I couldn’t remember the last time I wasn't awash in the scent of burning flesh.
By then it was just the norm. And sometimes it was even comforting. Sometimes it meant I knew where I was. I knew the source. I knew what to do. After all, I’ve always been a clutch player.
But most times it just fills me with dread.
“Felicity, they just got here.”
I jumped to my feet and ran after Digg, chasing him through the maze-like hallways. Halfway to the pit doors, we came across a moving gurney, with a body wrapped in blankets. The combat medics had cleaned off his face as best as they could on the flight over here, but traces of dirt and grease and blood still remained, making it almost impossible to suss out his features.
“Give it to us,” Digg said.
“CSM Oliver Jonas, 30 years old with wounds from an IED,” the medic told us. “The thing went off and damaged his legs, but even after the explosion he spent an hour making sure the members in his squad were out of danger first. The resulting firefight also caused a few gunshot wounds. Most of the trauma is to his lower extremities, but he’s also got some shrapnel in his torso. He’s also got some graze wounds from bullets he took in the ensuing firefight. He’s out of immediate danger, because we stopped the major bleeding in the field and during transport.”
“Leaving us to patch up the rest,” I finished for him.
“It’s what y’all do best.”
“How bad is the damage to his legs?” Digg asked as we steered the gurney around the corner.
“I couldn’t tell for sure, but I think there’s a good chance he’ll get to keep them. He won’t get to throw himself into a firefight after escaping an IED explosion for a while, but with some PT I think he can be back in the field in a year.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, until he gets himself blown up again.”
“Look, this guy’s a hero,” the medic said plainly. “His unit is still alive because of him. He’s probably got a distinguished service cross coming for him in the future.”
“Well let’s make sure it isn’t awarded posthumously then,” Digg replied.
We had OR 5 prepared for his arrival. The anesthesiologists and OR nurses prepped Jonas’ body for the surgery while Digg and I scrubbed. I closed my eyes and took several cleansing breaths. It would be the only clean air I’d get to breathe for the next few hours.
Once my lungs had sucked in as much pure oxygen as they could, I tied the mask over my face. Digg glanced over at me, his arms dripping from the scalding hot water. “Ready?” he asked.
I nodded, and together we walked into the OR.
The minute the surgery was over, one of the nurses poked her head into the scrub room. “Sergeant Jonas’ commanding officer is on the phone. Who wants to take it?”
Digg and I exchanged sidelong glances. Then at the same time we turned to face each other, holding one fist in the air. Keeping eye contact with him, I counted, “One, two, three, shoot.”
On the last count, two of his fingers shot out from his clenched fist while mine opened with my palm facing downward.
“Damn it,” I muttered while Digg shot me a smug look. “That’s like the third time in a row.”
“You need the practice anyway.”
“Easy for you to say,” I retorted. “You speak the language. Instead I just ramble like an idiot and then I try to lighten the subject matter by making jokes which is always a terrible idea because it's like the prerequisite to get rid of your sense of humor the minute you become an officer, and — ugh.”
“Yeah well this time remember not to make any jokes.”
I grumbled incoherently as we walked out of the scrub room. Once we got to the nurse’s station, I picked up the phone. “Dr. Smoak here.”
“Smoak, this is Lieutenant Colonel Wilson,” a gruff voice on the other end of answered. “How's Jonas?”
I took a deep breath. “He sustained major damage to his left leg in the explosion, but we managed to repair the fractures with titanium rods. We also stitched up the extensive shrapnel and graze wounds on his arms and torso. It’s going to be a while before he's back to full mobility, but he should make a full recovery.”
I paused. “Excuse me?”
“How long until he's made this full recovery? He's my right-hand man. He’s the best marksman and my quickest soldier. I need him back here as soon as possible.”
My grip around the phone tightened. Digg must have noticed the expression on my face as well because he reached over to place a comforting hand on my shoulder. I ignored it though.
“Jonas has sustained a great deal of trauma,” I said as evenly as I could. “From what I read in his file he has five months left in his deployment, but I very much doubt he will recover in time to return to the battlefield.”
“Dr. Smoak, that's simply an unacceptable answer,” he growled. “I need him back here in Jalalabad by the end of this month and you will see to it that he recovers in that time.”
I’d just had about enough of this bastard, and Digg could have squeezed my shoulder until he cut off circulation to my arm, but I wasn't going to hold my tongue any longer. I was cranky and tired and damn it, I needed to pee. Wilson caught me at a bad time.
“Sir, I understand that you’re in need of Jonas’ abilities out there, but I just spent the past ten hours making sure you won't have to tell his wife she's a widow or his children that they’re orphans or his parents that they’ll have to hang gold stars in their windows for the rest of their lives, and I will be damned if I’m going to send him back into battle before he’s ready. Have I made myself perfectly clear?”
I didn’t bother waiting for an answer. I slammed the phone down in anger and clenched my jaw as I glared into the wall, wishing it was Wilson’s head and my eyes had the power to shoot lasers out of them.
I sucked in a deep breath through my nostrils and turned my head toward Digg. His hand was still squeezing my shoulder, but there was that soft smile over his gentle features.
“At least you didn’t crack a joke.”
I rolled my eyes and turned away. “I have a feeling he wouldn’t have recognized a joke if it shot him with a mortar first.” He slid over Jonas’ chart and I made a couple of notes and signed my name. “Page me when he wakes up. If anyone asks where I am in the meantime, tell them I peed so hard that I fell into a black hole in the toilet and if they need me they’re going to have to Matthew McConaughey the closest NASA spaceship themselves to get me back.”
Digg chuckled. “Sure thing.”
After I finished the notes in the chart, I made a beeline to the closest bathroom and when my bladder had felt sufficiently relieved, I trudged to the closest on-call room and fell on top of the bottom bunk bed with a loud thud. The board said I didn’t have another surgery until six, meaning I had plenty of time to take a nap. And considering how little sleep I’d gotten recently, drifting off into dreamland the minute I closed my eyes should have been easy.
But it wasn’t. Instead when I closed my eyes, all I could do was smell the burning flesh and feel the cold steel under my hands as I made stitch after stitch. They say if you’re in the surgical game long enough, the stitches become muscle memory and you can do procedures in your sleep.
The thing is, trauma surgery isn’t like that. The wounds all come from the same place, but they’re always in different places on different bodies with different reactions, different solutions, different stitches and different strategies. I don’t mind that part so much — it’s why I went into trauma surgery in the first place. I’ve always enjoyed a good challenge and finding multiple answers to a single problem.
No, the part I hate is when the problem has no solution. When the organs go necrotic, when the infection spreads, or when no amount of electricity can save a stalling heart — that’s the part that makes it difficult to sleep, no matter how many consecutive hours I’ve spent awake.
I turned over in the bed until I was staring at the bunk above me. Or at least I assumed it was the bunk above me, because the on-call room was pitch black, considering it was supposed to be a place where doctors can catch up on sleep.
The smell didn’t go away, even though I was far away from any patients, the battlefield or the OR. It was all I could smell now, which made eating food unappealing, even if it was required to, you know, live.
The worst part was that these are soldiers. Unsolvable problems are bad enough on civilians, but on people who’ve thrown themselves on grenades and taken mortar fire and bullets, it just seems a million times worse. Having to write up the notes in Army jargon, watching them roll the mangled bodies away to pack into boxes draped with American flags…
Digg says the losses make the wins taste sweeter. But all I could taste is smoke and lead.