I abruptly awoke at 2:30 in the morning to the angry buzz of Blackhawk and Little Bird helicopters returning from another mission. Roy was on tonight’s foray and I was anxious to hear what he had to say about it. The days grew longer and longer and the nights shorter and shorter still. Shaping operations were steadily increasing and we were tasked with providing direct and indirect support to the units conducting commando missions inside Iraq.
I decided to get up and take a piss while waiting for Roy. It was about a 200-meter walk to the shitters and the air was calm but not cool. The early morning sky had a mysterious glow about it, as if an indifferent painter had used a mix of blues, grays, and reds and spackled it on the celestial ceiling at will.
As I slowly made my way through the ankle-deep, silt-like desert sand towards the porto-Johns, I caught sight of Roy running towards me in the swampy night air.
“Luke, Luke!!…get dressed man, we need your help translating a bunch of docs we just seized off the objective.”
“Gimme a sec…I gotta piss,” I replied, indifferently.
“Come on man, hurry up then…this is some serious shit. It’s time sensitive and we need it done ASAP cuz the guys are gonna do a follow-on hit based on what we got here,” Roy said in an unusually abrupt manner.
I could sense the urgency in his voice, so I quickly snapped off a deuce that had been in the door for the last two hours and then hauled ass to the ops tent. The intel section was abuzz with people coming in and out, and as soon as Roy saw me he yelled for me to come over. Apparently the fellas had seized a massive trove of documents, log books, and what looked like some military map overlays. Most of the Arabic was handwritten and Roy knew I had gained a lot of experience deciphering handwritten Arabic scratch from my temporary assignment supporting an FBI terrorist task force in the late nineties. “Luke, get on that shit ASAP!” he bellowed.
As I began to rip through the documents at a frenzied pace looking for any time-sensitive information that could be used for follow-on targeting, I thought my eyes were deceiving me. As I stopped the furious flipping I slowly plucked a single sheet of dusty, sandy and somewhat crumpled paper from its resting place between the hundreds of other documents. Summoning Roy, I asked him if I was truly looking at what I thought I was looking at. He took the parched document from me and began slowly reading the Arabic names and locations. I saw his eyes grow wider and wider as he moved across the page – a huge smile broke out.
“Dude…jackpot!” he shouted.
We quickly began translating the document into English so we could pass it on. It took about twenty minutes of ferocious attention and team work. We had come across a document containing the names, locations, and types of Iraqi Air Defense Artillery units that were currently deployed to defend against the impending U.S. invasion. We spent the rest of the night sifting through thousands of sandy and otherwise half-destroyed documents looking for more information.
I finally went back to the tent around 1030 that morning and ate a half MRE before retiring to my plush, soft, high-society army cot. I had thought it was difficult to sleep at night with all the aircraft landing and taking off. I quickly realized that sleeping during the day was worse. Although we had external air conditioning units struggling to blow some semblance of cool air into our tents, the inside temperature typically rose above 100 degrees by 9 or 10am. As I placed my headphones over my ears and laid on top of my sleeping bag, I began to ponder what the coming days would bring.
I woke up around 1300 afternoon in a coma of heat, flies and sweat. I couldn’t take it anymore and decided to head over to the office tent where they had the “real” air conditioning units that actually cooled the inside to a chilly 90 degrees. I was exhausted and dehydrated. I realized that I hadn’t drank anything in the last 12 hours; my lips felt like sandpaper and I had a raging headache. I grabbed another MRE and two bottles of water. Roy followed in behind thereafter. Once the entire team was assembled, our Team Leader, Peter, told us that we had to go to the medical tent to get our smallpox shots.
Before deploying I had attended a briefing with a group of SOF guys who were also headed out. I had come up with some excuse as to why I was unable to get the smallpox poison jabbed into my arm there and thought I was out of the woods. I find out that the Task Force Medical Team had been instructed to make sure that everyone had received their smallpox shots or provide some sort of medical documentation why they couldn’t. After hearing report after report of Saddam potentially planning to use chemical or biological weapons against us I decided that maybe I should just get the vaccination and be done with it.
Roy and I walked through the maze of inter-connected canvass tents that provided shelter from the blazing sun and gale-force winds of the desert. When we finally arrived to the medical tent, Peter lifted the canvass door and stepped in, Roy and I followed. An SF medic in a tan t-shirt was sitting on a chair reading a book as we entered.
“Howdy folks, what can I do for you?”
“Yea, we’re here for the smallpox vaccination,” answered Peter.
“All right, take off your tops and roll up one sleeve on your t-shirts and we’ll get this party started,” retorted the 18D, with a maniacal look painted on his face.
The room smelled of some sort of odd cleaning solution. I couldn’t tell what it was but it gave me the creeps. What happens if one of us has an allergic reaction like they had talked about in the brief I attended prior to my departure from Germany I thought. Is there an antidote to this shit? Wait? An antidote? To a vaccine? WTF?
As the thoughts coursed through my head about getting this vaccination that we had all heard so much about in the news, the SF medic dutifully pulled out three small needles covered in plastic from a kit he had in the corner of the room. I could feel the tension building in the room as we all looked at each other trying to see who was going to volunteer to be the guinea pig.
“Luke, you wanna go first?” asked Peter.
“Yea, not so much, how about you tough guy? You had one before right? You should be good to go,” I said in serious, but sarcastic tone.
