Monday, August 3, 2009

My Own Heroes

*Retold with permission.

I know it’s fairly common to hear people back home call the Soldiers heroes, but I call them heroes, too, even though I may be considered one myself. Out here, I’m surrounded by men who live their lives for others and not themselves. They rarely get much recognition for what they do, but my medics have servants’ hearts, and I sincerely believe they’re the best in this entire brigade.

Without a doubt, I have the most diverse and overqualified medical staff any single unit in the Army has seen. I have a medic with a masters in aviation administration, another that used to be an Air Force PJ [special forces – Para Jumper], and two more who exhibit a knowledge of their profession that seriously rivals that of our PA [physician’s assistant, commanding officer]. Four medics, four different ethnicities, representing three different countries. Then there’s me in charge of them, twenty years younger than the oldest and only one year senior to the youngest. I find it humbling – and difficult – to lead men whose experience and character I feel far surpasses my own. I feel like I’m hoarding them to one company.

They don’t just possess a thorough book knowledge of medicine. They’ve practiced it. Though he never talks about it, one of them has more than twenty saves to his name, and two silver stars. In fact, I didn’t know about it until I saw him in his dress uniform. But not once has he boasted about it. He felt he was doing his job. And the same applies for one of the others, who personally saved the life of one captain twice in one deployment. Every last one of them can perform minor surgeries, too. If it came down to it, I’d trust them to operate on me. I have the utmost confidence in their abilities. And in an infantry company that’s been immortalized in books and movies, I’m simultaneously honored and humbled to be their senior medic. I really don’t feel I deserve the position. Any one of them could do just as well, if not better.

What’s so amazing, though, is that they’re all quiet, unassuming guys. They’re all here in an infantry company, surrounded by some of the toughest Soldiers in the Army, and instead of trying to impress them, they take all the ribbing, all the jokes, and they enjoy it. Even though the grunts give them hell, there are few men they’d rather be around than their medics. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of trying to be like the men with whom you serve, but they don’t. They’re here to serve and advocate them, not try to BE them. And because of their good attitudes, they’re universally loved and trusted. This is how it ought to be.

Medics are a different breed of Soldier than infantry. Infantry guys have a very clear-cut mission: kill the enemy. We, though, are here to save lives, not take them. Our purpose is to support the infantry Soldiers so they can keep fulfilling their mission. To make sure they’re successful on the battlefield. Every medic knows what he’s getting into when he joins. He knows he’s probably going to end up with infantry, in deadly situations, and still have to maintain his calm and continue with his own mission: save lives.

Taking life isn’t something I ever want to do, to be honest. It’s not why I joined, and not something I personally want to participate in. But these grunts, they’re my heroes, too, and if I have to take a life in order to protect or save theirs, I’ll gladly lay aside personal objections and do my job. THEY are our mission, at all costs. We don’t do it because we have to, but because we love them.

In many ways, I feel guilty for not being with them on their last tour. They went through hell out here, and they took a lot of casualties. I wasn’t responsible for them then, but sometimes my obligation to them creeps into the past, too. Maybe I could have helped them more. Maybe more would have gone home.

Part of being a grunt is being immeasurably tough. These are men that stare death in the face and then charge into battle without hesitation. I’ve always been impressed with them – from privates all the way through officers. They’re doing something that I know I couldn’t do, and they’re doing it boldly. And that’s why I respect them so much. They suffer great loss and endure great risk, but they still keep at it. It’s been an honor to serve with them.

We act tough, too, but it’s more a front than anything else. You have to steel yourself to work with infantry. But inside, that’s not who we really are. We’re angels of mercy. I actually don’t like the expression, since I think it’s kind of mushy and mercy isn’t something that’s smiled upon in infantry, but there’s a lot of truth to it. We stand on the outside, looking in. Humility first, mercy always. There’s no room for egos in our job. We’re here to save lives, not end them.

To some extent, we’re den mothers. We dote on these guys, worry about them, and we’re always trying to ensure they’re in the best of health. They insist we’re babying them, but it’s what we do. Just today I had a Soldier staggering around making every attempt not to fall over, but he said, “no, Doc, I’m fine. I’ll make it.” They’re tough as nails. When I finally cornered him, he was running a fever and severely dehydrated. Frankly, I don’t know how he was still standing. The others aren’t unlike him, either. That’s why I respect them. They could be half dead, but they’ll still keep moving. They don’t seem to ever give up.

Whenever we go on mission, the medics are the only ones that are nervous. We’re not nervous about taking contact or for our own safety, but for the guys around us. It doesn’t matter their rank at all; they’re still our charges, and it’s our job to bring them home safely. When we don’t, we consider it personal failure. We have the warrior spirit, too, but it’s devoted to ensuring that the real warriors come home.

A lot of these Soldiers will go home and never get much, if any recognition. A good 99% of our countrymen won’t give a damn about them, and they’ll never know what they do out here. But I’ve seen it. All my medics have. And if nothing else, I hope the Soldiers know that WE’VE noticed, and we’re blown away. We’re among men of the highest character, who routinely put others first and self second. America is blessed to have birthed them, and I’m blessed to serve with them.

Between my medics and the Soldiers we all serve, I’m surrounded by the finest generation of Americans. They represent the spirit of America; 1940s America. Men who give and expect nothing in return. The least I can do is give to them, and I do it gladly. They deserve somebody watching out for them, fussing over them, and caring for their bodies when they’re too busy to even think about it.

We may all be heroes to some, but these men are the real heroes to me. They’re the future of our country, and I’m honored to be in their presence. We’ll remember what they’ve done out here. We’ll remember who they are, long after our service is done and the war is over. Few will tell their stories, I’m sure, so we we’ll do it for them. They deserve all that we can give. They give still more every day.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

1 comment:

  1. At a very early age, my dad taught me to recite "Gunga Din." It is still one of my favorite poems - such a great "hero" poem.