Authors: Bob Blink
Private Jake Waters woke to momentary confusion and disorientation. The comfortable warmth of the drugged sleep he’d been in quickly gave way to pain and despair as he recalled where he was and what had happened. It had been more than twenty-four hours since he’d first woken to his new reality; more than thirty-six since the attack had actually taken place. The last time he’d come out of his drug induced sleep he’d learned about the explosion that had placed him here. He’d been in considerable pain even after the surgeries that had saved his life, but which left him forever changed. Upon learning of his condition, he’d become agitated and despondent, and they’d increased the dosage to put him back under. Now he was awake once again.
His eyes roamed around the medical tent in which he was located. It hurt too much to physically move his head or body more than the smallest fraction of an inch. Afghanistan. He was nearly through his tour of duty in this forsaken hole, with less than six weeks to go. And now this! He felt the tears of hopelessness roll down his cheeks once again. He wished they would medicate him again so he could escape the horrible reality. It was supposed to be the other guy who got hit, not him.
The bags of solution, one clear and the other brownish, hung from racks on either side of his cot, the transparent plastic tubes extending down and snaking under the blankets where they eventually found the needles that penetrated his arms and into his veins. He assumed one was some kind of medicine, probably a general purpose antibiotic with painkillers and the other was some kind of nutrient. He hadn’t eaten anything since before the incident.
Incident! What a way to think of it. The incident was a major screw up that shouldn’t have happened and which meant he would never live the life he’d been dreaming about for the last month as he looked forward to going home. He’d be headed home alright, but not the way he’d planned. They’d probably ship him to Germany for a while, and then when he was somewhat better, he’d be sent back to the States. There wouldn’t be much for him there. His parents had been gone for a number of years, and his only sibling, an estranged sister, wouldn’t care what had happened. He wouldn’t even have them inform her of the attack. What would be the purpose? Instead of going back and finishing college as he planned, he would be spending the next year or two in some kind of rehab somewhere. Afterwards, he assumed there would be an afterwards but had trouble envisioning what it might be like, he’d have to find something to do. Shit!
His one uncovered eye detected movement at the far end of the row of cots. The left eye was covered with a heavy gauze bandage after they had extracted a bit of metal from alongside the socket. The doctor had told him yesterday he would more than likely be able to use it eventually, although his vision on that side would probably be degraded. Great! He could add that damage to the broken right arm, the numerous cuts, abrasions, and shrapnel wounds that covered his torso. The worst, of course, were his legs. Both of them were gone. The left had been amputated by the blast just below the knee, and the right was missing up to mid thigh. He could still feel the missing toes, but had only to look down at the flat blanket where his legs should be to realize they were no longer there.
“You’re awake,” Lieutenant Stein observed as he walked over to where Jake was lashed to the bed by the numerous tubes and wires that were being used to feed, medicate and monitor him.
Stein was an Army nurse and along with ten others like himself was responsible for the care of the recovering wounded in this medical tent. He’d been present the day before when Waters had come to after his surgery, and knew the young private was in shock at what had happened to him. He’d seen it all before, and knew the poor man was going to take a long time to reconcile the damages to his body and the changes he would have to adapt to.
“How are you feeling?” Stein asked as he moved alongside the cot and checked the drips and the monitor positioned above the bed for Jake’s vital signs. “Your vitals are surprisingly good given the surgery wasn’t very long ago. That’s a good sign. I think you will be recovering more quickly than most.”
“How long before I grow new legs?” Jake asked nastily. He wasn’t pleased with the upbeat attitude of the lieutenant. He wasn’t ready to look at the positive side of much of anything.
Stein wasn’t bothered by Jake’s remark. He’d been greeted with worst. He suspected he would react similarly if something like this happened to him.
“I know you are depressed at the moment, but as you adjust to the situation and consider what others have been able to accomplish who have been even more severely wounded, I think you’ll be alright. The artificial limbs these days are quite remarkable.”
Jake wanted to lash out, but didn’t have the energy. He also wanted information. Perhaps the lieutenant could provide some insight into what had happened. He had missed the attack beyond a few moments of screaming agony and then darkness.
“How many?” he asked.
Lieutenant Stein looked down at Private Waters. “Ten killed, and fifteen wounded,” he said finally. “Three of the wounded were severe like yourself, and are here in this recovery area. Most of those killed and wounded are from the unit you were with, but several from the reinforcements that arrived to help chase off the attackers. The dead include your Sergeant.”
So Sergeant Jacobs finally bought the farm. There were those who said the man was indestructible. Jake had seen him walk into the line of fire and pull someone’s ass out of trouble and never get a scratch. He could hardly believe the man had been killed.
“Who?” Jake asked.
Lieutenant Stein listed the names of the killed and wounded. Several were good friends, but most were men he knew casually or not at all.
“Smith and Carter are across the way,” Stein said after listing the names. He pointed across the room and by painfully adjusting his position Jake could see where he was pointing. He recognized Carter’s red hair and freckled face sleeping on the pillow. Smith was so bandaged he could have been anyone. “The rest have been treated and discharged, or are in another tent for less severely wounded.”
“Sir, are they going to be okay?” he asked indicating the two men across the way, surprised he gave a damn about anyone else’s condition at the moment.
“Like yourself, they both have some mending to do, but both are expected to live,” Stein informed him.
“What exactly happened,” Jake asked, returning to the subject of the attack.
