By Elizabeth O'Herrin
The soldier struggled to repeat himself, barely audible. Even in his deeply sedated state he appeared frantic. I volunteered my time at the combat trauma hospital during my off-duty hours, and felt unsure of how to act. But the colonel standing across the bed from me was a medical professional. She reassured the baby-faced young man lying between us that they had collected his belongings. Don’t worry, we'll track them down for you. The colonel was brisk and businesslike, but calm and warm. She had many more patients to visit that night, so she turned and left the soldier and me alone. I pondered for a moment about what I could do to help him. I pulled on a pair of gloves and started to gently scrub the dried blood from his hands with a wet cloth. He was fresh out of surgery, loaded up with morphine, and now known as a “BK.” Below-knee amputation.
Another volunteer came up, a guy who spent his off-duty time in the hospital like me. Unskilled, occasionally helpful extra hands. He held out a large bag. This must be the patient’s stuff. The volunteer set it down next to the bed without saying much and moved on. The soldier drifted in and out of consciousness, and I continued wiping blood and dirt from his knuckles. I thought maybe if he woke up and his hands didn’t have blood on them anymore, it might help. The soldier’s eyes flickered open. I cleared my throat and leaned in a little closer. I told him his bag had arrived. Did he want me to check for his Purple Heart? He mumbled a “yes” and managed to call me “ma’am,” even in his sedated state.
I crouched and started digging through all the stuff he had had with him this morning, before he knew that by the time the sun had set that day, he’d have lost half his leg. In one Ziploc bag: ID card. Gum. Dogtags. Chapstick. I didn’t see the Purple Heart, and I began to worry. I felt like I owed it to him to find it and maybe bring him what tiny bit of resolution I could. Then my hand hit a heavy plastic case. I pulled it out and stood back up. I asked him if he wanted to see it. He nodded, eyes closed.
I held it up for him, and he took it between his hands. They were still dirty and bloody; my meager work had been interrupted by the arrival of his belongings. I noticed his face was still perfect. Smooth, flawless skin and beautiful brown puppy eyes. He stared at the medal. I leaned over, my elbows resting on the rail of his bed. I’d never seen a Purple Heart in person before. It was heavier than I thought it would be. We shared quiet reverence, from very different vantage points.
He stared at it, without adjusting his gaze. I started to worry that maybe I shouldn't have let him see it, maybe this was too overwhelming. Shit. Only moments before, he had recalled groggily what he remembered of losing his leg to the colonel. Much of it was blotted from his memory. After the explosion, he reached down and could feel the bones hanging out below his knee.
He was fixated on the Purple Heart in his hands, and I worried I hadn’t done the right thing by handing him the medal. “The Army ain't gonna have a place for me anymore, are they." It wasn’t a question. The realization crept over him. His eyes were the widest they had been since I’d met him that evening. He was still staring at the medal, suddenly alert. I took his hand and gently closed the case. "You don't need to worry about that right now. You just worry about getting better first."
My eyes welled up as I bent to replace the medal with his belongings, struggling to hold back tears. It was time for me to go. It wasn’t helpful when volunteers cry. It was time to take a few breaths, pull it together, remove myself. As I stood and turned to leave, I saw his name posted above his bed. I memorized it. I knew there was no more I could do except pray.
Elizabeth O'Herrin served as an AMMO troop for the Wisconsin Air National Guard from 2001-2008, assembling and transporting conventional weapons for F-16 fighter jets. She received her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and her MA from the Johns Hopkins University. She’s is a Tillman Scholar and the Pat Tillman Foundation’s Director of Programs & Scholarships. Her writing has been published by The Washington Post Checkpoint blog, Foreign Policy Best Defense blog, The Hill, The Association of American Colleges & Universities, 0-Dark Thirty, the Badger Herald, and the Starbucks Medium Collection. She is a member of Foreign Policy's Council of Former Enlisted.
Photographs published in this piece courtesy of Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System