His body was on fire – especially his right foot – but that was like saying a blow torch was hotter than a glowing red coal. He felt like he’d been under the treads of a tank, and wasn’t sure how he ended up here. A weak attempt to open his eyes did no good. Something was blocking his vision. He was vaguely conscious of some background noise, but his mind was so clouded he couldn’t quite make sense of it. The one noise he could make out was the distinctive whirr a Blackhawk made when you were sitting inside.
He tried to speak, hoping the unintelligible voices nearby would hear him and be able to tell him what had happened. The only sound that came out was a bit of a grunt and some gurgling. He tried moving his arms. They were strapped down, and the effort was extremely painful. He twisted his head, and he heard a voice saying something indistinct. Then, everything faded back to black.
He felt sick. Everything around him was moving and shifting. Had he somehow ended up on a boat? And his throat and mouth were extremely dry. He wanted to swallow to move some spit around and make it better, but there was something in the way. He shifted his weight a bit, and fiery bolts of pain shot through his right leg. Involuntarily he screamed, but no sound came out. Slowly becoming more aware of his surroundings, he became conscious of a throbbing pain in his leg and a burning sensation on parts of his face.
He was supposed to be in a truck headed to the Baghdad airport. The funerals were in three days, and it would take two of those to get home even if everything went smoothly. He made a conscious effort to open his eyes, but nothing would focus. In fact, he couldn’t see anything. He started to panic, and tried to get up, but felt like he was strapped down on something. Had he been captured and was he being tortured?
He heard a quiet beep, and a mild burning sensation radiated from the back of his hand and up his arm. The warmth spread across his body and the pain didn’t bother him any more. As little as it was, his efforts exhausted him; so he closed his eyes and faded back into temporary oblivion.
“Major Harwood…” He heard the voice as though it were from a distance and through a dense fog.
“Major Harwood,” the voice repeated, slightly more clearly and seemingly closer.
“Squeeze my fingers if you can hear me.”
Squeeze their finger… Why would somebody say that. He tried to open his eyes and look, but he could see nothing.
“Squeeze my fingers. You can do that for me.”
Jim was grasping for understanding, but it was eluding him. He could hear what she was saying, but was having difficulty figuring out what the words meant. He felt a squeeze on his right hand as the voice repeated, “It’s right here. Give my fingers a squeeze if you’re in there.”
Jim returned the squeeze with what he thought was firm pressure, but the feedback provided by his nervous system told him it was a feeble and barely noticeable touch.
“Do you know where you are? Squeeze my fingers again if you do.”
Wherever this was, it wasn’t the convoy. He was confused. Why was it so exhausting just to listen, and why was it so hard to answer.
“You’ve been injured, and we’re working to get you stable enough to transport back to the states.”
Jim squeezed the speaker’s fingers again, but that was all he could manage. He faded back into oblivion.
Over the course of several days, Jim was conscious more and more of the time. He was able to listen and focus for a few minutes at a time as doctors or nurses passed through his room, but they refrained from talking too much with him about his condition. Jim was still unsure what happened or how badly he had been injured. Even through the fog of whatever kind of pain medication they had him on, he understood that something was wrong with both his face and his right foot. Both of them hurt intensely.
He came to realize that his apparent blindness was a function of his head being wrapped in bandages. He also came to realize that they were heavily sedating him any time they changed the bandages. Someone would come in and quietly tell him they were going to change the dressings, and then he would fade out again – for how long, he couldn’t have said. In fact, he couldn’t have said how long he had been in the hospital. Time seemed ethereal. In his highly drugged state, he seemed ethereal.
Periodically when he was particularly drugged but still conscious, he would have terrifying hallucinations. He saw hundreds of spiders climbing on the ceiling. He saw the walls changing colors and warping in fantastical ways like he was inside a pop can that was being crushed. He saw little people dancing on the foot of his bed. He saw all this while his eyes were wrapped in bandages.
He saw other things too…He had nightmares – had them any time he was conscious of having been asleep. He saw the young girl who had been killed on his first raid standing over him with the knife in her hand hacking away at his leg and laughing with evil glee. He saw prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Camp Bucca mobbing him and tearing at his face with their bare hands. He saw the torture chamber his team had destroyed, only this time he was strapped to the crude table and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi was using a blow torch on his leg. Baghdadi was dead… Jim had shot him when he had tried to rush him during a field interrogation – had shot him twice in the head – but somehow that monster, with blood running down into his face from a little black hole above his left eye and another in his right cheek-bone, had returned and was torturing Jim.
