I became the priority the moment Grimes saw my arm: protruding, ivory-white wristbones in a bed of severed tendons and blood vessels. Moving quickly, she tossed aside her medic bag and pulled an elastic cord from her left belt loop. The band was usually used to pop up veins before drawing blood. Now Grimes contained my blood with it, an impromptu tourniquet she wound tightly around my stump. For good measure, she ripped open a roll of gauze with her teeth and wrapped it around the cord. It stanched the flow, freeing Grimes to take command of what was now essentially an emergency room on wheels.
Her voice carried over the open speaker of the cabs field radio as she shouted instructions to Buxton through an open panel separating the cab from cargo section. Take the fastest route you can get to. I have four people injured. One amputation . . .
Minutes later, the vehicle crashed through concertina wire blocking the back gate of the base, a shelled-out Saddam fleshpot renamed Gunner Palace after the artillery brigade occupied it. We hurtled toward the aid station so fast I thought wed knock it down. The driver screeched to a halt a yard from the door. Bring the litters, bring the litters, ordered Grimes. Four medics and a physicians assistant deposited Nachtwey and me on stretchers and brought us into an L-shaped clinic big enough for two gurneys. The place was roiling, medics scurrying in all directions. Nachtwey was begging for more painkillers. I had lost so much blood it took three soldiers to locate a vein. Within seconds, the morphines warming, relaxing effect set in. I needed it for what came next: a wooden stick was tied between two pieces of cloth wrapped around my right arm, then turned like a tire wrench. Medics twisted the tourniquet tighter and tighter on my numbed limb, as if I had no bones left to worry about.
Grimes was so thoroughly soaked in my blood that the other medics assumed shed been wounded. Throwing off her body armor, she jumped into the fray, moving as nimbly as a point guardprospecting for a vein here, securing the tourniquet there. I was leaking blood, and no one could determine the source. Grimes snipped off my clothes and found it. Why did you have to wear so much? Its not that cold out, she complained good-naturedly. The back of my upper-right thigh had been peppered by shrapnel, dozens of tiny metal shards. Medics swaddled it in a broad abdominal dressing.
I was naked and cold in the unheated aid station. Everything was playing in slow motion and elongated sound. The medics strapped me in the stretcher and drove me to the bases helipad. The only protection I had against the freezing night was a shock blanket, a piece of aluminum foil that lined the gurney and folded over my feet. Grimes tried to tuck in the flimsy cover, but it kept blowing off and finally flew away in the gale of the Black Hawks landing. I was loaded into the chopper, its door wide open and propellers slicing the air. Shivering uncontrollably, my teeth slammed like pistons; every muscle seemed to have gone into spasm. It occurred to me that I might be going into shock.
Loading the other three casualties seemed to take forever. As I lay there, I realized I was missing something: the makeshift photo album I always carried in my vest pocket. My eight-year-old daughter, Olivia, had crafted the wallet-sized trinket out of tiger-striped fleece and taped pictures of herself and her older brother, Skyler, inside. Olivia had presented the treasure to me the night I left for Iraq. I had taken to rubbing it for good luck in moments of danger. This seemed precisely such a moment, and I felt the talismans absence keenly.
We finally took off. A medic placed his jacket over me and, when that didnt stop my shaking, lay on top of and warmed me with his body heat.
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