By Dustin Wisdom
Our mission was to set up a checkpoint for the Afghan local police. There was a hill situated in the middle of the village by the name of Lam. It was a strategic location for the US to hold down. The Taliban had been using it as a thoroughfare for the past 10 years fighting the coalition forces. My team infiltrated the area in early September. We were to set up and establish a local Afghan police force and, from there, expand and keep expanding, securing the area from the local Taliban. But that was the problem; they were local. That’s the thing most Americans don’t realize, those local “thugs” weren’t doing it for a global cause, for a so-called Jihad, they were doing it for a paycheck. If they set in an I.E.D. and it went off on a coalition member, they’d make about 800 US dollars. Compared to what they made on the poppy field, which was their biggest income, that was huge bank. October 13 2011, was a major bank day for a local Taliban commander.
In the previous months, my team and I had air assaulted into Lam to conduct raids, and shuras. A shura is a local gathering of local elders: talk about what is going on, how to gain control of the area, in a positive manner, and change things for the good on the local level. Remember, most of these cats thought we were Russians. They had no idea who Americans are. How to win over the locals? Money. The 24-hour long ops left us with many questions unanswered. Most didn’t want us there; few sought our help. The local Afghan mountain man just wants to be left alone. We as Americans think too much, seek too much, ask for too much, and think we know too much. The local Afghan is stuck securely in his own little world. What is in his “ops box” is what he can control. That is all that matters to him. That’s how it’s been for thousands of years. But at the same time, we are Christians, they are Muslims, who were they going to listen to? A fellow Muslim, or a foreign Christian? With the money as an incentive, of course they would pick the latter. Wouldn’t you? Picture yourself in their shoes, in their state of mind. Who is the criminal? A foreign invader, or a fellow tribesman?
Lam was situated in a valley nestled along a dry riverbed butted up against steep mountainsides to the north and south. In the valley were a series of little villages that followed the dry river, but because of the drought, had little to suffice on. We were about 75 miles north of Kandahar, in a place no Americans had been. We set up shop in the out skirts of Lam in a compound taken over by the local Afghan police. The guys we brought with us were from this area, it was like a reunion, as the Taliban had kicked them out several years before. We brought them back. But really all we did was bring back another warlord; only difference was they were on our side. In the weeks following we got an Infantry unit attached to us for normal security reasons. Got in a few good fire fights, killed a couple of Taliban, and made a name for ourselves. We got rocketed once, but nothing significant because the rockets went streaking overhead.
Anyways, we were there to expand right? October 13 was the day- it was settled. We were to move by vehicle and by foot to a location approximately 2 kilometers west of our VSO spot, and set up a checkpoint on a major road that connected the Ghorak district to the Khakrez district. This road was vital; it transported IEDs to outlying districts: Arghandahb, Kandahar, everywhere. We were there to stop all that. The convoy was made up of about 4 vehicles, a bobcat, myself, the captain, my engineer and the dog handler with dog up front. We were leading a convoy of the regular infantry unit, clearing a path. I was out front in case something went off, so I could react fast. I was the Special Forces Medic of the team. There are two slots for an Operation Detachment Alpha, but I was the only medic on this team. That meant I went on every mission; I treated every patient. Up to this day, I had the most MEDEVACs of the entire SOTF-South combined. I had over 100 of them. Medevac means someone is seriously injured, whether from a gunshot, explosion, anything you can think of, and I had to make a decision to call in a helicopter to evacuate them to a hospital, usually in Kandahar. You had to be seriously injured to get a helo out. It seemed like every day something was going down. Most of the injuries I was treating were caused by IEDs: limbs shattered, pieces of the body blown away. Just mangled limbs, sometimes it was like looking at a jigsaw puzzle and wondering how in the hell I could piece this together to look somewhat human? And the thing that sticks most about those types of patients was the moon dust covering them. Afghanistan was covered in a fine layer of dust, and when the explosion would go off, it would cover the patient. They would come to me covered in this blanket of sand, blood stained, reeking of body odor, blood, everything you can imagine, and the patients weren’t clean. They were filthy. The smell will always stick with me. I will always taste it. Anyways, I was on my A game if you will when it came to treating the most serious injured. Not something I was proud of at all. Something sad about it all was the more patients I treated, the more emotional I found myself. How could I let anyone see me like this? I would find a secret place and have myself a good smoke and cry. How else to deal with this nonsense?