There seemed to be an endless stream of horrifying dreams; all set during one of the many raids he had been on; all twisted just enough to be absolutely horrifying. These dreams never lasted long – they woke him up. They woke him up with his heart racing. They woke him up with his body twisting and trashing in his bed. They also woke up the nurses who would then come and try to calm him before adjusting his dose of narcotics to send him back into oblivion.
“Jim,” said a mildly familiar voice he had come to understand was the ranking physician in the part of the hospital where he was, “we’re going to send you to Brooke Army Medical Center.”
Jim nodded understanding. It was all he could manage since he still couldn’t talk. The ventilator tube down his throat prevented him making any real vocalizations.
Other than the fact that he was in an Army hospital, he had no idea where he even was, or how long he’d been here. Sometimes he felt like he’d been sitting in this bed for weeks. Other times he wasn’t sure whether he hadn’t just arrived. The last actually clear idea he had was climbing into the truck and driving out of the compound up in Anbar.
“They have a team here to pick you and a few others up and take care of you on the flight. They’re finishing crew rest in the next hour or so, and will start loading everyone as soon as they’re cleared. You’ll be back in the states tomorrow.”
Jim nodded again. That meant he was either in Balad or Landstuhl. Probably Balad. If they had taken him to Landstuhl he had been completely out for the duration of the transport.
“I don’t know how much you’ve been able to gather while you’ve been here. You’ve been pretty out of your mind the whole time.”
Jim nodded again.
“Your convoy was caught by a diversionary road-block just outside the city, and your truck took a direct hit from a shaped charge. The driver and gunner were both killed.”
More dead people he could blame himself for. Had they not come to pick him up, the convoy would have been part of an earlier run that apparently had made it without incident.
“You have serious flash burns on most of your face. We don’t know how your vision will be until we remove the bandages, and that has to wait a while yet. The swelling in your throat will need to come down before they can take the ventilator out. Even then, it may be a while before you can start breathing on your own and speaking again.”
Jim nodded again. His face was about the only part of him that wasn’t protected by flame-resistant stuff when he’d last geared up. During his more lucid times, he had assumed something of that sort was responsible for the breathing tube and face-wrap. However, it was still crushing to have it confirmed. Up to this point he had been able to hope for something less dramatic.
“Your foot was crushed by something inside the vehicle when it flipped over, and it had to be amputated just below the knee.”
Amputated…How could his foot hurt so bad if it weren’t even there anymore. No, the doctor must have made a mistake, but there wasn’t any way he could communicate how bad it hurt.
“Ft. Sam has the best burn unit in the DoD, and the center for the intrepid will be open soon. There’s nowhere in the world better at taking care of injuries like yours.”
Rehab. Why bother? Why couldn’t they have just let him die? Why hadn’t K9 just let him do it when he had the nerve? Was there really anything worth living for at this point?
“They also have an excellent center for traumatic brain injury. We don’t know how hard you got hit, but given the descriptions of your vehicle the pararescueman gave when they dropped you off, we’re pretty sure you’ll be dealing with at least a mild case.”
Jim was crushed. He was clearly broken beyond repair. He would be marred the rest of his life, all because of this misadventure in the most God-forsaken region of hell. In spite of his best efforts to find some kind of redemption in this fight, all he had found was the worst and most evil dregs of human-kind running unrestrained while raping and pillaging the little that remained of humanity. But he stopped there… it took too much energy to try and arrange his thoughts. Everything was foggy, and it took enormous amounts of energy to get coherent thoughts to form. He could process what people were saying, but that was about it.
“You have a visitor, if you’re up to it. It’ll only be for a few minutes though.”
Who could possibly be here to visit him? He nodded his consent anyway.
“I’ll send him in,” he said, adding a pause before continuing, “You won’t see me again, so I’ll wish you good luck and a quick recovery.”
