JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq -- His helmet tucked under his arm, sweat forming on his brow below the sunglasses propped up on his head, Scott Thurman locks his blue eyes on the woman as she teeters on the edge of crumbling into wails of grief.
"We’ll do everything we can,” he says.
A local translator translates his words, but the weeping mother pays more attention to Thurman's expression.
He is not apologetic or pitiful but whole-heartedly honest.
“Reassuring (the patient's) mother was the most critical thing I think I could have done for her. It's the only thing I could have done for her,” Thurman says, “even then I don’t know how much it helped.”
Flight Medic Thurman with Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a medevac unit based out of Salem, Ore., has been around the block a few times.
It's a block ravaged by a war.
Thurman served as an infantry ground medic for 8 years and two deployments.
He often says, “I’ve seen worse,” which would be funny if it was just a joke.
“I’ve spent two weeks sleeping in a Humvee with Kevlar body armor and my helmet on, using oil cans as pillows," says Thurman, who now views life outside of "the wire" -- military jargon for the secure area of the base -- from the air as a flight medic.
Thurman presents a relaxed posture and an easy smile, which might be deceptive: he still sees things that make hearts shudder.
This morning, Thurman and his crew of two pilots and a crew chief make sure the aircraft is ready for action by stocking it with medical supplies and other gear on their airfield in Joint Base Balad.
At 10 a.m. civilian time, Thurman watches a movie with crew chief Sergeant Jonathon McCully as they wait for the unknown. They might fly urgent missions all day, or they might have any missions at all. The feeling here is that everybody wants a mission -- but no one wants an injured patient.
So boredom is the price these soldiers sometimes pay for peace.
But not today.
At noon Chief Warrant Officer 4 Greg Schroeder, pilot in command, calls the soldiers on “first up” -- the soldiers on duty for urgent missions -- to report to the main road leading to the airfield. Schroeder informs the team that they will have a patient in an hour or so, which is rare. Usually the crew is informed of a mission when “medevac, medevac, medevac” crackles over the radio, and the crew scrambles to get the aircraft off the ground in less than 15 minutes.
After lunch, the word is that a prisoner of war is injured neat Tikrit. Just after noon, Schroeder radios in -- “First Up to the aircraft.”
McCully runs across the flight line with a look on his face not consistent with the dude he was 20 minutes ago playing La Bamba on his guitar. The transformation is instantaneous and ancient; soldiers can be vulgar jokers until a mission is called. The pilots, already sweating in the 115 degree heat outside, sit in the even hotter 130 degree cockpit as the rotor blades turn like a fevered heart beat.
The Blackhawk is off the ground in 10 minutes.
About a half hour later, flying over the stark desert interrupted by a few plots of green, the landing zone appears and the Blackhawk kicks up a bit of dust as its wheels hit the concrete. The pilots keep the aircraft running while Thurman and another medic, Staff Sergeant Jason Johnson from the supporting Blackhawk, head for the hospital.
As usual, the patient information changes as easily as dust rising in the desert. The original description of a wounded POW turns out to be incorrect.
Inside the hospital, a rail thin mother stands near her 19-year-old daughter’s nearly lifeless body.
The family reports the girl’s burns are a result of a propane explosion, but there are no shrapnel wounds on her body. The final report to the medics is that the girl is pregnant and burned, report closed.
Charlie Company has already picked up several burned patients in the last 30 days. There is talk of “honor burnings.” The medics have to draw their own conclusions.
"The patient was essentially set on fire,” says Thurman. "It's not a quick death. It's very malicious, it's very crude and archaic, and to have someone do that to you … I can’t imagine being doused with something and then set on fire.”
According to Thurman, the burn characteristics did not match an open flame injury.
“Those kinds of injuries would be a consistent exposure all over the skin,” says Thurman. “It would look like one giant burn mark versus what our patient had which was splotchy burn marks.”
The patient’s hair is damp from perspiration and clinging to her swollen forehead, which is a garish reddish purple. As a nurse straps on flight gear -- she will be traveling with the patient today -- she informs Thurman of the patient’s condition.
