Purple Heart

“HEY, PAISLEY!” Hilda turned to the familiar voice of Chrissy McLintock, combat medic in the second platoon of Bravo Company. “Have you seen your new platoon sergeant?” “No. I only just found out that Sarge had orders.” “He reported to the wrong tent an hour ago, and our platoon sergeant sent him to your platoon.” Chrissy held her hand up over her head. “You can’t miss him. He’s taller than you!” At almost six-foot-five, Hilda was a legend in Bravo Company, indeed in the entire battalion. “As soon as I pick up our ambulance from the motor pool, I’ll be back.” “You’re in for a shock, girl.” They high-fived and walked their separate ways. Hilda wondered why the new platoon sergeant would be of interest to her friend but dropped that thought when she walked into the motor pool garage. Twenty minutes later, she backed the eighteen-ton Stryker medical evacuation vehicle into its spot, recorded the instrument readings on the clipboard, and pulled herself up to the driver hatch. She stood in the hatch and stared. Sarge was walking toward the barracks where her platoon lived, with what had to be his relief. Two metres tall, with the high cheekbones and jet-black skin of a Zulu, the new platoon sergeant was at least as African as Hilda’s father, whom he resembled slightly. Sarge slapped the new man to a halt and waved for Hilda to come down. Hilda was aware of the new sergeant’s surprise, but it was not the usual leer. He smiled as if seeing a friend or relative. “This is PFC Hilda Paisley.” “Manny Scott.” He shook hands with her. “I’m looking forward to knowing everyone.” “Welcome to Baghdad, sir.” “Where are you from, Paisley?” “Germany.” “That’s not a German accent – or an American one.” “No. My grandfather is English, and my father was born and raised in London before emigrating to the US. He settled in my mother’s hometown.” Scott raised his eyebrows. “Kaiserslautern.” “Come on, Manny,” said Sarge. “You will definitely want to check the personnel files before our first muster with the platoon. We have some very interesting characters.” The two sergeants moved to the barracks building, using the side door closest to their rooms. Two days later, the old sarge formally turned over his duties to Sergeant First Class Scott and followed his duffel into a jeep for the ride to the airbase.

