Saturday, May 31, 2014

In Memory of a Fallen Hero

I originally published this a while back, but some things are worth repeating....

I was twenty-one and stationed at a small Air Force hospital in the city of Bitburg, then part of West Germany. As a medical administrative specialist, part of my job description was to provide on-call, after-hour support to the Emergency Room.

It was late one night, about 11:30, when my beeper went off. It was cold and wet as I left my warm, comfortable apartment to walk the quarter mile to the rambling, one-story hospital with its endless black and white tiled floor.

Even in my half-sleep state, I was aware that the emergency room was not in it's usual chaos. There were two reasons my department was called in at night, the emergency transfer of a patient or if a patient dies. It occurred to me at that moment, no one was being transferred. The sergeant behind the desk smiled at me as I walked into the room, he probably saw death all the time. I didn't, especially not after being asleep for an hour.

In silence, he led me down the corridor with its flickering incandescent lights. As we entered the large room, the sergeant pulled back a curtain and the other med tech nodded to me.

The sleep in my eyes quickly disappeared. Before me lay a man, really a boy younger than myself, his army uniform in tact, his eyes open, a look of surprise on his gray face.

"Do you want me to tag him?" The sergeant interrupted my stupor.

My eyes not leaving the boy's face, I nodded, "Thanks." Until that time, I had never seen a dead body except at funerals.

"Okay,  but you have to witness." The sergeant nodded to the other tech as they began to search pockets for personal effects.

Thinking I needed to do something besides just stand there, I moved closer to the body. He had sandy hair, his eyes were green and by then, glassy. I couldn't resign myself to his being dead, that is, until I saw it, there in his chest, where his heart would be. It was an open chest wound, about the circumference of a softball, already congealed with blood.

"He didn't feel a thing," the sergeant reassured me. "No," said the other technician. "The missile hit his heart and he died instantly."

"What happened?" My eyes still transfixed on the gaping wound.

"It was an accident. The guy was operating a crane, moving hawk missiles when one of the brackets broke causing the load to fall. The nose of the missile slid into his chest."

"Oh my God," was all I could say.

"That's nothing, you should have seen him..." but he paused, no more words came as he pulled a folded piece of paper out of the boy's pocket.

"What is it?" the sergeant asked.

"It's a letter," was all the technician said as he unfolded it.

As the sergeant and I waited, he read over the letter, a sudden sadness shadowing his face. "Oh no."

"What?" A sudden, solemn respect seemed to fall over the room.

"Serg, check this out," he said as he began reading the letter.

"Hi Gina, I've missed you, too. Hey, don't worry about the baby. We'll figure it out when I get home. Just don't let Bobby give you shit about it. We'll have a long talk, him and I. Can't believe the way he's acting. But listen, it's only a few more weeks and then I'll be home. Just don't do anything stupid, okay? Hey, gotta go. Tell Mom and Dad I said 'Hi.' Love you, Michael." That was it, the end of the note.

As I wiped my eyes, I noticed the technician quickly turn away. The sergeant's eyes were misty as he handed me the paperwork.

"Here you go, Ingrid. Is that all you need?" I nodded and went to my office to type up the death certificate, five copies interlaced with carbon paper. Tears falling respectfully down my face, it took everything I had to complete that document.

As I laid in bed, my job done, sleep was a long time in coming. My thoughts kept returning to Michael and Gina and I wondered what she would do now without her brother's help. But most of all, I thought how terribly sad it was that such a nice guy should die so young.

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