War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself. – John Stewart Mill
Settling snugly into my bed with its memory foam mattress and fleece blanket, I gently lay my head on my orthopedic pillow and listen to the hum of my air purifier. My 3-year-old tabby cat, Moxie, is curled around my ankles and a cool air diffuser lightly mists the room with an essential oil blend touting “stress relief”. After an appropriate 15 minutes silently reenacting and pontificating the days stressful events and anxieties in my life, I smoothly drift into a deep and restful sleep. Now, this opening paragraph reads like the diary of a very spoiled young woman; but the attempt is to set the stage for the stark contrast to the lives (and bedtime routines) of the men and women sworn to protect our country so that we can take for granted just how great we really have it.
I recently approached an Army Ranger with 10 years of combat experience and asked him to discuss his story. Having known him briefly, I was already aware he had sustained several life-threatening injuries over the course of his service. The nature of his profession prevents us from knowing his real name. For the purpose of telling his story, we’ll call him Sam… (perhaps a Freudian slip in reference to Uncle Sam).
Sam began his military career in 2007. He is quick to acknowledge his reasons for joining are not necessarily the reasons that drive him today. After falling in with a “bad crowd” forcing him to hustle to make ends meet, he left his home country of Puerto Rico and moved to the United States to enlist in the military. With English as his second language, Sam admits that his bilingual shortcomings actually served to help promote his career. He passed verbal aptitude tests that most Americans failed because it took him a split second longer to discern the meaning of the actual words rather than rushing to solve timed puzzles presented to test ingenuity. Say the word “RED”….. Now spell it….. R-E-D….. Now say 5 it times………….RED. RED. RED. RED. RED. Spell it……………. R-E-D. Say it……..RED…….. Now, what do you do at a green light? YOU STOP. Or, at least, that’s what I said when Sam asked me. Oops. Green light. Go. My excellent understanding of the English vernacular and need to answer his question as quickly and efficiently as possible made me stumble. Several more brain teasers convinced me that I was interviewing no lightweight. Sam jokes that while in basic training, an Army Ranger recruitment group visited his platoon asking, “who wants to join Ranger school?” Sam was the only one in the room who raised his hand. All eyes immediately locked on his. Power Rangers looked like such a cool vocation on TV, who wouldn’t want to join? Some words just don’t translate outright.
Although Sam didn’t know exactly what he had signed on for, he didn’t look back. After months of parachute jumps, rappelling off of skyscraper sized towers, survival training consisting of eating bugs… or not eating at all, daily physical training, and mental acuity testing, all while being expected to operate effectively under extreme mental and physical stress, Sam was deemed fit to serve as an Army Ranger. Similarly, Sam raised his hand for SERE training: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. He was hoping for a raise, but to his chagrin, it was only more torture school. And again, Sam volunteered for level 3 Army Combatives School. He jokes that, in his mind, he pictured himself as Chuck Norris, standing over his aggressors with a smirk on his face. Reality usually had him lying on the floor….. bleeding. Assignments sent him to Afghanistan, Korea, Kuwait, Spain, Germany, and Africa, (that he can confirm anyways).
Sam’s first major injury came in 2007. Sam was required to engage the enemy in close combat quarters when a “bogie” got the jump on him. A 6-inch blade (likely a homemade shank) was thrust deep into his right forearm just between the ulna and radius. To save his life, Sam used his biceps muscle to pull his assailant away, breaking his own ulna and radium in the process. Sam recalls very little after the Medivac arrived and airlifted him back to the forward operating base in Afghanistan. He was given several ampules of morphine and recalls hearing the Smashing Pumpkins play The World is a Vampire on the flight and eating peanut M&Ms. With local anesthesia, (meaning twilight sedation but not fully under), a metal rod was inserted with 4 titanium screws placed in his forearm and 26 stitches placed to put him back together. He told me that doctors told him his bones grew so fast that removal wouldn’t be an option. Six months later, Sam was back in action and ready to save the world.
The second major injury occurred in 2009 when Sam was shot in the right upper thoracic area with an AR-15 5.56 round. Sam was fortunate enough to have his ceramic body armor in place but unlucky enough to sustain a right pneumothorax with bruising covering most of his upper torso. Sam states that he felt like he was on fire. He jokingly quotes the movie, Talladega nights, in which Ricky Bobby thought he was on fire and insisted on stripping down to his tidy whiteys and running around telling his crew-mates he was on fire. Apparently, that happened; leaving his comrades to give him all kinds of nicknames. Talladega, Salsa-verde, and Sriracha. After his injury he was sent to Kuwait and later to Germany for his recovery. Again, 4 months later, Sam was back on the front lines.
Later in 2009, Sam was traveling in an Army convoy to Kabul, Afghanistan when a daisy chain IED exploded underneath their vehicle (which ironically was a MRAP- Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle specifically designed to ((in theory)) withstand explosive devises) sending a piece of shrapnel into Sam’s right groin, nicking his femoral artery. Not realizing the implications, Sam dislodged the shrapnel from his upper thigh, further potentiating the bleeding. Sam was in a dangerous situation as rapid blood loss depleted vital organs of necessary oxygen perfusion, a condition known as hypovolemic or hemorrhagic shock. Sam received 3 units of blood, in addition to plasma, platelets and other clotting products within minutes through as a Level 1 Rapid Infuser sending 1100mL/min of warmed blood back in to his exsanguinating body. Sam has permanent varicose veins on his lower extremities following the rapid transfusions. He told me had no idea that blood coagulated so quickly, but recalls squeezing one of the medical sponges lying near his hand and clots forming on the bedsheets. He was told multiple times by surgeons and medical staff that he was lucky to be alive.
