Disturbed from a deep sleep I feel ill, weak but more awake than I had ever known was possible. The sleeping bag is thrown off to one side, left permanently unzipped for quick escape, my boots are already on and I’m fully dressed. By this point the bright halogen lights are burning into my overworked retinas, and I feel my way to my body armour left at the end of my folding metal bed, I throw it over one shoulder, grab my rifle and run to the door. Nighttime in Afghanistan isn’t as you’d expect from a desert, it doesn’t get cold, it just remains at a steady 30 degrees throughout the night in the summer months and your consistently sweating throughout the day. The land rover is only 10 meters away but in my current state, overloaded with equipment it’s an effort to get on board. The engine roars into life and I’m thrown back from the harsh acceleration. I soon compose myself and get my body armour on correctly, load my rifle and even have a bit of time to give it a quick brush down, in vain of course, within 10 seconds its back to its usual orange hum, seeming to magnetically attract the dusty bastion roads. We screech on to the pan where the Chinook is waiting, rotors spinning, loadmaster stood on the tail counting the medical team on. I’m first out the land rover grabbing the ECM off the signaller, a girl called Sarah just 19, first tour of Afghanistan. She’d been based in an ops room in Lashkagah for the previous 4 months but had since moved onto MERT’s IRT team. The heavy bag is thrown over one shoulder held in place with my hand, other hand holding onto my rifle I lumber towards the aircraft, there’s a small step onto the ramp, I’ve tackled this obstacle hundreds of times, however on this occasion I decided to try it running… I lift my leg moving at a truly heroic, but massively ambitious speed, and its just one step the horse cant handle, throwing myself face first at the loadmaster, who with an effortless pirouette takes a single step out the way and bursts out laughing.
I’d been in Afghanistan about a month before my first stint on the MERT team, our area of operations was the area surrounding bastion an its our job to offer a force protection capability. This however on the major part is a massively boring job; we patrol endlessly without incident, not a single contact, not even a single dodgy Afghani. So being put onto the MERT team was a great break for me and I was looking forward to the challenge and excitement that came with flying into hostile territory to pick up casualties and keep these people alive before heading off to bastion where they could be treated in the medical centre. What I didn’t account for was the dramatic effect this would have on my life, how it would change me forever.
I slump in the bench feeling rather sorry for myself, my first shout on the MERT team and I’d arrived upside down, this was going to take some living up to! Communication on board any military aircraft is difficult at the best off times, but on board a Chinook flying 200 mph 30 feet off the ground, at night, with mere holes where windows are supposed to be is near enough impossible, so I sit and wait. 30 minutes have past and there’s still no sign of what’s to come, but at that moment the Chinook banks hard to the left and seems to stop dead in the air. The forces acting on the body are more than any roller-coaster and my spine feels as though its been pushed out the bottom of the aircraft into the warm nights sky. At that moment just as I feel my body can take no more there’s a loud bang, the flares explode from the body of the aircraft lighting the sky I can feel the heat through the window and my initial thought is shit the bed we’ve crashed, then I realize that crash was actually a text book landing. Right onto the road. Desperately trying to reserve some dignity I crouch on the seat leaning out the side window rifle in my shoulder, I look out through my night vision sight into the dusty air, all I see is a green glow of the dust particles invading the lens of my scope, “it’s hopeless” I say to myself.
I feel the air move behind and glancing around I see a cue of stretchers, 5 in total, the man carrying the last stretcher is huge, his body armour covering a small space in the centre of his chest, m4 rifle dangling to one side like a child holding a toy bear loosely in his hand allowing it to swing through the air. Then I notice something else, I tear in the eye of this striking almost Viking like man, he drops his stretcher on the tail of the Chinook and stands in disbelief looking at the 4 and half bodies before him, an arm comes across his chest and he’s pulled back into the darkness, gone forever.
I leave my rifle secured into the webbing of the seat and move forward to look for someway of helping, the scene is carnage, field dressings ripped open, the powder from quick clot packets frantically being poured into wounds, the horrific noise of bone drills cutting into the shins of patients can be heard over the engines. I see a casualty lying unaided and I quickly kneel down to asses the damage, he seems relatively intact, no major bleeds, all limbs in there correct locations, I check he’s breathing and although unconscious, everything else appears ok. Reaching behind me I grab a pair of latex gloves and pull them onto my hands, I check the eyes, brush my hands through his hair, ensuring there’s no deformities indicating a head injury, I reach behind his head to the base of his skull and pull my hands away, and that is when it hits me… I look down to see a grey red fluid covering my hands, my heart sinks, I can see him trying to mouth words feeling my presence there. At this moment the doctor reaches over me and leans on the mans chest I hear an audible pop, and a bag of fluid together with a syringe is slapped in my crimson hands. My job is now to pump as many fluids into this very very messed up individual as physically possible in the remaining 30-minute flight. I frantically clip the fluid bag to the roof of the helicopter and begin to suck the fluid out of the bag and directly into the mans sternum, where a needle had been pushed directly into the bone. I feel helpless, as if trying to drag a ship across an ocean, a seemingly impossible task, for a single person, but I continue pushing the fluid with all my strength and all my heart.
Looking over I see Sarah holding onto the hand of the next casualty, a burns victim suffering full thickness burns over 100% of his body, his lips fused together with a tube forced between them blood oozing from the tube, his eyes have gone along with all facial features, its as if looking into a volcanic liquid in the loose form of a person, at that moment I feel my casualty grab my hand, but I push it away not wanting to get emotionally attached to this man who in my heart of hearts I know is going to die. The aircraft lumbers sideways in the air, and out the window I can see the lights of bastion, the blue lights of the waiting ambulances, and in the distance the wave of light that is the landing site. We touch down and the fire men of bastion run on to carry away the first stretcher, there’s an agonizing wait as they deal with the individual casualties, finally they come for mine. I continue pumping fluids even as we move towards the ambulances, the front end of the stretcher is pushed into the back of the ambulance, but the fireman on the front corner of the stretcher slips, the world slows down as I see the stretcher fall towards the floor of the ambulance… It strikes the ground with a filthy metallic clang. The casualty’s head drops back and his chest fails to rise, I turn to the fireman who slipped and unleashed. An explosion of words I never knew existed in my vocabulary, the fireman cowers and seems to recess to the age of 10 being shouted at by a teacher in the schoolyard. Leaving the syringe I’d worked so hard to conquer on top of the now still chest I turn away, walking back to the Chinook, my seat and rifle are waiting, and with the weight of another mans death on my shoulders fall heavily into its canvas grasp.
Sat opposite me is a very shaken Sarah, tears roll down her face, it turned out when she’d let go of the burns patient the skin of his hand had been pulled off and remained in hers, we touch down at the pan, where this tragic story started. The inside of the Chinook has been torn to pieces by the hands of desperate medics tearing at the seams of med kits to pull field dressings, morphine and tourniquets from there Velcro hold. I figure I should help with the cleaning of the cab and reaching down to grab a lone boot, as I pick it up I realize its unrealistic weight, and glancing in I realize the boot still contains the foot of its previous owner, I drop it and for the second time turn my back on the situation and head once again for the ramp. As I step off the helicopter I glance left to the see the sun rise, A day begins as 5 lives end, the sun doesn’t stop rising, no amount of lives can stop the earth spinning, and as it spins tragedy continues to be the norm for so many lives.