***

The Strykers stopped at the edge of the hills. The Blackhawk helos that had reported seeing movement on their way back to the air base were refuelling now and would return. The hills formed a sort of amphitheatre rising from the desert around them. The company commander ordered each platoon to scale in a different direction, meaning to reach the ridge about the same time. While the gunners scanned the rocks for enemies, the infantrymen poured out of the vehicles, and began climbing. Hilda shouldered her medical backpack and grabbed her M-4 rifle, as Pac-Man brought the Stryker ambulance up behind the combat vehicles and lowered the ramp. She ran out and followed the three squads of her platoon. Sergeant Scott was with the second squad, more or less leading the phalanx as they climbed the hills. Gunfire from the Strykers erupted even before bullets from the ridge slammed into the rocks around them. In front of Hilda, one man fell backwards. She caught his tumbling body before he rolled twice. Blood spurted from his right arm, but nothing else seemed amiss. Hilda may him flat and whipped out a tourniquet from her pocket (some things were needed too quickly to keep in the backpack). He woke up as she finished wrapping the deep gash (no bullet to extract). His brown eyes were clear. “Thank God.” He grinned. “It’s the Black Amazon!” “Hold that thought. You may have company. How do you feel?” “It’s starting to hurt.” “I’ve got you shielded by this rock. Stay here and rest. I’ll collect you on the way down, or you can make your way down if you keep low.” “I’m a sneaky bastard, Paisley. I’ll make it.” “Good.” She slapped his other shoulder and shouldered her pack. The platoon was only another twenty feet ahead of where they had been. They must be terrible shots, she thought. Thank God, or I’d be stepping over piles of bodies. She remembered that most of the ISIS fighters that she had seen had been boys, some barely teenagers. She wondered if any of them ever got enough time to develop proficiency with their weapons. As she caught up with the platoon, she estimated that someone with a good throwing arm might be in grenade range. It was hard to make progress, with bullets chipping the rocks constantly. Fifteen metres ahead, a grenade hit the rock and exploded in the air. She saw Sergeant Scott and the two men on either side of him fall still. She ran. Scott was bleeding from the arms and legs. A gash in his head accounted for the dazed look and his immobility. She quickly checked the other two. Both dead. She returned to Scott. As she talked, she bandaged his arms and legs. Nothing arterial, but he had lost too much blood anyway. She laid him down on her backpack. “I’ll get you out of here, but first I need to remove the interference.” She grabbed two grenades from his belt and ran to the rocks where the grenade had bounced. She looked right and left at the stunned soldiers. “Any fucking quarterbacks here?” she shouted. “Where’s that Hail Mary pass?” She pulled the pin on the first grenade and threw it so hard it disappeared behind the ridge. She pulled the pin on the second grenade and threw it before the first one went off, blasting rock chips into the air to rain down on them. The other soldiers saw what she did and began tossing a grenade when each thought he could lob it over the ridge. A fighter with an AK-47 stepped over the rocks and aimed at her. Two more came out. She whipped her M-4 to a firing position, but her left arm pulled back as two rounds tore through it. She fell, whirling around to roll back up. Before she could feel the pain in her left arm, she stood and put a pair of triple bursts into two of the fighters. The man on her left shot the third. She began running to the ridge, screaming curses in florid Arabic and calling a plague on her enemies. The platoon followed her. The ISIS fighters paused in surprise for just long enough for it to be fatal. The platoon overran the ridge. When the men had passed over the ridge, Hilda looked back at Scott. He was trying to stand. To the left, two men were down, and to the right another was getting up, but could not walk. Hilda estimated the two on the left needed her first, so she ran there, shouting to Sergeant Scott to stay put. The platoon would be back. Less than ten minutes later, the platoon started back down the hill. The six men that they had not shot had killed themselves. Hilda deployed a stretcher for Sergeant Scott, while she directed different soldiers to help the other three. Later, four men would return for the bodies of the fallen. Hilda stayed in the back of the Stryker medical evacuation vehicle with all five wounded, while Pac-man and Schwarz got them back to the base. Scott went in and out of consciousness. She had put him and the soldier with the arterial wound in bunk/gurney stations, letting the other three sit on the third bunk. Back at the clinic, the nurses and medics met them with gurneys. Hilda squeezed Sergeant Scott shoulder. He had just woken up. “We’re back, Sarge. You’ll be okay.” “Thanks, Paisley.” And he slept. Hilda turned back to the ambulance for some bandages for her own arm, which was bleeding through the sloppy wrapping she had applied with her right hand. “Wait a minute, Paisley!” It was the nurse, Captain Steves. “Looks like you’re wounded, too.” “Just a scratch, ma’am.” “They all say that.” Steves caught her by the right arm and turned her around. “Let me have a look. Jesus, Paisley! You’ve been mangled. Gurney, stat!” Hilda did not hear the rest. Relief like a warm river swept over her. She smiled as she let her knees buckle. And she slept.

