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The enemy and combat medicine: Doc is just doing his job.

Updated: Feb 29

There is a very real dichotomy that exists in combat medicine. The idea of saving the life of the same person who just tried to kill you is very interesting. Many of us who walked the walk always imagined saving our buddies on the battlefield in heroic “Saving Private Ryan” fasion. What most of us didn't imagine or think about is if we came across a wounded enemy.  

I’ll never forget my first time standing over an insurgent after a gun fight. I was a brand new E-4 with the 101st Airborne Division in Iraq. We had just gotten ambushed in an open field and had a shootout with insurgents. We even had a high-speed chase through the village with a mushroom cloud explosion finale when the lead gunner hit the gas tank of the truck full of insurgents we were chasing.

This is a good time to mention I didn't fire my weapon at all during this fight. I spent the initial contact running for cover and taking direction from the guys who knew what they were doing. As I sat in the rear driver side seat of an eleven fourteen catching my breath, I waited for the inevitable. The one thing every doc holds their breath and white knuckles for during a firefight...”MEDIC!”. 

I jumped out of the eleven fourteen and slung my doomsday bag over my shoulder, the thoughts began racing through my mind faster than I was through the field and to the sound of my teammates. Who was it and how bad were they hurt? I hate to say it, but as doc, we do have favorites. The ones we never want to see wounded.  

As I came to the scene of the fight, I could see my team standing in a circle with my platoon leader drawing his weapon at the ground with a snarl on his face. I passed through the line of teammates, breathing in the thick dense air that tasted like brass, gunpowder and burning leaves and saw a lone Iraqi man . He was laid out flat on his back, mouth open and squinting from the sun beating down on his face. He was speaking to our terp and taking large deep breaths in between. I tossed my bag down and took a knee beside him and heard my PL shout, “Philly! Tell this mother fucker if he makes one move on my medic, I’ll blow his fucking head off!”.  It felt like a thousand degrees from the heat of the smoldering bongo truck that was just twenty to thirty feet away. The first thing I thought was, “Thank god. It's not one of my teammates." This was followed by the second thought; "Holly shit! How is this guy still alive?”. 

It’s hard to describe the feelings that came next. Going from panic, to adrenaline, to blood lust, to panic again, to relief and then mercy is kind of a strange experience. Since describing that whirlwind of emotions is a bit complicated, I’ll describe my patient instead. He had three gunshot wounds through his upper right chest, one through his right arm, a nearly eviscerated lower leg from a fifty caliber machine gun, a missing piece of his right ass cheek from an M67 grenade and, oh yeah, second degree burns from getting lit on fire after we hit the gas tank of the vehicle he was hiding behind. Nothing much, right? 

I did as I was trained to do. I treated my patient. I stopped all life-threatening hemorrhages, secured all interventions and then directed how to effectively transport this man to the next echelon of care to patrol base Olson in Samarra. Let me tell you, this guy was no pussy. Not once did he cry out in pain, and I was putting it on him. They say it’s a medic’s job to brutally save lives, but I went the extra mile that day.  

This mother fucker just tried to kill me. I had rounds zipping by my face when him and his buddies started shooting at us from that bongo truck. He made every effort to kill me and my teammates just minutes before. Now, I was supposed to make sure this guy was, okay? Like fucking seriously? As luck would have it, I found him ineligible for morphine. Since my initial assessment involved finding him lying on the ground and I “wasn’t sure how he got there”, I could only assume he may have a serious head injury. Do no harm, right?

To this day I can’t believe that man lived. I still think about him at least once every day. I was even cited for this incident in one of my medals from Iraq. I can’t even put into words the hate behind the mercy he received that day. It’s hard to describe how you did the most noble thing with the upmost malice you’ve ever had in your life, but I did.  

As we left patrol base Olson that morning, I was walking tall. That was my first real back and forth firefight and I even saved a man’s life. I felt like a real fucking soldier for the first time. This was my first real test as “Doc” and my whole team got to see me save a guy who was torn up as bad as torn up gets. This guy was shot to pieces, lit one fire, had an eviscerated limb and was hit with a frag. After all that, I still came through and saved my guy. I got contacted, treated my patient and saved him. I was legit now, right?  

Any high feelings I had were all about to come crashing down, however. As incredible as the whole thing still felt, I wasn’t sure if my team would approve. Would they be proud that their medic saved someone with such severe life-threatening injuries, or would they be pissed at me for waisting supplies and saving an insurgent?  

When we got back to our FOB, we did the usual after-action review. Everyone was still high on adrenaline and every person who fired their weapon made sure to make it known. The only exception was Michael, the guy who did all the killing. He stayed pretty quiet for the whole thing. I don’t think I ever heard him talk about it again except maybe once.

As I listened to our staff sergant chuckle and give the AAR he got to the part where we captured a wounded enemy and said, “...then, the fucking medic did his thing. God damn, Doc, I can’t believe you saved that guy”, shaking his head back and forth and rolling his eyes. That’s when I knew the platoon wasn’t impressed with anything I did that day. If they were, they definitely weren't letting me know. Nothing but eye's that looked straight at the ground and avoided me completely. This is when I knew I was still "the medic", not "doc". No approval here. Not today.  

If you want hugs, kisses and approval; the military probably isn't the place for you anyway.

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