Friday, February 25, 2011

Soldiers' Angels- We flew home in a hospital

Last week, I flew home to the US with Arleigh because of my grandmother- family issues. What I will always remember most of that journey will not be the meals I prepped for the family, or the discussions on how to proceed with best care options for grandma, not the lugging of suitcases and little Arleigh in tow.
In time, even the tears and hugs that happened as I said goodbye to the other three kids and husband will fade from memory. There is no doubt, that what I will remember most, was the flight to get there. The soldiers and nurses who cared for them. That’s who I will never forget.

Because I’m a military dependent, flying space available (“Space -A“) on military aircraft to get home, for free was an option. I researched the convenience of a commercial airline ticket, but it was going to cost about $1,000 round trip. When in need, space A flights can be a great option for military folks. There is no in flight movie, no drink cart offering tomato juice or peanuts, no air vent or reading light to position overhead. Space A flight are nothing but simple jump seats and the naked guts of a military aircraft. And, a lot of loud engine noise. When traveling with kids though, a space a flight can be a welcome change because there is enough room for children to run around. The aisle space is often big enough to hold a truck, (and sometimes it does). Commercial options aside, I had no idea that the cost of this Space A flight would be much different, yet a price worth paying.

We signed up for a flight, waited, and hoped. Initially it didn’t look like we’d go anywhere. Earlier that day, we were told there was a medevac flight heading to the US, but typically, passengers weren’t allowed. Not giving medevac much more thought I imagined someone needed to return stateside for surgery. Though at the last minute, our name was called for a C-17 flight from Germany to Andrews Air Force base in Maryland. With considerable shock, I found myself sitting with a plane full of nurses, doctors, medical staff, 20 gurneys with critically injured soldiers and 2 other moms with children. The following 10 hours and 40 minutes were by far the most humbling of my life. When we climbed the stairs and set foot onto the plane I was stunned. I lost my breath. The scene was overwhelming. I didn’t know where to step, let alone look. All around were soldiers linked to medical equipment lying beneath army green, or red, white and blue, fleece blankets and strapped into gurneys. Beside me, a person on the medical staff apparently witnessed my hesitation and gently but firmly ushered us “10 paces back and step to the right ma’am”. Had he not encouraged me along I think my feet would still be glued to the floor where the term “medevac” came to life.

One soldier laid in the back, nearby us, dabbing his face with a tissue. When he sat up to reposition himself his severe shrapnel wounds became obvious. His face, right arm and chest were an endless collection of bloody cuts. He had a tracheal tube. When he coughed, his body heaved heavily up and down on the mattress. Two nurses stood by him, caring for his wounds and comfort the entire flight. Neck braces, I.V. lines, catheters, leg and arm casts, head bandages covered in thick caps, oxygen tubes, and monitors were everywhere. Of those who were ambulatory with nurses assistance, gait was unsteady and arm movements shaky. The physical and mental injuries seemed to present a mountain range of hurdles yet to overcome. In less than five minutes in a foreign land, their lives were changed forever. Those guys had ‘been there done that.’

Many of them had a wedding band on their left ring finger. I prayed for their wives to be strong yet shuddered to consider their burdens to bare. No one seemed completely comfortable, except Arleigh who, despite ridiculous decibels in engine noise, slept soundly beside me. (Innocently, my little guy had requested to sleep on the one empty gurney remaining on the plane. Instead he held the honor of sleeping on mommy's lap). Holding Arleigh, I couldn’t help but to pray for their children too. No one uttered a complaint despite what they’d been through. On occasion, they’d give a “thumb’s up” to the nurses as if to say “I’m OK”…as OK as you can get strapped onto a gurney at 30,000 feet in the air on your way home from war.

