely sure if I spoke those words aloud or not. She did not return my glance. I felt a little relieved. Kelly focused on quieting Cora. I tugged the sheets from around my legs and tossed them aside. I turned my back to her, put my feet on the floor, and hung my head in my hands.
I mumbled “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m sorry.”
My answer didn’t convince either of us. Sweat streamed down my face. My body was drenched. I felt my machine gun heartbeat pounding against my ribs. My ears throbbed in cadence with my speeding pulse. I thought I smelled the base in Afghanistan again; that horrible combo of human feces, diesel fumes, dust, and burning trash. I shook my head in disbelief; the smell lingered.
I left to pee, still feeling unsettled. My mind raced for the who, what, where, why, and when. Dusty, it was just a dream.In the bathroom, I reflected on how real the terror felt. I splashed my face with cold water and washed my hands. I reached for the orange plastic water glass by the sink, and gulped the tepid water. It soothed my parched throat.
After correcting the post-hurricane sheets, I crawled into bed and lied on my back. I stared at the ceiling fan and watched the bizarre shadows that its rotation cast in the moonlight. Although it felt like forever to arrive, dawn finally flooded the windows with sunlight; the shadowy memories just on the other side of the sleep horizon retreated. For now.
I finished work and headed to the gym as usual. After about an hour-long workout, I cleaned and greased my Beretta M9 pistol. The sand in Southwest Asia gets everywhere, and the gunmetal seems to be a magnet for it. As fall approached in northeast Afghanistan, the constant howling furnace winds that blew moon dust into every crack and crevice surrendered to cool breezy nights that would eventually be filled with whiteout snow flurries.
I showered, changed into a fresh uniform, and met the guys for dinner. Up to that point, the night felt like the hundred and twenty nights prior; nothing seemed extraordinary.
“I’m excited that we finally get a chance to volunteer at the hospital,” my buddy Tim said.
I wonder if he feels as nervous as I do. I doubt it. He’d probably still be smiling if a mule kicked him in the nuts.
“Me too, man.” I said. “What do you think it will be like?”
“Who knows. I’m sure we’ll see some shit,” my other buddy, Kevin raised his eyebrows and mused with his hallmark Kentucky smile.
“Yup,” and “Probably so,” Tim and I added respectively.
Hiding apprehension, I shoved my food tray down the counter and surveyed dinner options. The beef looked grey and uninviting, probably a casualty of a long road diversion or heat exposure. A critical international supply route had just been closed in the mountains of Pakistan and food supplies were inconsistent. We all opted for the chicken.
Following dinner, we drove twenty minutes across base to determine our required arrival time at the hospital. The volunteers’ start times each evening depended on the schedule of inbound medevac aircraft. Patients from all over the country would be flown into our base, stabilized, and either returned to duty or flown to military bases in Germany or the United States for follow-on medical care.
When we arrived in the hospital tent, an Air Force Senior Airman looked up from her Steno notebook.
“Good evening, Captains. Are you here to volunteer?” she asked with a pretty smile.
We nodded. “What time should we come back?” I asked.
She looked down to her notebook, ran her pen up and down the page a few times, then looked in another book, which apparently contained the night’s medevac flight itinerary.
“Be back around midnight,” she said cheerily.
At the time, I had no idea that the cute, cheery Airman offered a lovely contrast to the injuries we were about to see.
I had spoken to several people about the volunteer litter carry at the hospital. “Hey man, you’ve gotta go do the litter carry!” or “Sir, the litter carry is a really awesome way to give back!” or even, “Those guys get pretty banged up out there. The hospital can always use our help.”
I wondered if I would be able to call upon the bedside manner that these wounded warriors deserved. What if I dropped the litter as my team had during officer basic training?Remember how that mannequin fell face first and how hard we’d laughed at ourselves? Shit, please don’t let that happen tonight. Tonight wasn’t gonna be another stupid pretend exercise.
