To put a finer point on it, our collective desire to avoid slight dis-ease, compounds other’s suffering.
I was contemplating this idea recently and it hit me very strongly that one of my defining stories is really a story of compassion. It is a story about understanding how I contributed to suffering in an acute, heart wrenching way. I am proud to say that I was a United States Marine (USMC) for 8 years. The Marine Corps had a profound effect on my life and I loved being a Marine. So much so that I really didn’t conceive of a Carl outside the Marine Corps. It was my calling. To accelerate the story, the USMC was putting me through college when Iraq invaded Kuwait. I was serving with the 4th Light Armored Infantry Battalion at the time we got the call to deploy to Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm.
I was coming off duty supporting some patrols when I hear this loud explosion – obviously a bomb of some sort. In the Light Armored Infantry, we basically act as a quick reaction or attack force using light armor (small tank-like vehicles). They are small (in comparison to a tank), very fast and deadly accurate. But, this wasn’t the sound of the 25mm cannon that commands the center of the LAV’s profile. I was the NCO (non-commissioned officer) in charge of the mobile combat operations center (essentially I managed the vehicles and crew of the two LAV C2’s from which the Battalion Executive Officer managed the forward operations – the Commanding Officer was usually forward with the main force). A LAV comes across the desert from the FEBA (forward edge of the battle area) toward us at extreme speed, passes us and continues down to our base. I follow.
In the back of that LAV was a young Marine who had been disemboweled by an Iraqi grenade. He was taken swiftly into a make shift operating room where a Navy surgeon went to work. So did I. As the senior communications person on site, I got on the radio with the Executive Officer with a quick situation report. He was already aware of the incident and instructed me to get the kid’s blood type from his dog tags. Off I go back into the medical tent.
I approach the tent and the Marine’s screams grow from a low rumble to an ear-splitting cry. Unfortunately, my yell can barely be heard above the combined screams and commotion of Corpsmen and the doctor trying to help. I’m nearly frozen by the scene itself – a seemingly primal and constant scream, blood and entrails all over, every one rushing around panicked, a doctor with both hands inside a young man – despite being trained to act in chaos. I rifle through some clothes taken from the Marine on the side of the tent. No tags. Again brain freeze…. I yell my request again to deaf ears. Finally, my training kicks in. I essentially jump to the table from where I was standing. I reach around the doctor, pull back some hair, locate the dog tags still around his neck and read the blood type – A positive. No one reacts as I swirl or become part of the chaos.
Back outside the tent, all I can think of is the scream (I’m not far enough away to not hear it) and A positive, A positive, A positive… I get on the radio and call in the medevac. All of that probably took 5 minutes. It felt like 5 hours. medevac is in the air immediately with the blood and another Navy combat surgeon. Before I can really think about it, I hear the thump, thump, thump of a Marine Corps helicopter. What I don’t hear… What I don’t hear is the Lance Corporal’s screams. I thought I still heard them. They were in my head. But, the sound of the helicopter aroused me from my shock to a sad silence. Not exactly silence – but an absence.
The young Marine died minutes before the medevac landed. They loaded him into the medevac – all the while trying to revive him. He never did.
Now, it’s really hard to tell how you’ll react to such things prior to them happening. I was dazed. I walked around in a fog for a couple of days. But, things moved on. And, of course, I found myself doing my job and doing it well. The incident with the Iraqi grenade came before I had to fully deploy my skills in combat. On those days ahead, while I did my job supporting combat operations – calling in close air support and artillery – I could never get that scream out of my head. It continued to echo within my body.
I couldn’t separate him from them. I couldn’t separate the screams of a young Marine from the Iraqi’s that were on the business end of a Marine Expeditionary Unit. I couldn’t erase his face from the faces of Iraqi’s.
The first Gulf War was thankfully quite short. There were only a few real battles of note. So, I didn’t have to be constantly confronted with this essentially existential crisis. Sitting at my mother’s kitchen table, I finally completely lost it. Just sobbing a pitiful, body writhing, crawl up in the fetal position cry. Not just sorrow, regret – even horror – but also a complete loss of identity. An acute sense of compassion for the enemy meant I couldn’t be a Marine anymore. The deep sense of compassion for an enemy combatant was surprising and uncontrollable. Even if it were, I couldn’t contemplate who I would have to become if I worked to rid myself of it.
And, it is the sole reason I left the Marine Corps.