“I’ll go. I’m not scared,” Roy interjected, as Peter and I both looked at each other seeing which one would break first.
“A’right, Roy it is. See, I knew I brought Roy on this mission for a reason,” Peter responded, looking at me with his eyebrow rasied.
Roy had already rolled his sleeve up over his shoulder to expose the scare from the smallpox vaccination he had received as a child. Unfortunately for him and every other soldier that had previously been vaccinated, the booster vaccination would require fifteen sticks from a menacing-looking needle that had a hook-like device on the end of it. I would only need three (fuck yeah!). I took a seat on an empty chair as Roy walked over towards the medic who had donned his white rubber gloves and pulled out an alcohol pad to clean my buddy’s arm.
“This is gonna hurt a little bit. I gotta stick you fifteen times, my friend.”
Roy didn’t answer and stood there at the position of attention as he seemed to recite something under his breath. As the medic began to poke him I saw a slight grimace form on the edges of his mouth. Obviously, being jabbed in the arm fifteen times wasn’t the most comfortable way to spend an afternoon in the desert.
By about the 8th poke, I noticed that Roy had become a bit ashen and looked a little shaky. I knew exactly what he was feeling as I had once been subjected to numerous unsuccessful attempts to set an IV line in me when I was a child and had developed some sort of vasovagal reaction to needles and blood. I’ll never forget the nurses holding me down and my father trying to keep me from biting everyone as they tried time and again to place the needle and feed the catheter into my hands and arms. I was five at the time and was in the hospital awaiting a surgical procedure to repair a lacerated eyeball. My younger brother and I had been outside playing as we normally did in the sultry heat that ruled the late Mississippi summer afternoons. A recent storm front passed through and left numerous mud puddles in which we would often play.
On that particular day, I guess I was in the wrong mud puddle or had stolen my brother’s freshly crafted mud cake. This had enraged him so much that he stabbed me in the eye with a piece of broken glass. As fate would have it, his single attempt at meting out justice for my perceived injustice would result in him slicing my eyeball open, lacerating my cornea, and leaving a piece of eyeflesh flapping in the wind, so to speak.
For years, I would recount the story how I had thrown a piece of glass and how the wind had blown it back into my eye. As I grew older and realized that basic physics would preclude a piece of glass from changing its direction unless some sort of freak gust of wind had appeared, I began to question my brother about it. Ultimately, after discussing the incident, we both came to the conclusion that there had been no wind, and no glass was thrown. He vaguely recalled getting angry at me and attacking me. Brothers will be brothers I guess.
I was rushed to the hospital amid a flurry of fanfare and panic. I remember the doctors shining all sorts of lights into my eyes and asking me questions to which I did not know how to respond. The needle incident will remain with me forever, as the medical team prepared me for surgery to save my eye. I never really understood why I hated needles, giving blood, or getting blood drawn until I remembered back to that night in the hospital – that feeling of being forced to submit to another’s will, even for something as mundane as an injection or having some blood drawn. I presume some people are just wired in such a manner that they are more sensitive to perceived threats that they encounter.
In the split second it had taken for me to recall the events of my childhood, Roy had turned white and looked like an albino sweating like a fat person on a treadmill. I had experienced this same feeling before, and knew what was coming. I immediately stood up from my chair and began to move towards Roy. No sooner had I jumped up did he begin to crumple and almost fell flat on his face.
Luckily, both Peter and I caught him before he fell and slowly laid him on the dusty floor. His eyes were rolled back in his head and his skin was clammy. The sweat on his forehead glistened under the fluorescent lamps, his mouth open and moving. We immediately began to undo his boots and elevate his feet to increase blood flow to his head. The medic stopped stabbing him in the shoulder with the smallpox tipped needle and quickly grabbed some smelling salts. He cracked the ampoule open and began waving it under Roy’s nose. The smell was intense even from a distance. It burned my sinuses like a gulp of soda accidentally inhaled when laughing.
Roy slowly regained consciousness and his eyes became steady again. It’s a strange feeling watching a friend’s eyes rolling every which way in their sockets and finally pointing towards the back of their head. As he finally regained full awareness of where he was he asked me what happened.
“You passed out after poke number eight, bro,” I answered in a low voice.
“Yea, Roy, you pussy,” said Peter in an apparent attempt at using humor to assuage his own misgivings about the entire incident.
“You’ll be just fine, don’t worry about it,” said the SF medic who had dealt the unfortunate and final blow to Roy’s deltoid muscle.
“Wow, I don’t know what happened. One second I was doing fine, I mean it hurt and all, but I felt ok, the next thing I know I started feeling really lightheaded and….boom, that’s all I remember.”
After a few minutes of tending to Roy and insuring there was nothing serious going on, the medic looked at me and asked, “You next, skinny man?”
Luckily for me, I only warranted three sticks of the smallpox needle. I simply turned my head to the side, and tried to breathe slowly. Before I knew it, I was done. That shit hurt like a motherfucker, though. I guess in order to deliver the attenuated virus effectively, it must be driven deeply into the muscle tissue. The actual vaccination was nothing compared to the golf ball-sized lump I developed in the lymph gland under my armpit that night. The vaccine delivery site became inflamed and filled with a huge pus ball over the next 24-hours. Within a week the site had scabbed over and the lymph gland had drained.
Next up were my three anthrax vaccinations. Fuck yeah!
(Featured Image Courtesy: DoD)