Pleased to meet you — I think?

MILITARY POLICE MAJOR JACK RATHBURN wondered how to keep his head from dropping if he closed his eyes behind his mirrored sunglasses. He had put them on in case his boredom showed. A trickle of sweat ran under his desert utilities as he tried to focus on the conversation at the front of the room.

Why was the commander tying up his entire staff to discuss the color of interior paint in the administration office?

Next to him, the J-2 (Intelligence Officer) muttered, “this guy is going to get someone killed.”

“He’s new,” said Jack, trying to act charitably. “If we keep him on paint detail, he can’t get us hurt, can he?”

The J-2 snorted and slugged Jack in the arm as he tried to hide his laughter.

Finally, the executive officer suggested letting a committee work on this and report back. He brought up the next item on the agenda. Jack heard more than one sigh of relief and a general shuffling of rear ends in the hard, metal folding chairs in the room.

The XO read from his notes. “Next up, changes to the SOP for emergency responses.” Jack had heard about this but not the details. “Ambulances will man up, but not start out from base until summoned by the senior responding officer at the scene. This will save fuel and wear, as well as reduce exposure responding to events that did not call for an ambulance.”

“Discussion?” the colonel said.

Jack raised his hand and stood. “Are you suggesting two separate calls, one for back-up, and a later one for the ambulance?”

“Exactly, major.”

“Colonel,” Jack said, looking at the commander, “we almost never call for backup unless there are casualties.”

“The vehicle records show thirteen trips this year where no injured personnel were carried to the clinic,” said the XO.

A long arm went up across the room. Jack turned and watched the nurse major in charge of the emergency room stand. She had been at most of the staff meetings, but he had never seen her stand or say anything. God, she’s tall!  Her skin was as black as hard coal. High cheekbones. Brilliant blue eyes. Jack recognized the colour: lapis-lazuli. The eyes flared with barely restrained fury. No wonder they call her the Black Amazon.

“Colonel, with due respect,” Jack noticed the crisp British accent, “those numbers are irrelevant. What matters is that of the two hundred patients we have transported this year, one-hundred forty, or seventy percent, of them were injured while the ambulance was enroute to the scene, following the backup responders. I can assure you that if you keep the ambulances back, we will lose more patients than we save. That was the situation before the present policy was written.”

“Those injured included my MP’s,” said Jack. “I’d like the ambulance on scene as soon as possible. Sending it home empty would be a happy thing but waiting on one when we need it would be unacceptable.”

“Holding the ambulances has been tried in several cities, with dramatic savings.” The XO seemed to be proud of the research he had done.

“Captain, Baghdad is not one of those cities. This is a war zone. Every time we go out, we risk hostile fire and IEDs. These are not car crashes or domestic violence complaints.” Improvised Explosive Devices.

The Black nurse added, “The injuries here are not typical of those stateside. Even a bar fight here results in worse trauma than back home, because the participants are trained fighters.” She tilted her head toward Jack. “The data support what Major Rathburn says.”

“I found no data supporting this policy, Major,” the captain looked surprised.

“You should have asked the clinic. We didn’t just make up the current policy.”

“I don’t know who wrote this policy, but I would like to review any data you have on it.”

“I know who wrote it, captain. Give us a call after the meeting.”

“Meanwhile, leave the SOP unchanged,” said the colonel. “Next item, captain.”

***

As they filed out after the meeting, the MP caught up with the nurse.

“Thanks. I didn’t have anything to use on that pencil pusher except common sense.”

“Which he would not have understood anyway.” She pushed the outer door open and stepped into the intense heat that characterized a good day in Baghdad. “As it is, I was acting in self-interest. We don’t need extra casualties.”

“And I like to keep my MPs alive. Thanks again.”

She stopped, suddenly aware that she was not looking at the dandruff on the top of his head. It felt good to look straight at someone. “You are most welcome, then.” She shook his hand and smiled. He smiled back.

On the sidewalk, they turned in opposite directions to the clinic and the police station.

***

Hilda leaned on the counter in the room that served as both intake office and emergency room. The same nurses and medics served both sets of patients. It was the arrangement of chairs, curtains and doors that allowed gurneys to roll past the waiting patients into the back. The chatter on the emergency radio circuits provided the kind of background noise that a soap opera supplied in a civilian hospital. No one really listened unless the tone changed.

“Where’s Lieutenant Morris?” she asked the combat medic at the counter. Sergeant Whidbey also served as Hilda’s secretary and admin officer.

“She called in sick about fifteen minutes ago.” Hilda arched her eyebrows for more. “She came in and called us from internal medicine. She’s up there now.”

“Eighty-four, dispatch!” Hilda and Whidbey listened up. “Disturbance at the Casbah Bar. Officer down. Request backup.”

Hilda reached behind the counter for the backpack she carried on all calls. As she flew through the sliding door, the ambulance Humvee came rolling around the corner and into the driveway. She jumped into the passenger seat and buckled up, as the combat medic hit the lights and siren.

“Lieutenant Morris?”

“Sick. Good to see you here, Kowalski.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Sorry about the lieutenant.”

“Me, too. You know the Casbah Bar?” She pulled out the short rifles in the central holder and checked them for ammunition and smooth operation.

“Yes, ma’am. Been there on more calls than dates, though.”

“Ortega in the back?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. With an officer down already, this will probably be uglier than usual.” She pointed to a Military Police Humvee turning in front of them with lights and siren. “Follow them.”

As the MPs deployed into the bar from their Humvee, Kowalski brought the ambulance beyond the MP vehicle and backed the doors to the sidewalk. Iraqi police had set up a cordon and were keeping crowds from the entrance to the club.

