By Major Susan M. Perry
I don’t really know his name ... I just call him Carolina.
He was one of a group of Marines air evacuated to our Air Force field hospital during Operation Iraqi Freedom. They had been diverted to us during a terrible windstorm. Some needed surgery; some needed a place to recover before shipping out to the United States or back to their units.
It was a hot April afternoon and we had just started the first surgery when the windstorm hit our base. I had gone into the inpatient unit to assess a Marine scheduled for the next operation. The nurse on the unit directed me to the wrong cot, and that is how I met him.
He was lying there in a cot too small for his frame and he seemed very young and very alone. Sand caked his ears, covered his face, and the amount of sand in his hair made it impossible to identify its color.
“Where are you from Marine?” I asked him.
“North Carolina, Ma’am,” he said with an accent that instantly hit a familiar place in my heart.
I smiled and said, “Hello Carolina, I’m from North Carolina too.”
For the first time since he had caught my eye, he smiled. We talked for a while. He had been in Iraq, sleeping in those sand bunkers we had seen on CNN. He was in the group that took the palaces. The things that drew us to the television every day, he was living.
He had undergone a field appendectomy during the conflict and that was the reason he evacuated to our facility. I checked his wound and it looked fine, so I left to interview another patient.
Later that day the medical group donated money to go and buy the Marines some soap, shampoo, underclothes and basic toiletries. Necessity had forced them to leave their units with only the clothes on their backs. One by one they showered and put on clean clothes. Each of them more appreciative than the last for a hot shower and clean, dry socks.
It was a long day and the sand storm that had hit our base shortly after their arrival had complicated things all day. We had almost lost power to the hospital operating room and had actually done some minor surgical procedures in the critical care unit. Our own living quarter tents had blown over, scattering our belongings around the camp.
Before going to bed that night, I stopped by to see Carolina. After having washed several layers of sand off in the shower, he was much cleaner. However, when I walked up to his cot, I stopped short. His feet were outside the blanket. In my 14 years as a military nurse I had seen many wounds, but never had I seen feet in such terrible condition. They appeared raw, and the bottoms looked as if a cheese grater had removed the skin.
He saw my face and said, “Ma’am, these look good now.”
He explained that the Marines had operated in harsh field conditions for more than a month with little opportunity to change socks or clean their feet. My heart wept and I felt ashamed that at times we had complained about the living conditions at our camp.
Carolina had seen and done many things during operations in Iraq and his inner turmoil affected us both. He asked questions for which I had no immediate answers. I left him with a promise to think about what he asked and told him I would be back the next morning.
That night, lying in my cot, I thought about what Carolina had shared with me. He was looking for validation that his actions were important. He also had a choice to make. He could go home and recover from his wounds or choose to go back to his unit.
The next morning I went to see Carolina. He had talked to the chaplain and psychologist and he seemed happier. I told him I had thought about his questions of the night before. I told him he was a hero and so were the other Marines in these units.
I explained that their acts had saved their fellow soldiers and helped countless Iraqi people. Before I could ask about his decision to return home he said, “I’m going to go back to my unit.”
A short time later, Carolina did just that.
Years ago a senior nurse told me that becoming a nurse anesthetist might hurt my military career. She explained that in the anesthesia career field there wouldn’t be many opportunities for direct patient care and that all my patients would be asleep. This hasn’t been the case at all. Carolina reminded me of that fact.
Deployed heroes don’t have family members kiss them before they roll into the operating room or sit by their beds and listen. But we are there to talk with them; make sure they know someone cares. In the truest sense of the word, we are their family.
There are many reasons for medical professionals to leave the military: frequent deployments, lower pay than their civilian counterparts and more military administrative duties. All these reasons are real, but what is also real are the moments you meet a hero and know your lives are both better for the encounter.
So, from now on when someone asks why I stay in the Air Force I’ll tell them, “I don’t really know his name ... I just call him Carolina."
Reprinted with permission from Major Perry and the U.S. Air Force News Service.