At midnight Tim, Kevin, and I arrived back at the hospital tent. As we waited to be called, I studied my surroundings. As an engineering troop, I had built, torn down, passed through, and lived in scores of military tents. This one was of the desert tan variety, yet unique. Someone had sprayed the interior and exterior with stiff, tan-colored insulation foam, although the original vinyl flaps and corners emerged from the foam in odd places.
I wonder if it keeps out that goddamned dust any better than the regular tents.
The tent was about eighty feet long and sixteen feet wide. Diesel fuel, iodine, and bleach blended, making the air heavy.
It feels like breathing summer L.A. smog in here. I know I generally avoid the “City of Lost Assholes” as I call it, but I wouldn’t mind being there with Kelly right now. Smoggy nastiness and all.
I coughed. I missed my wife.
White hospital sheets hung as curtains and divided the tent in half. Beyond the improvised privacy screen, I could see two rows of hospital beds where wounded men convalesced. Some slept. Others played games, read books, or watched movies on phones and tablets. Minus the technology at the men’s fingertips, the scene mirrored pictures I’d seen of Civil War field hospitals.
Few of the wounded men spoke. Someone had turned out most of the lights, yet the room still seemed too bright to get a good night’s sleep. The overhead yellow fluorescent lights and the dreary shadows they projected on tan foam created a general feeling of insomnia.
I wonder how long the average man stays in this place. Not long, I hope. It feels more like a prison than a hospital.
I felt the need to be quiet and respectful, although my silence may not have mattered. Every few moments, medevac choppers flew very low overhead and their beating rotor-wash made the stiff tent pop like a ping-pong ball in a blender. Further away, fixed-wing aircraft roared into the sky every few seconds. Adding to the sleepless cacophony of the night, from somewhere outside, a nearby diesel generator loudly grumbled out its repetitious mechanical dirge.
Volunteers were not allowed past the curtains toward the patients, although our curious eyes were naturally drawn there because we wondered who these men were and why they were in a hospital tent. “Our” portion of the tent was set up like a recreation hall, which appeared to be the patient’s lounge; we were only guests.
Here we are parading through the hospital like a bunch of rubber-neckers looking at injured zoo animals. I wonder how long it takes for them to be starved for privacy. I’d go ape shit in here. Don’t stare, Dustin, you dumbass.
I tried to divert my curious gaze from the bed area, shifting to a dozen patients sitting in mismatched chairs and couches around a giant flat screen television, which showed Transformers 2. Another group of convalescing soldiers played a first-person-shooter war videogame on a second flat screen.
The irony struck me hard.
Maybe it’s their way of getting back at the enemy? Or maybe we’re all in “kill mode,” and we don’t know any other way to behave.
One of the soldiers playing the war videogame had burns on parts of his face, neck, and arms. His charred, olive-colored skin oozed fluid through several layers of gauze. A patch covered his right eye and his left ear was completely missing. Despite his injuries, he laughed and bragged loudly to his game partners when he beat them in their simulated combat scenarios. His open-mouth smile revealed several missing and broken, angular teeth.
I betcha a perfect dentist-office poster smile once gleamed from that dude’s mouth.
Explosions from the video game echoed around the room at odd intervals. I surmised that this man was probably the victim of a roadside explosion.
“Yeah, I fucked you up, man!!” the young man howled cheerily after his videogame grenade launcher destroyed one of his buddies.
Somewhat shocked by his response in this situation, I pictured the would-be Wall Street Journalheadline if some reporter was in my seat: ‘U.S. Wounded Warriors: Killing While Convalescing.’
Another man, who had shoulders like a pro-football linebacker, paced up and down the length of the tent on crutches. His muscular left leg had been amputated above the knee. His physique reminded me of Pat Tillman, who died less than 100 miles from where I sat that night. Our base was the nearest major installation to where Pat had been killed by friendly fire nearly seven years prior, and his picture was posted in several places around the base as a tribute. Beneath the man’s hospital gown, his giant quadriceps flexed with every step. Even the amputated one. With an angry face, he stared at unseen sights beyond the tent’s walls and spoke to no one. His crutches echoed out clip-clop, clip-clopon the tent floor. With each step, his pain, sadness, and anger seemed to radiate. Seeing him stirred both immense pride and sadness within me. I stifled my desire to weep for him. I am sure that he had already poured out his own tears, or would soon.
