Today’s guest post is from Allan Folsom, an Air Force medic who served in Balad, just a few yards from where I was spending my days at the COSCOM headquarters. We didn’t know each other then, but instead met years later online. He sent me this story, and I briefly considered changing one name, but decided that it would be a disservice to that young Marine. We so often see war expressed as numbers, faceless and anonymous. The reality is much different – war has names and faces and they belong to real people. Allan’s story will take a few minutes of your time, but pays a fitting tribute to the ones who fight, and the humanity of the ones who fight to save them. — Y.C.
The house was quiet and dark as I roused from sleep.
I sighed deeply, knowing that once again, as on many nights prior, rest would evade me. I knew I had been dreaming, but the content of my nocturnal vision would elude me as my head cleared, prompting me to rise, careful not to wake my sleeping wife as I slipped off the covers, making my way to the couch. Since my return from Iraq, some nights were better than others, but it was starting to take a toll on me. The digital readout of the microwave said 03:17.
Gathering my PT gear, I made my way towards the living room, where I turned on the small lamp by the piano, silhouetting the dozen or so frames of family portraits adorning its top. Their faces seemed ghostlike as they watched me dress, the glow of the lamp reflecting in their eyes like footlights, prompting me to liken them to players upon a familiar stage, acting out a long forgotten drama relegated to the faded pages of family history. I stared at the portrait of my father in his Marine Corps dress uniform, smiling and young, probably taken in 1939 when he had recently graduated from USMC Boot camp in San Diego. He seemed playful and alive in the image, prompting me to wonder how a portrait taken after he returned from his harrowing service in the South Pacific during World War Two would have contrasted with the one that now stood before me. I wondered if he too wrestled with his thoughts in those initial days upon his return home.
Of course my father was brave; he had the medals that said so. He had done great things there. I had simply survived it.
Lacing up my running shoes, I set out, traversing my way through the dark and silent streets of the ordered subdivision that I called home. Most of my neighbors were still quietly sleeping as I picked up my pace, headed along the side walk towards the Jr. High School where my children were soon to attend. As I neared the small creek by the school, crossing the foot bridge traversed by hundreds of kids on a daily basis as they made their way to and fro, I heard a distinct rustling sound in the bushes below the bridge. Unconsciously drawn towards the noise I watched reflexively as a pack of four coyotes emerged from the creek bottom, climbing the bank towards the road, only noticing me as they paused in the middle of the dark residential street to stare. I stopped running and stood silently, eyeing them cautiously as they in turn instinctively did the same, probably assessing me in their own primeval threat matrix, seeking to determine if I were friend or foe, predator or prey. Not looking to give them too much time dwell on their collective impulses, I raised my arms and stomped my feet, emitting a loud and guttural “HEEYAAAA” sending them in a scurry across the road to the opposite creek bank, back into the darkness from which they emerged.
I didn’t think about the irony of that obvious metaphor or the slight twinge of fear and amazement I felt with seeing it as I continued my 3 mile run, at least not initially. I did look back occasionally to ensure I wasn’t being chased. Satisfied I was not, my thoughts re-focused on metabolizing the past eight months, hoping to put the pain of my experience in Iraq in perspective and at least reach some sort of accommodation with it. I had been home some five weeks now and was just starting to feel used to redeveloping the routines that come with life in America, away from a combat zone. Initially it seemed odd, being back in a world that required no body armor, helmet or weapon, which I still reflexively felt for at my right hip, intellectually struggling to convince myself that not having it there was okay and acceptable.
Returning home, wiping the sweat from my forehead with a hand towel I made coffee, taking the creamer out of the fridge, placing it on the counter as I poured the initial cup, stirring in the Half and Half. The morning run had been a cold one and I sipped slowly as the warmth of the russet elixir helped me regain focus and move towards starting my day. I held the cup steady, taking a couple of pulls to equalize the swaying liquid as I slowly walked from the kitchen to my son’s bedroom, quietly watching him as he slept. He slumbered heavily with only his head exposed from the plethora of blankets on his bed, unaware of my presence in his room. I resisted the temptation to reach and touch his hair, realizing it would probably rouse him unnecessarily, making me seem foolish for depriving him of what I had found in such short supply these days. So I simply sat quietly in the chair at his small desk, sipping my coffee, taking pleasure in watching him sleep, safe, and unconcerned with the complexities of life, I wanting desperately to be that young again.