***

Hilda opened her eyes and shut them immediately against the bright neon lamps in the ceiling. “Welcome back, Private.” She turned her head away from the light and opened her eyes again. Captain Steves, smiling. “You had us worried there.” “What about? All I remember is a couple of rounds in my left arm. We got out there and back, didn’t we?” “But do you know what a pair of seven-point-six-two rounds can do to your flesh? While you were dragging the others back here, you lost almost a liter of blood.” “Oh. That must be why I passed out.” “Yes. The surgeons were able to put everything back together, so you should be able to use the arm normally, but you’ll have some dramatic scars to show off.” “Good thing I didn’t plan to have a tattoo, then.” Nurse Steves laughed. “How long have I been here?” “This is the second day.” She backed up. “Someone has been asking about you since he woke up this morning.” From the next bed, Sergeant Scott smiled. “Thanks, again, Paisley. You saved all of us, you know.” “Oh, bullshit, Sarge. I just had to clear out the idiots who were keeping me from getting you down the hill. That’s my job.” Scott raised his eyebrows. “They told me you speak your mind, but do you usually talk to your platoon sergeant that way?” Hilda felt herself transported back to fourth grade. If she could have blushed, she would have been beet red. “Sorry, Sergeant Scott. Hanging around Bravo Company too long.” He laughed. “Apology accepted. Nothing I haven’t heard. I’m just used to doing the intimidating. It feels strange to meet someone who isn’t impressed.” “Anyway, now that I am done being rude, it is true that all I did was what was necessary to get my wounded away safely.” “You did more than that, Paisley,” Scott said. Captain Steves smiled at the two tall Africans. Hilda asked the nurse, “how long will I be here?” “Another two days, to make sure there is no reaction to the transfusions and that the wounds are healing properly.” “I get to stay?” Usually, wounded soldiers were evacuated to Germany. “If you want, we can arrange that, but you can rehab the arm here as easily as there. Want to go home? I know you live near Landstuhl.” “No. It’s a relief.” She looked her roommate. “What about Sarge?” “Thanks to the speed with which you bandaged him, he can stay, too. He bitched so loud about not evacuating that the surgeon recommended return-to-duty just to shut him up.” “I just got here,” he said. “Well, you can thank Paisley for that – or blame her later when you wish you were Stateside.” She put a hand on each of them. “You two trade insults in privacy for a while. I’ll be back.” “Thank you, Captain.” They both said. *** The next morning, Sergeant Scott and his medic both felt much better as they ate breakfast. “We may never get a chance to talk like this again,” he said. “I thought I was the only African in the Army. You don’t look African. Where are your people from?” “I’m only half-African, Sarge. My mother is half-German and half-Swedish. I look just like her. My grandfather emigrated from Rhodesia. And my father is still on active duty, so you’re not alone. What about you?” “We emigrated from Botswana when I was only a year old, so I don’t remember the country. Chicago is home.” “Looking at you, I see something very familiar, like my father. Were your people originally from Botswana?” “No. We were Zulu who moved north after the English took over.” “Ingabe ungumZulu?” Are you Zulu? Scott’s jaw dropped for only a second. He smiled broadly. “Yebo, kodwa angikukhulumi.” Yes, but I don’t speak it. “That’s about all I can handle. My family spoke Tswana at home, and I grew up with that and English. Do you speak Zulu at home?” “No. Like your family, mine moved north. We speak Shona and English.” “So, you’re not African-American.” “No, I’m African-German, but we’re all Americans, aren’t we?” “More than most of our neighbours understand, I think.” They sat in silence for a while. Captain Steves and one of the medics walked in. “You’ve got visitors,” she said, as the medic cleared out the breakfast trays. Colonel Barker, the battalion commander, appeared behind the nurse. The company commander followed him, with the battalion adjutant. Barker was a sturdy, Black infantryman, going a little grey on the sides. “Good morning, Sergeant Scott, Private Paisley. We have a surprise for you, well, several surprises. “But first, welcome to Baghdad, Sergeant.” He went to Scott bedside and shook hands. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet sooner.” “I didn’t expect this to happen right away, sir.” “No, but as you can see, we keep very busy here.” “Yes, sir.” “The doctors told me about your refusing medevac to Germany. Thank you for that. I’m looking forward to having you on the team.” He stood between the beds. “We’ll be having a muster after you are both released. Purple Hearts to the wounded, of course. “And something special for Private Paisley here.” Hilda felt a stab of concern. “Sir?” “Major Richardson showed me a classified report from the time Bravo Company spent in Khartoum. Apparently, you’ve been taking out jihadis in two countries since you arrived from Basic Training.” Hilda looked at the major. “They would have tortured the hotel owner, and maybe the other guests, sir.” “So I understand. But added to the three sorties I’ve watched you accompany as a combat medic here, that’s four combat engagements in which you took action. You’re the best combat infantryman in my battalion, Paisley. I don’t care what the Army says.” Sergeant Scott looked surprised, but pleased. The major was beaming behind the colonel. “I told you, sir. I wanted to be infantry.” “Well, we can’t give you an eleven-bravo MOS, but we did the next best thing we could” The 11B military occupational specialty denoted infantry. “Sir?” He turned to the adjutant, who handed him a blue box, the kind that medals come in. The colonel opened it and held it for Hilda to see. “You’ll be the only female medic in the Army with a Combat Infantryman badge. It’s the least we could do to recognize the realities. Congratulations, Private Paisley. Wear it with pride.” Hilda felt a swelling in her throat. She cleared it gently. “I will, sir. Thank you.” © 2021, JT Hine

1 thought on “Purple Heart

  1. Pingback: Breaking Out 2021: Beyond the Blue Ridge | The Freewheeling Freelancer

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