I watched these wounded men with fascination. I admired their strength and ability to keep going in spite of surviving trauma. I wanted to know their stories, but I observed from afar, and respected their space and their wounds.
Finally, an Air Force Technical Sergeant called for volunteers to come with her. Six of us stood up, stretched our arms, and gathered our strewn jackets and camouflaged patrol caps. She introduced herself as Sergeant Prew then escorted us out of the tent. The air was chilly and tasted caustic, courtesy of the nearby diesel generator.
Sergeant Prew gathered us around several collapsible field stretchers. On each, twin aluminum handlebars supported a thick olive drab green canvas stretched across the middle.
We were fighting a war defined by the latest military technology—a demo just days prior illustrated the precision of a vehicle-mounted weapon and its complex computer targeting and firing system. The operator bragged about putting sequential bullets through the same hole repeatedly while the vehicle moved. Such accuracy required highly complicated ballistics computations. Yet, the simple effectiveness of the litters before us reminded me of wars past. This litter was not much different than the pictures I’d seen of stretchers in Korea or Vietnam, or even WWI or WWII.
We had all learned litter carrying in basic training and in various subsequent exercises in the military, but Sergeant Prew led a quick refresher class on the proper technique for lifting.
Hopefully we don’t have any upside down riders tonight.
We boarded a bus and rode about ninety seconds to a checkpoint that led to the busy aircraft apron. In the dim lighting, I noticed what appeared to be dried blood on the aluminum floor near my right boot.
As I learned during my career, most Air Force buses have a standard smell: vinyl and aluminum. This one also smelled of chlorine and blood. Prew parked the bus near the C-130 ramp, and left the lights on and the heater running. I stared out the window, and watched the metal choreography of aircraft and ground vehicles move about the airfield in all directions. The scene was a busy symphony of light and motion. Every few moments, helicopters passed only feet over our heads. Fighter jets on the runway belched out flames and rumbled into the sky like angry metal dragons. The bus’s heater and engine added a dull rumble. Everyone seemed calm, almost tranquil.
My neck and shoulders hurt. Shit, I’m tense like a guitar string.Be cool, Dustin.
As a chopper shook the bus, another one landed practically as soon as the previous helicopter took off.
There are a lot of choppers tonight. It must be a rough night out there.
I didn’t know what I was going to witness. I worked in a funeral home in high school, and had already witnessed plenty human trauma. I remembered seeing dozens, if not hundreds of dead people and disconnected body parts in my life.
Remember the guy who’d been found in his car after two weeks in the summer heat? Remember that smell? That overly sweet, vomity, acidic, stale smell of rotting human flesh that got in my nose and mouth and stayed there? And how I could smell it for years afterward? This can’t be any worse. Be chill, dude.
Then, the white taxi lights of a C-130 cargo plane came toward us. I looked in the opposite direction and saw the orange flashlights of the ground marshaller. This was the airplane that we had been waiting to greet. As it rolled into its assigned parking spot, Prew inched the bus forward toward the aft ramp of the airplane. She jockeyed the door open and the volunteers and nurses filed onto the tarmac. We stood at the aircraft’s aft ramp for several seconds before it slowly opened like the shell of a giant grey clam. The top of the rear section went up and the ramp came down.
Inside the C-130, red tactical lights glowed, casting crimson shadows on the people and gear. On board, several flight nurses in flightsuits hurried around the litters in the center of the fuselage. Personnel sat against the aircraft’s interior skin within the red troop netting. The hot engine exhaust blew in our faces like a blowtorch. The idling turboprop engines were deafening, even over my foam earplugs. The flight crew kept the engines running, likely headed elsewhere in their nightly flying medical “bus route.”
“No matter what comes out of those gates, we have a better chance of survival if we work together.”
Maximus’ line from Gladiatorbrought images of warriors and chariots. The randomness of the thought struck me as odd. My nervousness increased and my stomach flopped.