The sleepy footsteps of my wife were easily discernible on the carpet as she approached me from the hallway by the room door. She placed a hand upon my shoulder, depriving me of the illusion that I was invisible and perhaps spirit like, bringing me back to reality. She said nothing as she motioned for me to follow her to the living room where we could sit and talk (our morning routine) without waking our children until the requisite hour called for it. I noticed the pause in her glance, as if she were still trying to figure out who this person was that returned home to her. I was different when I left, this was evident.
Not a sentimental person by nature, she had trouble understanding my appreciation of the little things that I had taken for granted before Iraq, like watching my children sleep or the stillness of the house in the pre-dawn hours of the approaching day. “How was your run?”
“Good,” I said insentiently, deciding not to tell her about the coyotes, somehow thinking that their appearance was meant only for me. We sat quietly, enveloped by the awkward silence that seemed to pervade the space in the middle of us. Prior to my departure, there seemed to be subtleness to our silence, a lenience that happily married people seem to exhibit, an unnecessary form of explanation that came with a shared glance or a modest and welcoming smile. I knew what she wanted to ask me. She wanted to know what it was that was keeping me from letting go, from fully coming home.
She didn’t, so we sat there, staring into the widening gulf between us, she eventually reaching for the remote, turning on the TV to break the awkwardness of the moment that seemed to be developing into a daily routine. Eventually I would have to tell her, I knew this. I would have to bring it forth again and relive it, feeling the surge of emotions and allow the tears to flow in an inelegant and insecure dance of vulnerability that I loathed thinking of. I thought of my father, and how as a child when I asked him about the war, he would grow silent, distant and cold. I remembered the characteristic disdain upon his face that in my youth I took as an accusation, not fully understanding that it was not directed at me, but at humanity in general and the propensity for barbarism that it has in war. I understood now, and I wondered if she was beginning to take this personally as I had then.
I swallowed hard, drawing a breath. “His name was Ryan Cummings.”
She turned her head silently towards me as if to signify her full attention, encouraging me to go on. “
He was a Marine, 19 years old, serving in Anbar Province.” It was then that felt my mind let go and I returned to that night.
The hot desert air of the day rose as it always did in Balad, creating a thermal inversion effect in which the decreasing night time temperatures would trap the acrid smoke emanating from the smoldering burn pit on most nights at about 50 feet. I had grown used to the haze, yet tried not to breathe deeply as I walked out to the Conex, traversing the wooden steps to the top of the man-made patio that served as smoking area for those of us who manned the tent hospital at Balad. It overlooked the helipad and gave one a decent view of the northern end of the base that stretched towards the fight line and the tactical areas on its opposite side. The base glowed in the darkness, the major strategic air hub for the military. Light discipline, while encouraged, simply wasn’t adhered to, at least not that much. Known as “Mortaritaville”, Balad was situated on a flat plane, some 45 miles north east of Baghdad. The relatively flat terrain outside the base deprived the enemy of high ground, hence their propensity to fire “blind”, launching ordinance several times during the day and night hours in a haphazard fashion. We had grown used to “indirect fire” and it had become routine for us. Occasionally, a round would sneak in unannounced and explode within 100 yards or so, spraying rocks, shrapnel and its audible and palpable concussive effect in my direction. This would cause one to “get small” in a hurry as it had been detailed to us that the “strike zone” for shrapnel was about 18 inches from the ground. Even in the low light, it was easy to make out the familiar shape and voice of Captain Marty Paprock, a nurse and fellow AF Colleague who manned the Emergency Department with me on the night shift.
“Hey Sarge, come to join us?” he said, offering me a cigar. “It’s Cubano!”
“No sir, I’ll pass, haven’t you heard, those things will kill you?” I said half-jokingly as he lit up under a painted sign that said “0 DAYS SINCE LAST ATTACK.”
“Well Sargent Folsom, it’s probably not gonna kill us any quicker that that shit we breathe coming out of the burn pit.”
“Point well taken, Marty, I think I will have one.”
The distinctive “thump/thump” of a black hawk helicopter began to echo from the south, obviously making its way towards us. I shifted my attention, facing the southern edge of the wire to get a bearing on their direction. “Think they’re coming to see us?”