Good luck… What the hell did the doctor know about luck. Luck had abandoned him before he had left home. Luck had taken away everything he cared about and left him scarred in more ways than one. Luck, if it were to do anything for him now, couldn’t do more than end his misery in oblivion, but he didn’t even have that much of the mysterious stuff. He wanted to spit in the face of that doctor, but that was out of the question.
Jim sat quietly angry, incapable of doing anything else, and contemplated what he could remember of the last year. It wasn’t much, but what he could remember was all damning. The effort wore him out and he began fading away again.
“Shepherd,” a voice said from seemingly far away, “are you in there?”
There was a short pause.
“Sir, can you hear me?” it asked, and this time it seemed to come from much closer by.
Jim, suddenly aware of a hand on his, gave a squeeze of acknowledgment. It was K9’s voice, but K9 had never before used his call sign to his face. The formalism of rank had always gotten in the way of that kind of informal address. He had often heard the team using it among themselves, but only Warlock had ever used it to address him directly.
“I’m coming home with you. Looks like we’re going to be in this together for a while longer.”
Jim desperately wanted to ask what had happened to him and about Killroy and Cooter. K9 seemed to understand.
“I took a round to the thigh after we dismounted. Tore a big hole that the doc’s say will slow me down for a while. One of the boys from the convoy got a tourniquet on me just in time. I’ll be running 10Ks again soon though,” K9 laughed to himself, “no way they’re going to make a couch potato out of me. Cooter and Killroy are already back at the outpost. They didn’t even get a scratch.”
Jim tightened his grip on K9’s hand, trying to ask for more details.
“Killroy’s been put in for a sliver star. He’s the one that pulled you out of the burning truck after I went down. Cooter took over command as soon as the blast went off, and rumor is that he’ll be decorated too.”
Jim relaxed, hoping K9 understood his thanks.
“Sir,” K9 said somewhat uncertainly, “would you mind if I asked for the two of us to stay together once we get back to the states?”
Jim gave the hand as firm a squeeze as he could manage, and nodded. K9 was about the closest thing to family he had left.
“Do you know why we all decided to call you Shepherd?”
Jim shook his head. He had assumed it had something to do with the crayon-colored stick-figures of his dog that Sammie would include in every letter.
“It started with the stick-figure pictures, but by the time it stuck we all felt like you cared about everyone on the team. You always did your best to protect anyone you came across. You’re a natural shepherd. Can I call you that from now on? Can I treat you like a brother instead of a boss?”
Jim nodded, and he could feel tears well up in his bandaged eyes. He didn’t feel like he’d earned that particular brand of respect, but it still made him feel good to know at least a few of the team believed it. He was getting tired, but would fight that off as long as needed in order to give K9 a chance to finish what he had to say.
“Shepherd, I’ve got other things to say, but they’ll have to wait. I’m supposed to be getting my stuff together for the flight. I’ll see you in San Antonio.”
Jim gave the hand another squeeze, then faded away again.
The next time he was conscious, he could hear the distinct sound of the inside of a C17 transport plane. He felt like he was freezing, and there was pressure on his hip that was uncomfortable. He tried shifting his weight, only to realize he’d been strapped in. Immediately he heard the step of a nurse nearby.
“How bad is your pain? Squeeze once for mild, three for bad, and two for bearable.”
With as high as he had been for days now, he was used to the room spinning around, but the added motion of the airplane was making him seriously nauseous. The last thing he wanted at this point was another dose. His face and foot hurt quite a lot, but not so bad he wanted to be drugged any more. He squeezed the hand once.
“Is there something you need? Once for yes, twice for no.”
A single squeeze. How could he tell the attendant what was wrong? He couldn’t talk.
“Are you cold?” the nurse guessed.
A single squeeze.
“I’ll get you some more blankets. Anything else?”
A single squeeze.
“I know the litter’s are pretty awful. Is there something I can do to make it more comfortable?”
A single squeeze. The nurse was clearly well practiced at this game.
“Above the waist?”
“Pressure on your hip?”
“I’ll get some padding with the blankets.”
He disappeared for a moment and came back with a stack of warm blankets, using one to pad the offending area and the remainder to warm Jim up. Now more comfortable, Jim fell back into oblivion.