October 12th will always haunt me as well. A normal day, the Afghan police were driving one of their non-up-armored pickup trucks across a field about a kilometer and a half outside of the wire when boom, they hit an IED. We had no idea, we just heard it. I grabbed my Aid bag, got on a golf cart and rode out. The golf cart was being driven by my fellow teammate, and he managed to get the damn thing high centered on a rock. I jumped out; by this time I could see the mangled truck. It was about a kilometer out ahead of me. I ran as fast as I could, running through a mine field to get to my buddies, these guys had saved my life not only a week prior. I owed them the world for what they had to done for me. I was scared shitless of the mines, but the love was more than anything, I was their “doc”. They expected me. When I got to the truck, the oldest man in the passenger side was taking his last breath. I looked out for the other one, a big old Afghan who was cut in half laying about 20 meters from the truck- dead. I turned to the only survivor, a man we called Saddam. He had a badass mustache and looked exactly like the dictator of Iraq. He was phenomenal. After the blast, he had got out and started walking back to the base. I caught up to him and laid him down. He was missing the right side of his face. He had multiple lacerations and puncture wounds to his body and arms and legs. He kept asking me for water, something I didn’t have. I went to work immediately. At the same time, my teammate had gotten the golf cart unstuck, and we loaded Saddam up and brought him to my pseudo-aid station where, within 2 hours, we were able to evacuate him by helicopter. No idea what happened to him. The two dead guys we had to keep in our freezer for a week, where we kept our food, before a helicopter would come out and pick up remained of them. After Saddam was medevac’d, I found a safe place and cried. I was emotional, why was this happening? This deployment was the longest for a Special Forces team since Vietnam. Now I’m not taking anything away from any Vietnam Veteran. Those guys endured so much, but I had it up to the hilt with blood and gore, and mangled bodies, and screams of Allah, and screams of Christ, and for mothers. I was tired of it.
We cleared a path all the way to the hill. Parked all the trucks at the base of it and the majority of us took the relax time to grab some chow. Our dog handler and dog and our team engineer went up to the top of the hill to clear it. They found nothing. I had just invented a new MRE: I mixed two different kinds, a hamburger with a Mexican macaroni and cheese, it tasted exactly like homemade hamburger helper. It was incredible. As I was sharing it with the rest of the guys, showing off, that’s when the bomb went off not fifty meters from us. I ducked instinctively, looked up and realized I was fine. But I knew deep down inside someone was not. I took off immediately after the smoke. The first person I came across was the captain of my team. He was bleeding from his face and neck, but he told me he was ok and to go and look after Ski. He was walking and talking, I knew I had more patients. I was in the triage phase; he was hurt, but going to make it. I ran further on to a huge hole in the ground. When I looked down there was a body there, covered completely in moon dust. What was left of the legs were sticking out of the hole. I initially thought this person was dead, but then he spoke to me. “Doc, I’m hurt, ain’t I?” I was taken aback, what the fuck! “Doc, my legs are gone huh?” “Yeah buddy, just wait, I’ll get you outta there.” I grabbed the tourniquets out of my pockets and started putting them on Ski’s mangled legs. He was missing both legs: both had been taken off at the knee. He had part of his shinbone still attached, it was clean, no meat on it, sticking out. I got both tourniquets on and with the help of another soldier; we dragged him up out of the 3-foot hole. I rolled him over doing my initial check, noticing major trauma to his right arm. I applied another tourniquet, and seeing massive trauma to his back side, I stuffed as much gauze as I could to keep him from losing blood. This all seemed like an eternity to me. I wanted to scream out, I was done, and I was through, why? Everyone around me was losing their minds. How could this happen to their buddy? They were crying and shooting wildly. I was treating Ski and yelling at them to cool it, calm down. Ski didn’t need to see this. I remember this one infantry kid coming up to me, “Doc, you gotta check my buddy, Sancho.” I replied, “Alright brother, where is he at?” “He’s over there.” I rechecked Ski, I had done what I could at that moment, knowing he wasn’t bleeding anymore, and I took the time to move onto another patient, to render care. I stood up, took my top off and ran to the area the kid had pointed, got to the edge of the hill and looked down. I saw a body lying on his side facing away from me. I ran the 20 meters down the steep hillside; Specialist Jeremiah Thor Sancho was lying dead at the bottom of the hill. He was lying there, on his left side; I grabbed his right shoulder and rolled him over, and realized there was nothing I could do for him. Nothing at all. He had sustained injuries to his head, his arms, his legs, and his torso. In other words- he died quick. I left him there with our dog handler, instructing him to place Sancho in a body bag before the infantry kids could see him. They didn’t need to see their buddy like this. I went back to Ski.