“Don’t know” I said, as the walkie-talkie I had at my side didn’t reveal an incoming bird with a patient load. I handed back the cigar as the sound and vibration increased. “Whoa, three birds and escorts coming in, we better head down.”
As we rounded the last few stairs at the base of the conex, the birds were swooping into land. The confused expression of the recovery crews, with liters and NATO gurneys at the ready told me that there had been no radio call. We had no idea of the patient load and what to expect. As the rotors of the birds cycled their pitch to ground, I watched from the berm entrance to the helipad for an indication from the chopper medic on the first bird that it was ok for the crews to head to him along the pre-appointed path through the prop wash and spinning rotors. Receiving the flashes from his flash light we moved towards the chopper, door already open, the medic hurriedly readying the release mechanisms on the stanchions. It was impossible to hear him through the noise, but the circular swirl motion he made with fingers told me that we had to hurry, that the crew needed to head out. I looked briefly at the patient on the gurney before me in the red glow of the chopper interior. He was a Marine, intubated and being bagged, the bandage applied to the side of his face soaking through with blood. He was also young.
“Let’s GO!” I yelled to the team as we hurriedly made our way across the helipad through the gang way to the ER door. Entering the triage bay, we were met with bevy of doctors, nurses and medics, readying what we hoped, what we prayed would be life saving measures. I began to cut away the Marines uniform, to properly assess the extent of his condition.
“Al, his vital signs are low, I need chest compressions, now!” Dr. (Col) Jim Frame had come to be a trusted team mate these past few months at Balad and in the confusion I hadn’t noticed that he was at the patients head, bagging furiously to over compensate for the patients sagging vital signs, evident on the transportable ProPack monitor at his feet. Beginning chest compressions, I instantly felt the palpable crepitus sounds of broken ribs rubbing against each other.
“He may have a pneumo or hemothorax, Jim, I’ve got crepitus.”
“Stop CPR, Al, See if you can put in a groin line.” Donning my gloves, it was then that I looked around to see that the remaining patent bays were full. I had been so focused that I hadn’t noticed the arrival of other medivacs, each ferrying their loads of precious cargo to this oasis of life in the midst of a desert that showed little regard for it.
“Al, we are losing him. I need you get that line in buddy.” Doctor Frame’s paternalistic reminder in that moment expressed both confidences in me and my abilities but also his concern that this patent might not make it. We were nearing a point of no return.
“Is the CT Scanner open?” He barked out.
“Yes Sir!” was the call we heard from both techs that were in the bay assisting.
Tying off the suture to secure the groin line I had just inserted, I disposed of the needle in a sharps container as we wheeled him to the back of the ED to put him in the scanner to further assess the extent of his injuries. The vital signs indicator on the ProPack and the grim expression on Col Frames face as we wheeled him into the anteroom of the make shift CT Scanner told me all I needed to know. I knew that we were too late.
“He’s gone Al, there’s nothing we can do now.”
“Are you sure, sir?” I asked in what now seemed like a curious question, after all, in retrospect, who the hell was I to question a trauma surgeon and experienced ER Doctor?
“Yeah, call it, he’s gone.” Jim said softly.
I looked at him as he lay there. About an hour ago, he had been young and alive, now he was gone and I felt remorse for this young man that I did not know. As the last beats of his heart echoed on the monitor, I felt the strange motivation to take his hand and grip it tightly as he slipped away. I took the glove off my hand and brushed away a tear that fell from his increasingly lifeless eyes and gripped his right hand tightly as I somehow sought to translate my feelings and strong desire that I was there. I wanted this young marine to know that he was not dying alone, without someone who cared. I prayed aloud with him, a prayer that I learned in my youth, the Lord’s Prayer, earnestly saying the words as I knelt by him.
“God is with you, Marine” I whispered to him. I felt his strength fade as the monitor showed no discernable rhythm. It was then that my own tears began to flow.
“Al, you ok?”
“Yessir, I guess I just took this one a little hard.”
“Why don’t you take a break, we got the floor covered right now, wheel him to the morgue.”