“Apparently the enemy managed to get in very close to the base,” Stein explained. “They planted a pair of IEDs that caught the vehicle your Sergeant was riding in as well as the one you were in. After the explosions, a large group that was hiding along the road attacked.”
“When was this?” Jake asked. He’d lost all sense of time.
“Wednesday at 1510. The Sergeant was on the radio with the base when it happened so they have the time exactly. It occurred just short of two and a half kilometers from the base.”
“That’s damn close. The enemy isn’t supposed to be able to get that close without being observed.”
“That’s probably why everyone’s guard was down a little. Fortunately, we had another force nearby and they were able to come and help chase off the attackers. Most of the attackers were killed, but a few were able to slip away.”
Across the way, one of the wounded soldiers started screaming in his sleep. Lieutenant Stein turned and looked, then said to Jake. “I’ll be back later.” Then he hurried over to check on the man who was now thrashing around in his nightmares.
Jake lay back with a sigh. He felt a sudden sharp pain that took his breath away. He reached for the control that allowed him to self medicate within certain bounds, then let his hand drop away. Stubbornly, he refused to give himself the dose of morphine or whatever it was they were giving him. Whereas a few moments ago he’d wanted the oblivion the drugs offered, now he wanted to think, despite the mounting levels of pain as the drugs wore off.
He’d never wanted to be a soldier, and didn’t consider himself particularly brave. He felt he’d acquitted himself well enough over the past year, but had been looking forward to putting the cruelty and horrors of this place behind him. He’d joined because he saw the Army as a means to an end. After his duty he would be able to get the GI bill for continuing his college education, something he’d found impossibly expensive.
The frustrating thing was, if he’d only known what was going to happen, he could have easily enough have avoided the whole thing. He’d been tired of walking and had basically conned himself a ride on the Humvee, while most of the troops were walking, which is where he should have been. By simply keeping his mouth shut, he could have stood back and avoided all of this. Hell, he might have been sent to the other camp since they were dividing the group up at that point. Had that been the case, he would have missed the attack entirely.
Jake awoke to a splitting headache. That was surprising since he’d never had many headaches, something he’d been grateful for because his mom had had a long history of migraines before she died and he’d long feared he might inherit the malady. He shuddered and rubbed his temples trying to make the pain go away. He didn’t have any aspirin, and the medic wasn’t one to pass such things out without a good reason. Jake had heard that caffeine was supposed to open up the blood vessels and help such pains go away, so he decided he’d see if the mess tent had anything available at this early hour.
He couldn’t help but shudder at the half-remembered dream he’d had. He’d been severely wounded and had been recovering in a hospital tent. Both legs gone! He reached down and felt his legs just to be sure. Scary! In his dream it was supposed to happen today, a few hours from now. He felt chills along his arms and his hair stand up. He wasn’t superstitious. It had to be a reaction to being out here in Indian country again.
He looked around the small camp. More than two hundred American soldiers with a few locals were in the camp which was situated in a large bowl some twenty-five kilometers from Camp Bravo. Guards were posted at the four compass points at the lip of the bowl and had an excellent field of view against anyone sneaking up on them. They had bedded down for the night, their last out in the wilds, and Jake had slept well enough until the dream had started.
He crawled out of his sleeping mat and quickly rolled it up. After attaching the mat to his pack, he stood and slipped the pack over his shoulders and then reached for his rifle. Bill and Joe were still asleep a few feet away. He’d like to wake and talk with them about his dream, but sleep was too precious out here and he elected to let them be. As quietly as possible, he walked away and headed toward the mess tent some fifty yards away, thinking about the IEDs in the attack he’d dreamed.
Later in the day Sergeant Jacobs told the assembled group they would be splitting into two groups, one heading to Camp Bravo, the other to Camp Charlie. Jake was selected to go on to Bravo with the Sergeant and a hundred others. As events unfolded, Jake was tasked to bring a message to Sergeant Jacobs, who was sitting in the lead Humvee, one of the few vehicles they’d brought on this outing. Usually they all rode, but the area and mission just completed had been such that a convoy wasn’t thought to be advantageous.
After handing the message to the Sergeant, Jake realized how he could wrangle a ride in one of the vehicles. He felt a small tingle of deja-vu run up his spine, and recalling the dream, said nothing, thinking only of walking quickly back to join his fellow foot soldiers. He noted while he waited for the Sergeant to read the message that another soldier, a private Keen, was attempting to secure the seat for himself. Jake was about to step away, when Sergeant Jacobs handed him a response.
“Why don’t you go with the Corporal on to Camp Charlie?” the Sergeant said. “He’s already started off, and it makes no sense for you to take this to him and then try and catch up to us again.”
Jake acknowledged the directive, and hurried off. It wasn’t until they were all safe back at Camp Charlie that Jake, along with the rest of the team that had gone there, learned of the attack. The next day details emerged, at which time Jake was shocked to learn that the attack had taken place exactly when and where he’d dreamed of it. The death toll was as he remembered, including the indestructible Sergeant Jacobs. What was most chilling was that Private Keen, the man who had taken the place on the Humvee that Jake had ridden in the dream, had suffered injuries very much as he’d dreamed had happened to him.
Jake didn’t know what to think. He’d thought it a dream. Was it some kind of premonition? He didn’t believe in such things. He couldn’t help remembering the headache he’d suffered though most of the day and wondered if there was a relationship. He had no answers, but was immensely grateful it had only been a dream for him. He couldn’t imagine what Keen and the other survivors were going through, their lives shattered.