He’d been awake for several minutes, but couldn’t make out where he was. It was almost silent except for the sounds of the ventilator. He could also tell through the bandages and his closed eyelids that wherever he was, it was dark. He sat still, trying to pick up clues. Was he at Fort Sam Houston already? How long had he been unconscious?
He heard a light knock on the door and the handle rattle. A few footsteps followed, and a gentle hand was placed on his shoulder.
“Major Harwood,” she said just above a whisper, “are you awake?”
Jim nodded his head.
“Do you mind if I turn the lights on?”
He shrugged his shoulders. With his eyes bandaged over, he didn’t see how it could matter. She turned on the lights.
“I’m Doctor Mohammad, and I’ll be managing your care while you’re here with us.”
Jim didn’t respond. What difference did it make who was taking care of him?
“Can I take off the bandage on your head?”
Jim nodded consent. At this point, he was ready to see anything other than the back of his eyelids.
“If this hurts too badly, let me know,” she said as she began unwrapping his head. She didn’t say anything as she peeled away layer after layer of gauze. As she reached the final layers against his skin it began to stick, so she wet a sponge and used it to try and soften and loosen where it was sticking. It hurt intensely, and he was grimacing accordingly.
“It’s good that it hurts,” she said as she peeled the final layer away from his eyes. “That means there isn’t too much nerve damage. Can you open your eyes?”
Jim slowly blinked. The room was painfully bright as if he had just stepped out of a dimly lit room into full sunlight of a noon day. As his eyes adjusted he saw a diminutive woman in her thirties wearing a white lab coat and blue-green scrubs who had dark brown eyes, short dark brown hair, and perfectly straight and bright white teeth.
“Looks like they did an excellent job debriding this. Some of it will definitely scar pretty badly, but not as much as I had feared based on the notes in your chart. How’s your vision? Can you see me clearly?”
“Excellent,” she said, looking at his eyes through a scope. “Thank heaven for eye protection. You would have been blinded if your eyes had caught the same blast as the rest of your face. I think we can leave the bandages off for a while. And we don’t need to cover your eyes when we bandage you up again.”
Jim was grateful for that. Not being able to see had really impacted his perception of the world, and it was a relief to be able to see the faces of the people who were talking to him.
“It looks like the swelling in your airways may have started to go down,” she said, peering up his nostrils through the scope. “We may be able to get you off of this ventilator in a few days. Tomorrow, we’ll do a trial run for an hour and see how you do breathing on your own. If that goes well, we’ll start weaning you off of it immediately.”
She then moved to the foot of the bed and peeled back the blankets to expose his legs. For the first time, Jim saw that his right foot was missing from a few inches below the knee. In it’s place was a carefully bandaged stump. Jim looked away as the Doctor peeled away the bandages. He didn’t want to see the result.
“This is healing pretty well. I think they will start the process of fitting you for a prosthesis as soon as you are off the ventilator and self-mobile, but I’m not the expert there. That’s Doctor Franks, who will come see you in a few days.”
Jim steeled himself, then turned to look at the stump that had previously been the lower half of his shin and foot. It wasn’t nearly as gruesome as he had feared. The doctors had kept a large flap of skin and sown it over the stump with a long row of neat stitches.
“As for the burns, we’ll make a special splint to keep pressure on the burned parts of your face as soon as the ventilator comes out. The pressure will help limit the formation of thick scar tissue and keep you from losing mobility in your mouth.”
Great, Jim thought to himself, I’ll look like the phantom of the opera.
“We’ll start tapering down the sedation to improve your odds of going without the ventilator. If it gets too bad,” she said, handing him a push-button attached to the IV pump nearby, “press this button and the pump will automatically give you a small dose of medicine. You can push it as often as you like, but there is a limit to how much the system will deliver. Try to use it as little as possible.”
Jim nodded understanding, and reached for the controller. His hands were leaden, and it was all he could do to grasp the small object and set his hand down again. He was also beginning to have terrible difficulty following the conversation. The walls were moving, and the words periodically sounded like they were coming from inside a fish tank. Involuntarily, he closed his eyes and faded out once more.
The ventilator test had gone well, and by the following day the doctors had pulled the tube out of his throat. With the ventilator removed, they also were working to taper down the level of sedation, so Jim was aware of his surroundings more and more.