I sighed deeply as I considered Dr. Frame’s suggestion, or was it an order? Nonetheless, I felt suddenly protective of this young man and didn’t want anyone to treat him without proper respect. Looking back, I am uncertain of the genesis of that emotion, after all, I truthfully didn’t know him, knew nothing about his back ground, his unit, his family, where he was from, only that he died on my watch and I somehow felt responsible for him. I realized in that moment that this war was beginning to kill me too, yet it was doing so in a deceptively imperceptive way, from the inside out.
The ER crew that had been sitting in the makeshift break area outside the CT scanner all rose in silent respect as I wheeled the young marine to the morgue. For some reason, they seemed to share in my grief, but we had all been grieving at the daily spectacle of loss of life and grievous displays of man’s inhumanity to man. It had seemed that every face carried the expressions of the best and brightest our country had to offer. They were young and they dying and it was difficult to watch it.
Reaching the morgue, I readied the body bag with help from a young Airman on her first tour of combat duty, a PAD clerk whose responsibility it was to inventory the belongings he had and start the perfunctory paperwork that death required. “Cummings, Ryan J.” she said softly, as I handed her his dog tags, and poured a bottle of sterile water into a plastic bowl filled with gauze to begin cleaning the blood from his face. The look on her face told me that she questioned the need for me to that, as mortuary affairs had their own staff whose sole job was to do this very same thing, but she remained deferentially silent.
Finally, she said, “Let me help you, Sergeant Folsom.”
After finishing and securing the zipper on the back bag, I returned to the ER bay, where I assisted in the “clean up and re-set” as there was seldom a forgiving moment here. We had to be ready. Checking and re-checking each bay, I tried to remain busy so as to pass the remainder of the long night away until I could return to my trailer, take a couple of Ambien and sleep until it started again the next day. The following week, sitting in the DFAC at breakfast, perusing the latest “Stars and Stripes” I noticed the obituary section. “Cummings, Ryan J, LCPL, USMC, Killed in Action as the result of IED, AL Anbar province, Iraq.” Tearing a broad swath out of the page, I placed it in my Bible, which I had with me to keep it safe, and left the DFAC. I mounted my bicycle for the short commute to my trailer.
As time passed and I relegated that night to memory, I had forgotten about the small obit notice, remembering it as I sat with my wife that morning, safe at home some eight months later, relating this story, tears streaming down my cheeks. She rose and went to the book shelf in the living room where my Bible was, asking me “This is it? This is the one you took with you right?” Opening to the middle, and turning a few pages, she happened upon the small newspaper clipping. “It says he was from Illinois – Moline, Illinois.”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
She paused, as if considering the phrasing of her next statement carefully; I in turn, sensing that our predictable routine was segueing into adversity, rose from my chair, moving to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup.
“You need to call his folks Allan.”
“Like hell I do.”
She responded in a lowered tone that became passionately audible.
“Yes, you need to call his folks.”
“Julie, that would be dredging up a memory they are trying to put behind them. He is gone, he’s buried and that seems cruel to open that wound again.” I met her gaze from the table as her eyes refused to allow mine to leave hers.
She motioned me to sit back down, assuaging the tension with a smile which gave way to her gentle and re-assuring touch. “Allan, he was son to a mother and a father and he was loved. If it had been Mary or Benjamin on that gurney and someone had been there with them, praying and holding their hand, treating them with such love and compassion, such gentleness as they left this earth, wouldn’t you want to know?”
I didn’t answer her directly, but I knew she was right and I knew I would call them.
Some two weeks later, a lazy Saturday afforded me the opportunity to be alone in the house with Julie taking the kids to a birthday party for school friend. I had begun to feel better, but didn’t want to accompany her, as invariably the question gets asked, “So what do you do Allan?” and then the other questions follow, mostly about the war, what I did there, and then the smile and the hand shake or the pat on the shoulder with the hearty; “Thank you for what you do, you are a true Hero.” It wasn’t that I was particularly ungrateful of their platitudes mind you, but they had grown hollow to me and I simply didn’t want to talk about the war any longer. I was not a hero.
I pulled up the computer and typed in the name “Ryan J Cummings, Moline Illinois.” What followed was an online memorial with the information about his upbringing and life. Friends and family had posted several photos of Ryan progressing through the years. Many had written remembrances, fondly recalling a young man who was brave, kind and devoted to his family country and duty. I read them all, gleaning so much more about him than I had realized, feeling somehow as if I knew him in a strange detached sort of way. Parents; Melissa and John of Moline, I wrote on the pad at the desk.
