Bar Kunar

window in Helmand Province

TRYING TO BLOCK OUT THE SOUND OF MORTARS exploding ever closer, Hilda focused on the bleeding wound in front of her. She held her finger on the femoral artery while the surgeon sewed the severed vessel together then began to clean and close the wound. She shifted to the pressure point just outside the open wound. In another ten minutes, the wounded soldier might stand a chance of keeping his leg and his life.

The door of their impromptu operating room came crashing in. As smoke and dust filled the space, Hilda held the sheet over the wound with her free hand. The communications technician who had been next to the door cringed against the wall. This was his first patrol. The surgeon looked up at Hilda, then back down at his work.

When the dust settled, Hilda could see the crater in the middle of the road. The next mortar round would probably land on them directly, but the rhythm was off, as if the barrage had paused. She heard shouting from the street and the sound of small arms fire somewhere out of sight to the right.

“Done.” The surgeon stood back. “Can you clean that up?”

“Yes, sir.”

Holding her finger in place, Hilda bent down for a pack of antiseptic wipes in her medical pack. Gunfire sprayed the room from outside. Amid the chinks of flying plaster, the surgeon’s head exploded against the back wall as his body pushed past Hilda.

“Quick, get over here!” she said to the comm tech. Pale and shaking, he rose and walked cautiously toward the fearsome black lieutenant towering over him. “Now!”

She took his hand and pressed his fingertips on the spot she had been holding. “Press firmly. Like that. Good. You going to be OK?”

“Y-yes, ma’am.”

From her pack she took a pair of wipes, noting that the M4 carbine was still leaning against the table where she had put it. She stood, smiled at the orderly, and began cleaning and bandaging the wound. The battle raged outside, but most of the sound was still about a block away, to the right. She checked the pressure point under the orderly’s hand.

“Good job. Let’s ease the pressure – gently now.” She guided his hand away and watched the wound for any change of color or swelling. “I think we saved this one.”

“But he’s still unconscious.”

“Yes, but he should wake up normally in a while, and the longer he lies there, the better all this will heal.” She waved at the long bandage on the soldier’s leg.

As she turned to check on the dead doctor, the noise outside changed. In the silence, she heard footsteps near the door. A man in what looked like leftover desert utilities from the Foreign Legion stepped into the doorway. He held an AK-47 at his shoulder, ready to shoot. But his eyes did not adjust to the relative dark of the room before Hilda picked up the M4 and put a triple burst through his chest.

“Down! Quick! That will bring more.” She crouched and moved to the wall, where she picked up the comm tech’s service rifle and tossed it to him. He can’t be more than 18, she thought. Same age I was. She shook the memory of her first combat patrol out of her head and focused her senses on the door.

Easing to the doorway, she went down on one knee with her weapon and craned at about knee height to hazard a look outside. No one moved in the street. Besides the man she had just killed, about a half-dozen fighters and one soldier lay in the dust. She withdrew her head and stood. Occasional gunfire receded down the road out of town.

With a grunt and a whimper, the patient stirred. Hilda went to the table.

“Cover the door from over there,” she told the orderly, nodding to the corner away from the door. She moved to the head of the table and cupped the soldier’s head in her hands. “Steady now, soldier. You’ll be okay. Lie still for a while.”

Opening his eyes, the soldier stared into Hilda’s face. After an initial start, he relaxed. “The new nurse.”

“That’s right.” She smiled.

“Where am I?”

“In the village. You’ve lost a lot of blood, so you need to lie still until we can move you.”

He tried to sit up, but she gently moved her hands to his shoulders. “Not now. Let them come and get you.”

“Where are the others?”

“I think they’re chasing the ambush party down the hill. I can hear the Humvees heading away.” She looked at the youngster. “Do you think you could get some status – and remind them that we’re here?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Walking to the other far corner, the comm tech took the satellite phone from his backpack and called out. “They think they have finished mopping up the last ones. Maybe five minutes out.”

“Thank you.” Reaching for her canteen, she held up the head of the soldier and helped him drink. As he settled back down, he sighed while his eyes thanked her.

The young comm tech seemed calmer, too. Without being asked, he returned to the first corner and held his rifle at the ready. After examining the nearly headless doctor, Hilda took a sheet off the bed near him and covered the corpse. The comm tech was staring at her in awe.

“I thought nurses were non-combatants. You just plugged that guy like it was nothing.”

“Non-combatant doesn’t mean defenseless.” Hilda picked up the rifle and sat on the bed where she could help cover the door and keep an eye on her patient. “I was infantry before nurses’ school.”

Two hours later, Hilda stepped out of the rear Humvee of the column. The patrol had called in a medevac helicopter for the wounded soldier. Hilda had patched up the half-dozen flesh wounds among the rest of the patrol. They had lost the doctor and another soldier.

Nearly faint with exhaustion, she paused to admire the river valley glowing in the sunset. Why must the most beautiful places suffer so much? She stretched, picked up her backpack and headed for the clinic in the town hospital.

“I hear we lost Doctor McCreary.” The medical officer said as she walked in.

“Yes, sir, and one other.” She set down her pack and took out the medical supplies that needed to go back in the refrigerator. “I was bending down to get some wipes, or you’d have lost me, too.”

“Anything you need to report that won’t wait until tomorrow?”

“I guess not, sir, except to note that Doctor McCreary saved Addams’ leg.”

“Clean up and get some sleep. I’ll cover with the debriefing team.”

Forty minutes later, the darkness enveloped her tired body.

After midnight, the nightmares returned. Her first platoon sergeant, her best (only) friend from boot camp, and Doctor McCreary – they crowded into the little room in the village overlooking the river valley, and died their violent deaths before her eyes again, and again, and again.

Hilda woke in a sweat, breathing hard and fast. Swinging out of bed, she sat on the edge until her breathing settled. Heavy with grief, she walked down the hall to the latrine. When she returned, she drank some water, then crawled into bed. She crossed herself, and slowly recited the Compline blessing in German. This time, she slept soundly.

© 2020, JT Hine

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