With 45 percent of the patient’s body ravaged by third degree burns and with multi-organ system failure, there is little hope. An IV of normal saline and blood is started, and even though the patient is breathing on her own, oxygen is administered.
The patient is stable the whole flight. Thurman, Johnson and the nurse maintain the patient's vitals.
“It was my call to bring Jason (Johnson) along with us because I didn’t want (the patient) to be understaffed giving how critical she was,” says Thurman.
Johnson monitors the patient's vital signs, which are blood pressure, pulse and amount of oxygen in her blood.
“I was monitoring the airway,” says Thurman. “The nurse was monitoring pain management, giving drugs and making sure the patient was as comfortable as possible.”
If the patient crashes on the aircraft, the medics can administer medications or shock her heart to get it pumping again. They can also use the process of intubation -- inserting a tube to assist with breathing.
The mother, in the back seat of the Blackhawk, is separated from her daughter by a wall of metal. She slams her thigh with an open palm and then raises it to the ceiling with her eyes shut, her chest heaving. Tears fall from her dark eyes and trickle down the wrinkled valleys of her cheeks. She splashes water over her covered hair and pours handfuls of water over her heart as if she could wash away the pain.
She murmurs softly to herself, her worn hands clenching a bottle of water and cell phone shrouded in tissue. Her shoulder blades, no bigger than a newborn’s fist, protrude from her back, and her sobs rise above the deafening Blackhawk engine.
At 120 knots, the Blackhawk arrives at Ibn Sina Hospital in Baghdad in 45 minutes.
The mother is escorted out of the aircraft first. Her long, dark skirt billows in the gusts of air produced by the rotor blades. McCully takes her hand; the mother grips it like a lost child and he escorts her to an ATV. She huddles in the passenger’s seat. She seems to shrink as they pull her daughter on the litter out of the aircraft.
The mother, brow furrowed, hands trembling, looks down at her child loaded onto the bed of the vehicle. There is nothing she can do but sit and watch. Her daughter’s hands are covered in layer of cloths. Burned flesh, tubes, plastic pouches and machines stop mother from embracing child.
The nurses and doctors at Ibn Sina anticipated the patient and in a few carefully executed exchanges she is rolled into the triage room. The mother attempts to stay with her daughter as the patient is rolled away but is steered into the arms of a female interpreter with coiffed blond hair and dark, sad eyes.The two women sit in the corner as the triage nurse pulls the curtain, closing off the rest of the world.
Shrinking into a ball, the mother rocks, wails and throws her arms in the air. She feels in her bones, in her blood, in her empty womb that the child that once nestled into her arms, the child whose downy hair she once kissed, is dying.
In triage, Thurman gives a patient report.
“We give a quick summary of what happened since we picked the patient up to when we dropped her off,” says Thurman. “We do everything we can to make sure she can get there alive.”
He has stayed true to his word; he’s done everything he can.
Sometimes everything is not enough.
Thurman heads back to the Blackhawk, which for now is two people lighter. But patients are always coming and going.
Back in Balad, the Blackhawk lands and re-fuelers appear like ghosts from the shadows and start pumping gas.
Thurman lets out a sigh of relief as he pulls the Kevlar body armor off and reveals a body drenched in sweat. The pilots, red-faced, pull helmets from their damp heads.
McCully collects the blood-drenched gauze, the last physical reminder that a patient was here.
Even after the helicopter is cleaned and ready for another mission, the patient cannot be as easily erased from soldier’s minds.
“Everybody has their own things," Thurman says. "Some people work out. I’ll talk about it to people who were involved. Being able to get it off your chest I think is a great way to getting through things.
"There are things I’m gonna be thinking about for the rest of this whole time," Thurman says. "How could someone do that to someone else, another human being?”
Cali Bagby is embedded with the Oregon Army National Guard from Charlie Company, 7th Battalion, 158th Aviation, a Medevac Unit based out of Salem, Ore., for KVAL.com. Her work has been published in the Washington Post and the Eugene Weekly. | More stories | Visit her Web site