Hilda ran to the body lying on the sidewalk. A small MP, breathing normally, with a contusion on the side of the head. Ortega jumped out of the back and brought a gurney.

“Load him. Then join me inside.”

Hilda stepped to the entrance. The riot sounded more like unarmed combat than a typical bar fight, which was to be expected. It was not that much darker than the poorly lit road outside. The smell of beer, spirits, tobacco, and cannabis was so strong that she ducked to get her nose and lungs below the cloud. A beer bottle shattered on the wall behind her.

The noise abated almost as soon as Hilda stepped in. She saw a phalanx of MPs with night sticks pressing up against a crowd of now-sobered soldiers. The major stood behind them directing the amorphous mass to the back wall. Finally, he stopped them. As he directed threesomes of standing soldiers to tables so the MPs could take initial statements, Hilda and her two medics checked the bodies on the floor. Six down. Five got up while being checked and joined the others at the tables. The last one was unconscious. Hilda figured he had broken ribs and maybe a concussion.

As they loaded the unconscious soldier into the ambulance, Hilda was aware that the crowd outside had changed mood. She sensed an ugly silence.

“Close up and be ready to roll. I’ll be back.”

She went in and found the MP major wrapping up the last interrogations. They had six soldiers handcuffed. His MPs escorted those to the MP Humvee.

“Major Paisley! I always wanted to go clubbing with you.” Hilda rolled her eyes. “What’s the situation from your end?”

“Two unconscious in the ambulance. Room for two more, but I think everyone else is ambulatory.” She leaned close to his ear. “It’s getting ugly out there. Something is upsetting the civilians.” He turned serious.

“Got it. Go back with us.”

The major shouted to his men. “Let’s head back now.” And to the soldiers. “Everyone check in at the police station by twelve hundred tomorrow. Don’t make us come find you.”

Hilda went out and boarded the ambulance. “No siren unless we need it. Just follow the MPs.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The two-vehicle convoy started back to the base. About three blocks from the club, Hilda took in a sharp breath. “Slow down, ‘Ski. Give us some distance.”

“What’s wrong, ma’am? You look tense.”

“It’s too quiet. Where are the evening shoppers?” She scanned carefully. “Fall back at least thirty metres.”

Kowalski slowed even more until he had the length of half a football field between them and the leading Humvee.

“Is this—”

Light from the explosion ahead blinded them both momentarily. The force lifted the police Humvee completely off the ground. They saw the doors fly off and bodies hurl into the street.

Ten metres behind the first IED, another blast sent the pavement into the sky. Pieces of asphalt rained on the ambulance as Kowalski slammed to a halt.

Hilda pulled the two rifles out. She gave one to the driver.

“Tell Ortega to shelter behind the vehicle. You cover me.”

She slipped out the passenger side and rolled beside the ambulance. Bullets smacked into the side of the Humvee. Kowalski fired a triple burst at the rifle flashes.

Hilda ran to the flaming Humvee. In her peripheral vision, she caught the reflection of a barrel and rolled again. The shooter missed, but she was behind the police vehicle before he could follow up. Shots from Kowalski forced him against the building. Hilda dropped to one knee and fired a triple burst into his chest. He slammed against the wall and fell.

With her bag on one shoulder and the rifle in the crook of her arm, she ran to each of the bodies scattered in the street. All were past any hope: charred, dismembered, almost unrecognizable.

Around the left side of the vehicle, the driver was at least recognizable, but just as dead. She ran to the passenger side and saw the major lying on the sidewalk, not ten metres from the shooter she had killed. She ran.

He was breathing – barely. Bleeding from a chest wound that looked like a crushed rib cage. Both arms dislocated and the forearms probably broken. She pulled bandages from her backpack.

“Ortega, gurney, stat! Kowalski, cover Ortega!”

The two medics came running. Ortega had already set up the IV drip on the gurney and positioned it behind the ambulance while Hilda was checking the casualties.

After she got the chest wound covered so that the bleeding slowed, she worked feverishly to splint the forearms so they could move him. She swore furiously in English, German and Arabic, hurling curses and prayers with equal fury.

The major opened his eyes. Recognition and consciousness filled them.

“Whatever I did, I’m sorry.” He smiled.

“Not you, silly. Don’t interrupt me.”

“Thanks.” He passed out.

Two minutes later, Kowalski was speeding through the streets with siren and lights, while Ortega hung out the window with the assault rifle for effect.

In the back, Hilda checked on their three unconscious charges. The soldier and the MP slept more or less comfortably. The major’s breathing slowed dangerously. He was slipping into a coma.

At the ER, Hilda wheeled the officer into the operating theatre immediately, while Ortega and Kowalski took charge of the other two.

Major Smythe, the surgeon, examined the wrecked body of the MP major. She looked up and asked Hilda, “Can you assist me? I’ll keep him alive until you get back.”

Hilda sprinted to the locker room.

***

Three hours later, Major Jack Rathburn lay in a coma inside a USAF medical air ambulance. His vital signs were stable, but he needed reconstructive surgery on his head and chest. Karyn Smythe had repaired the internal organs, reset the dislocated shoulders and the broken forearms.

“A coma is the best place for him now,” she told Hilda in the cafeteria. “His body can close my sutures and heal over his ribs and arms more easily. He might not even have that much pain when he wakes up.”

“Thanks for letting me help but working on him after the street battle scared the hell out of me. I’m still coming down from it all.”

“Thank you. You’re the best trauma nurse we have, and I knew you could do it.” She put down her mug. “He’s special for you, isn’t he?”

“I don’t think so. I’ve never seen him outside the weekly staff meeting. I don’t think he knows my first name.”

“You’re rotating back to Landstuhl soon. He’ll still be there.” She smiled and winked.

© 2022, JT Hine

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