Ten patients walked from the aircraft first and boarded the waiting bus that we had just vacated. Three were airmen, two were marines, one was a sailor, and the remaining four were soldiers, but all were Americans. Two were female and eight were males. Some wore casts and bandages and others showed no visible wounds.
This shit is real.
The reality of the war I had been in for several months finally hit me. Those words echoed in my head many times as I saw those patients walk down the plane ramp.
On the plane, the flight nurses began unstrapping the litters and brought the first one to the rear of the aircraft. We hustled up the aircraft ramp and took the litter with an American soldier strapped to it. The subdued Stars and Stripes patch on his right shoulder made me proud as he flashed us a thumbs up. His right leg was bandaged and splinted. He grabbed my left hand as we took him. A flood of emotions hit me like bomb blast.
This was no videogame. There was no reset button.
As we shuffled him to the bus, my eyes moistened unexpectedly, but I gladly returned a brotherly handshake. I focused on maintaining my military bearing; I concentrated on my duty and forged past the unusual urge to cry. We took him to the back of the bus, pushed him through the rear door onto the bus floor, and jumped aboard one by one. Once aboard, we picked him up again and placed him in a polished aluminum litter rack. He forced a pained smile and winced as we set him down.
“Thanks guys” he said nonchalantly, as though we’d just given him a previously read newspaper or returned a runaway basketball. We turned our backs and jumped back out of the bus to return to the plane.
This shit is real, very real.
Four more litters came off the plane. The six volunteers took turns, four at a time carrying litters from the plane to the bus. The second guy I helped carry was taped to a spine board and was wearing a white C-collar on his neck. With a heavy Mississippi accent, he thanked us as we boarded the bus. We shook his hand gingerly and told him that it would be all right.
Then came the last guy.
Ho-lee shit. That guy is fuuuucked!I felt my stomach lurch and the rubber chicken almost reappeared on the tarmac.
A small alarm bell started to sound between my ears, though I was not sure why. He had a piece of plywood partially covering his torso and groin and it supported an array of life support machines. One machine tracked his blood pressure and pulse. Another expanded and contracted like an accordion, and presumably kept him breathing. A football-sized pump circulated his blood. Other small pumps and hoses administered drugs, I presumed it was a cocktail of sedatives and painkillers.
Like a grotesque human deli sandwich, he was tightly wrapped in clear plastic wrap to hold the plywood to him and to pin his back to a spine board. He was completely naked, and I could see his arms and legs through the plastic wrapping. More plastic wrap covered his chest between his chin and the plywood; beneath the plastic, his chest was open in a large red hole. His blood covered the inside of the plastic and created the effect of missing ribs. We hurried him to the bus, boarded through the rear, and closed the door.
The bus was filled with nurses, volunteers, and the wounded; standing room only in a different way than the grimy city busses back home. The volunteers all stood, while nurses tended to patients. I ended up standing near the gravely injured man, whom we had carried last. With haste, Sergeant Prew drove the bus back to the hospital. The bus ride may have lasted a minute or two, but it felt like hours.
I couldn’t take my eyes away from the wounded man. Now that I could see him closely, he looked to be eighteen or nineteen years old. He was heavily sedated, his sunken eyes were closed, and his breathing was weak. His black hair was matted with wet blood and dried blood was visible in his right ear, which faced me. As I looked at him in the dim interior lights of the bus, I noticed bruising on most of his body, including his face. Blood and iodine stains covered most of his body. Despite his injuries, the expression on his pale face was almost peaceful. Minus the blinking and pulsing machines on his chest, he lookeddead. I could already picture him in his casket, a place I’d put scores of people at the funeral home long ago. The machines, however, told me that he was still alive, if barely.
While I watched him, it occurred to me that this man was dying because he was fighting in the same war I was; the same war that had seemed like a virtual reality to me only hours before.
This shit is really fucking real.
My mental loudspeaker boomed. My pulse thudded in my temples.
I desperately wished that I could help him in some way. Some mystery heroic medical team had already exercised quite an effort to save this man’s life, and another was about to do more for him. I thought of his family, wherever home was. I wondered if I was going to be one of the last people to see this man alive. I pictured his mother’s crying face when she got the news. I held my breath for the whole ride back to the hospital.
