My Combat Christmas Angel
By Christine Maag
When I was in Iraq, one of the toughest weeks I remember was right before Christmas in 2007. Soldiers on deployment always seemed to have mixed emotions during that time. I mean, on one hand, we wanted to be happy and celebrate the holidays. However, it completely sucked being away from everything, and, well, being in the middle of a desert war!
I’d volunteered to be one of the medics on duty supporting the Forward Operating Base Quick Reaction Force. A call came over the radio that a convoy had been hit by an IED, just outside the FOB gates. Being on my second tour, roadside bomb versus convoy was a scene I’d witnessed dozens of times. We geared up and responded to the scene as quickly as our vehicles could get us there.
I fully expected to hit the ground running, so the entire ride was spent prepping IV bags and making sure airway tools and hemorrhage supplies were readily accessible. Once we arrived we were immediately ushered behind a barrier and told that one of the trucks involved was a fuel tanker likely to explode. As we were being given the order to take cover, I glanced past the officer barking orders at us, and asked, “Wounded, sir?”
In the moment those words crossed my lips, I realized what I was seeing and hearing. There was a soldier still trapped in the cab of the truck! I think the officer instinctively knew exactly what I was thinking, because, as I made a move in the truck’s direction, he put his arm up and blocked me, pushing me backward. He said, “Doc, there’s nothing you can do for him. He’s already gone.”
Some hours later, I helped peel his remains from the inside of the burned out tanker. He was from another unit, but, like me, was 82nd Airborne, out of Fort Bragg. A brother I would never know. I kept thinking to myself how it was a good thing that he would have a closed casket funeral. His family would never know the horror of what happened to him. It was just before Christmas, after all. His family was about to be visited by a death notification detail, who would inform them their son had died in Iraq.
I lost my mom right after the holidays, in 1997. I remember how somber Christmases were for many years after she died. Every year when the first Christmas trees hit stores the pain came flooding right back. I suspected it would be the same for the family of the fallen paratrooper. I felt like I was choking back tears all day, but duty called!
I had to go to the Combat Support Hospital to pick up supplies. One of the nurses told me they’d gotten a young Iraqi girl in the night before. She had been crushed when an insurgent mortar round, meant for the FOB, destroyed her tiny home and killed her parents. She looked like a miniature mummy lying in the ICU. My heart broke when I saw all the interventions taken to assist her. I could tell from the level of support she was receiving she would likely not survive.
When I got back to my bunk that evening, I had a sinking feeling, the depths of which, I had never felt. I’d become so utterly disgusted by the loss of human life! I had grown tired of being handed situations that were beyond my power as a medic to improve! I was angry at life, at war, at God! Most of all, I was angry that it was almost Christmas, and I couldn’t find a single bit of joy.
Then it occurred to me. I couldn’t do anything for the soldier caught in the truck. He was gone before I arrived. This was war. There would be more like him. The little Iraqi girl, however, was clinging to her life. She was still present. I could still make a difference for her.
I went over to the CSH and sat at the little girl’s bedside. I held her hand…I talked to her…I read to her…I even sang to her. I remembered my mom telling me that when she was in the hospital battling cancer, in the moments when I believed her to be unconscious and incapable of hearing me, I was wrong. She told me she could hear every word I said in those moments.
What I could do for the little girl was let her know that she wasn’t alone. Word got around the CSH that I’d become a regular visitor in my down time, in between missions. When I was on duty and couldn’t be there, in the true spirit of Christmas giving someone else took my place.
The little girl passed away quietly in the middle of the fifth night. When she left this world she was surrounded by people who loved her: the entire ICU staff, seven soldiers who’d given up their off-duty time to sit with her, myself included, and one translator who led a prayer for her soul in Arabic.
Christine Maag served nearly 20 years in the United States Army. She began her career as a member of the Army’s Honor Guard, earning the coveted tab and orders via audition. She ultimately served as a combat medic, and spent roughly a decade and a half caring for fellow service members wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan. She deployed multiple times to Iraq and has been awarded the Combat Medic’s Badge. She went on to become the first woman to deploy with the U.S. State Department, as a contract medic and personal security detail team member for US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad. She holds a nursing degree from Texas State University, works as a civilian in the medical field, and serves as both an advocate and participant in numerous arts therapy programs. Christine has received more than fifteen National Veterans Creative Arts Festival gold medals in writing and performing arts, and has written and starred in three Hollywood-produced short films. She is currently writing a nonfiction novel chronicling her combat service.