As soon as the ventilator had come out, they had replaced the bandages around his head with a piece of molded plastic that looked an awful lot like a hockey mask with an articulated chin and gel cushions on the inside of it. The pressure on the burns hurt quite a bit at first, but quickly the touch of the mask became preferable to having the skin exposed.
Assessing what he could from where he lay, he decided he was likely in an intensive care unit where nurses or residents came and went constantly. Every few hours, a nursing student would come in and ask a series of questions, followed a few minutes later by the real nurse, then the medical students on rotations, then the resident, and finally the supervising physician. This never-ending string of questions highly irritated him. First, his throat hurt and his voice was raspy from being intubated for so long. It hurt to talk, and that kind of hurt was about the only pain he could avoid by any means other than narcotics. Second, he honestly couldn’t remember the answers to many of the questions they asked.
They kept asking what happened. They asked how long he’d been unconscious after the accident. They asked questions he wished he could remember but couldn’t. They also asked questions like the last thing he could remember before the accident, and those were memories that were his, and his alone. He wasn’t about to tell some dumb medical student what he’d been thinking of when the world went black. Third, the last thing in the world he wanted right now was to be around a bunch of people. Why couldn’t they just record his damn answers the first time he gave them and replay them for the next group? That way they could bother him once, then leave him the hell alone. It wasn’t like his story was going to change in the fifteen minutes between visitors.
One of these processions had just come to an end, and Jim was grumbling to himself about the interruption, when he heard another knock at the door.
“What?” Jim asked angrily, if somewhat tiredly.
“Staff Sergeant Kelnhoffer wants to visit with you if you are up to it,” said a young Senior Airman who Jim knew worked in the ward.
“Sorry. I thought you were another doctor trainee,” Jim apologized sheepishly. “Let him come in.”
She pushed open the door and wheeled K9 into the room.
“They told me only family could come visit up here,” K9 said as he got nearer to Jim’s bed. “I told them we were brothers and Senior Airman Gomez here seemed to understand.”
Jim pushed the button that raised the head of the bead so he could be mostly upright.
“Aside from my parents,” Jim answered, “you’re the only family I have within 1500 miles.”
“Not quite. Monkey is around here too somewhere. Haven’t found him yet, but I will. You look like hell Shepherd.”
“They tell me it looks like raw hamburger underneath this mask,” Jim said as he turned to look at K9. He was in a wheelchair, and was missing his left leg with just a short stump extending below the hip. “I thought you said you would be running 10Ks?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. More likely I’ll do marathons. You know, they’ve got these racing wheelchairs that can really move. Either that, or we work together… between the two of us, we have a complete set of legs.”
Jim was almost shocked at how glib K9 was being. He couldn’t help but wonder if it was a just a show put on for his benefit.
“How do you do it?”
“Be happy? With all we’ve been through, only to end up here on the island of broken toys.”
“Practice,” K9 answered. “This isn’t my first round. You and I have a long road ahead of us, and there will be plenty of time for philosophy along the way.”
“Have they talked to you about a prosthetic yet?” Jim asked. He was curious how long it would be before he could start that process, and was hopeful that K9 had already started down that road.
“Yeah. Basically, I have a choice between hanging a tree stump from my stump, using crutches, or riding in a wheel chair. There aren’t many good options for anything much more than walking. They say they should have it built in a few weeks, and I’ll start therapy with it as soon as it’s ready. How about you?”
“Nothing yet,” Jim answered downcast. “They just took me off the ventilator last night. Hopefully they’ll release me from solitary into general population now that I can breathe on my own.”
“Are your parents here?” K9 asked
“They arrived late yesterday. Staying at the Fisher House on Lackland. One here is full I guess,” Jim said. He was starting to have trouble talking. The muscles in his face hurt, and the skin around his mouth seemed to be on fire. He pressed the pain button, and the now familiar sensation swept over him as his attention span narrowed tremendously.
“Have they held the funerals yet?”
“They going to hold off until you can make it?”
“I’d like to be there with you.”
“Hang in there with me shepherd. Don’t let this gimped-up leg of mine deceive you. I’ve seen three-legged dogs do some amazing things, and if they can do it, so can I. I’m in there with you for the long-haul.”
“Will do. You look tired. I’ll come see you again tomorrow.”