Dear God his mother and wife and sisters don’t need to see how banged up he is…help them remember the happy memories that he added to their lives…let them know that he died in the hands of his brothers and sisters who did all they could to save his life.
My family’s faces filled my thoughts. My chin quivered.
Don’t cry, Dustin. Maintain your military bearing, goddammit. Don’t fucking cry. Keep it together, man. This guy is headed Home. Render a salute. Pay your respects. Keep yourself together. Don’t cry. Be strong.
A large team of doctors and nurses swarmed the bus as we pulled back into the hospital loading dock. My two buddies and I returned to our truck. It was about five am. The five-minute drive to breakfast was silent. We were reflective, contemplative, somber.
Working in a funeral home was no comparison to carrying and caring for fallen comrades. I had seen human suffering, trauma, and disfigurement; human faces and bodies badly damaged in car wrecks; penetrated by bullets; mangled by machine accidents; and scarred by disease. But, I never saw dying people. Especially not people dying because they had been struck in battle, and I had been spared.
At breakfast, the usual trash talk and friendly joking was absent. They seemed as lost in their thoughts as me.
I remember Tim saying, “Dude, that was intense. I’m glad we volunteered though.”
No shit!?! That’s the first time we’ve spoken to each other in several hours! Every waking moment together for months filled with non-stop chatter and bullshitting, and we didn’t speak through that whole event!
“For sure,” was the only response I could muster.
I felt a mixture of contentedness that we had volunteered as well, but also infinite sadness for my fallen comrade, though I did not know him.
Following breakfast, the twenty-minute return to our dorm was equally silent and I bee-lined for my bunk. Hidden from my roommate by the lockers that divided the room, I finally let my military bearing ease. I replayed the evening’s events in my head and heavy tears came. I cried silently for about thirty minutes until I fell asleep.
Later that morning and well after sunrise, I awoke with the heavy feeling that the man passed away while I slept in my bed. Adding to my sadness, I had no way to confirm or deny my suspicion. I did not know him or how to find out about who he was. Thoughts about his likely death saddened me greatly. For the rest of the deployment, I thought about him, often wondering who he was and the particulars of his story, wishing I could help just once more.
That night’s nightmare was not the first time I dreamt of the faceless man. He is a repeat visitor. The person is always has a slender, athletic build and dark hair who has no face, as if he could be anyone or no one. He always stays about 20-30 yards away from me, and he usually appears in public places. The man has been a passenger in a nearby seat on a jet, a passer-by on a crowded street, and a vaguely familiar friend in a busy room at a house party. He appears in civilian clothes usually, but occasionally also wears a U.S. Army combat uniform minus his weapon.
The next morning, I began to describe the faceless man to Kelly. I wasn’t sure that talking about him was going to help, but I felt so angry and frustrated with this discomfiting feeling that I thought I was going to break.
She asked, “Do the night terrors bring the faceless man or vice versa? Is he haunting you or is he there to help and protect you?”
That’s trippy. Whatever significance my faceless “friend” serves–why he’s always there–I have no idea. Why do I not breathe in the dreams when he appears?
“Haunting,” I said finally. “But, I don’t think he’s there to harm me.”
Maybe he’s here to carry my litter onto his bus? Some day a long way off, right, God?? I’ve got Kelly and Cora. I’ve still got shit to do on this earth. Please, make it a long way off before the man carries my litter aboard his bus.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself back on that bus near my dying brother-in-arms, holding my breath on the way back to the hospital. Watching helplessly. Praying fervently. Afraid to breathe the air that the machines pumped into his chest, as if I might be robbing him of his last breath. Knowing that whatever his dreams were, they will never materialize. In the months after the deployment, I chose not to tell her about the dying man on the bus; I didn’t know if she would understand how I felt. Until that morning.
Ryan J. Barry is a third generation Air Force officer, a veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom (Afghanistan), and presently serving as a Squadron Commander in the Air National Guard. He enjoys writing thriller and suspense fiction, and aspires to publish a full-length novel.