Prior to leaving Ski, I had asked for a litter to be brought up. What was brought was a thin backboard. I placed Ski on it, and what was left of his mangled legs was sprawled out over the board, I had another soldier try and wrap with gauze, his legs to the board. When we would lift Ski and set him down, part of his mangled legs would get pinched underneath the board, and he would scream out in pain. It broke my heart. I had enough narcotics on hand. I hit him with everything from injectable morphine to fentanyl lollipops, still nothing calmed the pain he felt. He was starting to cry for his little boys at this time, something I told him to keep a hold of. In my mind though, he wasn’t going to make it. He had sustained too much trauma. I couldn’t get an I.V. started in his arm due to the severe loss of blood. I had to put a needle in his sternum. To give one of these, you have a big tool that has about ten needles in a circle. When used, equal pressure has to be applied to these needles to ensure the middle one fires into the bone. It’s a lot harder than it looks- a lot of pressure has to be applied. Once I was able to get the needle set, I started pumping as much fluid as possible, to increase his blood pressure, something he did not have. I knew that if I could not get his blood pressure to come up, he wouldn’t make it. Once I got the fluids running I took my time, found a spot on his arm that I knew there was a vein and got another IV started. At this time, I needed to pump as much fluid as possible to keep this soldier alive while he was screaming to see his kids once more. We picked up Ski and moved him down the hill through multiple IEDs, not one going off. We got him to the bottom of the hill as the birds came in. One bird was for my 3 patients and me and another bird was for Spc. Sancho who was wrapped up in a body bag. Dead. Spc. Sancho was a kid. He was a curious soldier, he was a brave soldier, and he was a mortar man (11C). I didn’t really get to know him, but what I did know of him was impressive. He wanted nothing more than to bring the fight to the enemy and make it back to his wife.
Normally when we sustain patients, the flight medics arrive and take the patients off our hands. This time was different. These patients were dear to me. They were mine. I got on the bird with them. I had to keep Ski alive during the 40-minute trip to the hospital. He deserved it. He was awake the entire time. I will never forget it. I don’t recall how many times I lost Ski that flight. I don’t know how many times I brought him back. I remember looking into his eyes, tears flowing, emotions running, listening to him ask for his kids and mother, me asking God for anything to help this kid. Somehow, he made it to the hospital. When the helicopter landed there was a horde of people waiting for us. I helped drag Ski off the bird and onto a waiting vehicle. We were transported to the hospital where more soldiers and doctors awaited us. Upon arrival I was held back at the door, and asked to remove the knife from my belt. I was shocked, but I had to listen to the kid asking me this. He didn’t know who I was, hell neither did I. I had a 6-inch beard, hair down below my ears, no army top on, and blood covering me head to toe. I looked like a local national. So I surrendered my knife. I walked into the ER and was immediately surrounded by nurses and doctors. They kept asking me if I were the medic who was on site. I replied, “yes.” They wanted to know exactly what went down “out there.” I told them the simple truth. We were setting up a checkpoint for the local Afghan police when a bomb exploded. One was killed and three were injured. They kept telling me how tremendous of a job I had done bringing in Ski still alive. I did not want to hear any of that. I just wanted to ensure he was in good hands. The doctors ended up sedating Ski, something he needed; he was going through too much pain, something I could not control. He was wheeled up to surgery real quick. My battalion doctor, Maj. Barstow, a phenomenal guy, was by my side the entire time. He knew what us 18Ds faced; he knew what I went through. I made my way through the crowd and outside to find a secure area to have a smoke. Doc Barstow found me. He knew I was on the edge. He put his arm around me and showed me a kindness that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I lost it. I cried so hard, the hardest I have cried in my entire life. I was through. I was done with the blood, the guts, the endless calling for mothers; I was emotionally spent. I was done. At least I thought. This was not the end and I knew that. But I still had a good old-fashioned cry in this man’s arms amongst spectators. I didn’t care, they were crying too. They saw the bloodshed; they saw me covered in it. I felt pity for these people, all they see is bloodshed and torn up American soldiers. Yeah, I saw my share of the same blood and gore they have seen, but at least I got the chance to deal some lead to the enemy, something they will never experience. That was my outlet- shooting at people and killing them.
Ski was eventually shipped out of country to Germany, then onto Walter Reed in Maryland. Currently he is there with this mother. He has started to walk on his own, with prosthetics of course, but the doctors were able to save his right arm, leaving him with legs above the knees, and missing most of his ass cheeks. He has come a long way. I caught a bird as soon as possible back to my team, I was their only medic, and they needed me. We went on to a fighting season during the winter that was the worst in years. The Taliban went on a major offensive to get rid of us. Unfortunately, Ski was not my last patient. I lost more. Some die, some live. But who wants to live? War is hell. Whoever tells you that it is heroic or incredible or awesome to get shot at or blown up has never been engaged in any way themselves. See, I have seen a lot. I was a sniper during the invasion into Ramadi, Iraq from 2005 to 2006, and a Special Forces Medic in Southern Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. I’ve seen it all, and though most of the experiences I’ve dealt with and witnessed and seen doesn’t really bother me. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’m just that different. But what I think is, PTSD is something claimed by soldiers who wanted nothing more than to witness battle first hand: shooting, screaming, themselves doing something heroic, but never afforded that opportunity. When that soldier came home, it was all lies, and we all know one lie leads to another lie. Because seriously, are we fighting for the freedom of Americans? No, we are not. We fight because it’s cool to do. It’s something every boy grows up wishing- most boys anyways. There is nothing in that country worth dying for freedom over, only dying for his fellow battle buddy, that is all. What a huge conspiracy. What a bunch of lies. Oh well, I got mine. I enjoyed it as much as I hated it.