Sam’s most recent injury came in 2016 when he was hit in the right eyebrow causing bruising and a small facial laceration when he was hit with the butt of an enemy assailant’s AK 47. He recalls being dizzy but being able to reengage and neutralize his opponent.
I asked Sam several questions about his life and mindset involving his experiences. Humbling to say the least. How do you feel about risking your life? – “Everyone risks their life every day. Whether it’s driving a car or crossing enemy lines. To me, what makes life is living every moment. The good and the bad. When you feel pain, it’s good. You know you’re still alive.” How do you feel about taking a life? – “I’m defending what’s important. Important to me. Important to those like me.” Tell me about the first time you took a life. – “I was in Afghanistan. We try to honor our enemies in death. We wrap their bodies and they go through mortuary affairs. They are then placed in green zone for their loved ones to retrieve. I waited 4 hours to see who came. I watched a woman drop to her knees when she approached his body.” Sam’s story trailed off after saying this. How hard is it to transition to and from the civilian world after deployment? – I have a rule that I don’t drive my first day back. Looking around at everyone and seeing them having a normal life…. Arguing with a sales clerk at Wal-Mart…. Drinking cappuccino at Starbucks and talking about their previous night’s events… Everything is perspective. Small problems are big to some people. And vice versa. Once back in the states, I always go to a local brewery and order a local beer. I drink all but the last sip and leave the rest for the fallen. I always go to a Chik-fil-A and order a Spicy Deluxe Chicken Sandwich. I sit there and eat it and watch the people converse and think, ‘you’re welcome’.” Sam is not a braggadocios or arrogant person. He said “you’re welcome” in the most non-condescending or resentful way. He genuinely means, “you are welcome”. Sam is unassuming, somewhat hesitant to talk, and carefully chooses his words. He tells his story in a humble and sometimes jokingly self-deprecating way. He has a casual almost non-acknowledgement of past events. What was your worst night’s sleep you ever had? “The worst night’s sleep came sleeping in a building where my enemies lay dead. The emotional and physical exhaustion of the day’s events unfolding in my head.” As he told me this, my mind briefly flashed to my comfy bed with oversized comforter and fluffy Tabby cat. Night and day, it would seem.
Sam wears a bracelet in honor of a dear friend that died in his arms during combat. Although he is reluctant to share details of this event, the mental burdens he carries is palpable in the room as he tells his story. Ironically, all of the injuries he has sustained have been on the right side; his bracelet is worn on his right arm, just below his forearm scar, silently signifying his mental, not only physical injuries.
While the reasons Sam joined the armed forces are no longer the reasons that drive him, he has a deep appreciation and bond with his fellow soldiers. My last question to Sam was: What keeps you going when you want to quit? He told me, “Three things: Comradery, brotherhood, and the support I have back home. And when he says the support back home, he means the support of his friends, family and those that love him. They are able to accept him for who his is and what he does. He feels that the less people know about him and the cause he serves, the better. Not only for him but for the bigger picture at large.
Sometimes as a writer, it becomes difficult to differentiate subjectivity from objectivity. While most nonfiction writers strive for fair and impartial journalism, chronicling a story like Sam’s becomes difficult because of the deep visceral response it elicits. Hearing first hand an Army Ranger’s courageous stories and near-death experiences make it particularly difficult to remain unbiased and prepossessed. A brief glimpse through the eyes of an active combat soldier leaves a mark on your soul.
As a thank-you, I gave Sam a small Saint Christopher medallion. Saint Christopher is the guardian saint of travelers. It seemed appropriate to bestow a small token of appreciation for this man who risks so much to travel the world to protect us from those that wish to harm us. I later received a text picture from an undisclosed location of the charm, covered in sand, but hopefully doing its job to protect one of America’s 1% elite.
Our military veterans are honored with one holiday a year. Veteran’s day. They honor us for a full 365 days. Sam has changed many lives for the better; mostly by protecting people that will never know his actions. I feel very fortunate to lay my head down at night, and be complacent….. to worry about relatively small non-life-or-death things and sleep soundly. Thanks to men and women like Sam, we all can.
In memory and forever grateful to our military. – Kari Kingsley, MSN, CRNP
Kari Kingsley, MSN, CRNP works as an otolaryngology nurse practitioner in collaboration with Dr. Neeta Kohli-Dang. Together they share nearly forty years of ENT experience. They treat dizziness, ear infections, hearing loss, nasal congestion, sinus infections, thyroid nodules, tonsillitis, neck masses, hoarseness, trouble swallowing, and a multitude of other ear nose and throat conditions. Please call 256-882-0165 to schedule an appointment with Dr. Neeta Kohli-Dang and Kari Kingsley or visit Huntsville ENT.