One soldier laid on a gurney positioned higher than the others. He seemed fidgety and was overrun with wires and catheters, streaming from his bed. As the plane rumbled along, taxing for take off, he became more agitated. While he pushed his covers off, and began to wave his cast arm, two nurses, already in seat belts, began to communicate across the aisle over their ICS headgear. Then the nurses brought out another harness, and it seemed as if they were going to add a strap to secure the patient at his lower legs. I looked on, expecting to see the harness quickly tighten over the gurney. Instead what I watched was incredibly touching. A nurse at her very best. There was no more securing of the soldier to his bed, but instead, one nurse helping another to strap herself to the rails of the gurney so she could safely stand during the take off, assisting the patient the entire time. After she was hooked in, she gently took the soldier’s hand for comfort, and motioned with her other hand that the plane would soon take off. He settled down immediately, yet she stayed by his side at least another 30 minutes until we were soaring through the clouds. Tears filled my eyes.

Most of the soldiers had behind their gurney, the same silly boxed lunch that Arleigh and I had purchased for the flight. A sandwich, chips, fruit cup, Rice Krispies Bar, apple juice, and water bottle. Surely not all of them could have ingested those foods at that point in their recovery. What a sorry meal. To me it seemed as if they deserved a steak dinner, on a silver platter. But as pitiful as their meal seemed, their medical care was amazing. Kudos to the men and women who care for the critically injured on those medevac flights. Whether smearing gel over shrapnel wounds, massaging aching arm muscles above a cast, rotating gurneys, or changing an IV line, the nurses and doctors worked around the clock, non stop, in their care of each soldier. By the end on the flight it was apparent that if or when my own husband found himself lying on a gurney as well, that I would not fear for his care.

A soldier laying on a bed directly in front of us was able to talk to us a bit. He asked about Arleigh, questioning his name and age. With shaky hands, he offered Arleigh all he had- part of the boxed lunch. Enough had been taken from this guy, I insisted he keep his lunch as Arleigh had enough to eat. In a New York accent, he described his own 3 year old son and how he looked forward to coming home to see the family. So humbling, after what this solider had been through, he was still willing to give and expect nothing in return. One of the medical staff played with Arleigh for a few minutes on the floor. Such a striking juxtapose to watch a toddler playing happily among the wounded soldiers of war. He gave Arleigh his patch and allowed me to take this photo, a very special reminder of that flight and the incredible people aboard.

That flight forever changed me. Eleven hours in an airplane clarified how I view veterans and the people who care for them. Commercial airline ticket $1,000. The humbling experience of a space A military flight with critically wounded soldiers on medevac from war….priceless. Those guys aren’t the lucky ones. I was. Count your blessings. No matter how bad of a day, realize you aren’t laying in a gurney missing your three year old son. Please consider helping those brave soldiers in whatever way you can.  The Soldiers' Angels website is a great start with lots of suggestions and ideas about how you or your organization can help. There you can adopt a soldier, write letters, make donations, and assist in a great variety of ways. As of today, there are over 1,000 soldiers still waiting to be "adopted" under their slogan, "May no soldier go unloved".
(Click here to find out more).


jamie said...

What a beautiful description of your experience. Thanks for sharing. I am humbled.

Fat Pilot said...

Thanks Mandy. Seems to be lots of reminders these days about how lucky most of us really are.

KT said...

I LOVED this post...I cried as I read what you experienced and was so thankful that you took the time to share it with us. Thank was beautiful to read.

Fat Pilot said...

We adopted a soldier! :-) Thanks Mandy. said...

Thanks Shellie for adoptiong! And to all for reading. Please feel free to forward the link to this post to others. Many people back home said things like "Wow, we never knew. We don't see things like that on the news." I couldn't help but to think 'maybe you should'. Images from that flight are burned into my memory - an extremely emotional experience.

GUAMtastic said...

Amazing Mandy... I soooo needed that reminder today :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you Mandy for sharing your flight with us! I'm glad you had the opportunity to be there and offer up prayers! How humbling it is to know that these men and women are working in these conditions everyday. I'm just feeling blessed to enjoy an ordinary day in the USA. Bethany