“City and State please?”, “Moline Illinois” I said to the impersonal computerized voice, waiting as the directory assistance service gave way to a real person. “Listing?” I swallowed hard; “Cummings, John and Melissa?” I asked, hoping there would be no such person, feeling slightly ashamed at my cowardice.
“I have that sir, stand by and I will connect you, please hold.” The phone rang as the lump in my throat began to swell and cleared my throat as a soft feminine voice, in her late 40’s early 50’ I guessed, answered “Hello?”
“Uh, hi, is this Melissa, I mean Mrs. Cummings?”
“Yes this is Melissa, who is this?”
“Ma’am, my name is Allan Folsom, I am a medic, I was a medic in Iraq and this call is about your son Ryan who passed on there. Is this a good time for you to talk?” The unfathomable silence that permeated the phone as I stumbled through my story made me doubt at times if she were still there, causing me to utter a “ma’am?” only to have her reiterate softly “I am still with you” in a lowered and reverent tone.
As I related to her about my grasping Ryan’s hand as he was dying, I heard her sob softly, imagining the tears streaming down her cheeks, causing her mascara to run, and her heart to break even more than it had already been. Suddenly I felt like a heel. I had found the healing blemish of that gaping scar on her heart and tore it open forcing her to relive a day that she had wished would have never occurred. I tried to speak through my tears to assuage my sense of guilt; “Ma’am, I am, uh, I am so sorry it wasn’t my intention to cause you pain, I…”
“No Sergeant, it’s okay, thank you, you have set me at ease, thank you so much.” She said softly. I am certain that she sensed my concern and confusion and she sought to clarify her words. “Can I call you Allan?”
“Allan, you don’t understand, and I think you need to. When Ryan was a little boy, he was so afraid of hospitals, doctor’s offices, shots. Whenever we took him for care, he begged me to hold his hand and he would hold mine so tightly. Knowing that you were there holding his hand as he died is such a great comfort to me. He didn’t die alone, you were there, you took care of him and for that brief period of time, he became your son too. Thank you Allan, you have given me such comfort. I am so glad you were there.”
My tears flowed freely as I held the phone, listening to her sob. I tried to hold my emotions in check as she asked for my address, asking if she could keep in touch with me. “My husband would probably like to talk to you as well if you don’t mind?”
“Not at all, I would be honored to speak with him.”
“Allan, thank you again. You have set us at peace.”
Those words echoed in my head as I read the letter contained in the small Christmas Ornament that arrived some three weeks later. It was a pewter statue of a soldier holding a flag, simply titled “Patriot.” Her letter was short and to the point, thanking me again for doing what I did, letting me know I would always have a place to come to in Illinois and assuring me of the gratitude of her family. “I am glad you were there for Ryan, Allan. You are an answer to the prayers I said the day he left home for Iraq.”
I didn’t dwell too much on her words, I was however grateful for them. I felt a tremendous sense of humble significance in that moment and in turn gave the glory and thanks to God in a prayer of my own, placing the letter in my Bible, next to Ryan’s obituary. My wife smiled as she read the words later, smiling a knowing smile indicating her sense of relief.
My children came bounding into the house from outside, trumpeting the announcement that snow was falling. “Come on dad! Get your gear on, it’s snowing!”
“I will, give me a minute; I’ll see you out there!” I said with the childish excitement that a snow day tends to bring to North Texas. My wife came up and slipped her arms around me, leaning her head on my chest. She leaned in and I held her close, sensing relief in her embrace. I felt my heart beat as I caressed her hair, leaning my head down to kiss her. The thought occurred to me that the cold and vacant rock that once occupied my torso was now coursing again, a warm and bleeding reminder that even though winter was here, that the renewal of spring was soon to follow making all things new again.
I still run the route by the creek every morning. I am no longer haunted by the predawn darkness and quiet. I have never seen the coyotes again, though I do not doubt they are still there, opportunistically watching, waiting for a chance or an advantage over unsuspecting prey. They don’t frighten me any longer, I am stronger now. Iraq and my time there has made me so.