By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 25, 2008
As night falls and the humongous cargo jet carrying the wounded from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan nears Andrews Air Force Base, Elsie Smolarsky and her crew busily stuff candies into tiny Christmas stockings. Elsie's husband, Ed, prepares the stock of breakaway sweat pants and other clothing designed to fit over casts and braces. Danny Politano stacks the quilts that have been handmade by volunteers for distribution to each arriving warrior.
Down the hall in the briefing room, medical teams from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda and Andrews's own Aeromedical Staging Facility go over this night's impending arrivals: Twelve will head off to Walter Reed in the District, seven will go to Bethesda and 16 will stay here overnight before flying out the next morning to military hospitals across the country.
The roster of cases covers the gamut: gunshot wound to toes, bite from unknown animal, anxiety attack, adjustment disorder, explosive-device injury (entry wound the size of an eraser). These are the casualties of wars most of us are free to ignore in our daily lives.
Three nights a week, holiday or not, the flight arrives on the runway next to the hangar where Air Force One is parked. Each night, this corner of Andrews, a mini-hospital that operates for just a dozen or so hours at a time, goes from deserted to beehive in a matter of minutes.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on in slow motion, strangely quiet conflicts that come to us filtered through an administration that has worked hard to keep the citizenry from images of coffins and funerals, through a news business that is contracting at a stunning pace, and through a cultural divide created in good part by our decision to have an all-volunteer military. Those of us who live outside the military bubble catch only fleeting, distorted glimpses of war -- the outrages of Abu Ghraib, the shame of Guantanamo, occasional reports of our service members doing good deeds or dying unfair deaths and endless debates about how to get out of something in Iraq that we cannot win in any traditional sense of the term.
But all of those images reach us at some remove from the reality on the ground. That reality comes home at Andrews.
The wind is fierce out on the tarmac as the ground crew boards the C-17 through the gaping maw in the back of the fuselage. Within minutes, the most serious cases are rolled off on stretchers, followed by the ambulatories, on crutches or just leaning on a nurse's arm. They've been traveling for a very long time, perhaps three days but as long as five or six from battlefield to Prince George's County (that's a huge improvement from Vietnam days, when it could take 21 days to get an injured service member home).
"There are hernias and gallbladders, sports injuries and trip and falls, animal bites and lifting injuries," says Mike Madrid, the flight surgeon who greets the arriving wounded. More than 8,500 casualties have come in on these flights this year, and only 8 percent of them are battle injuries.
But every arriving patient is treated as a hero at Andrews. From the Red Cross volunteers who dote on them, offering soda and Gatorade as soon as they step off the bus, to the doctors and nurses, some of whom have worked on the ground in Iraq, the small ward where many of the injured spend their first night back in the United States is crammed with reminders of what they've been missing. Here, there are big-screen TVs, easy chairs, computer carrels, a basket of letters from Americans who want to be pen pals with those in uniform, Cornish game hen and filet mignon, and liaison officers from each service who stand ready to stay up all night with the wounded men and women, listening, talking, assuring them that they're home and safe.
"We go out of our way to emphasize that they're really home -- and look, the sodas are all in English," says Tim Sumner, a retired Navy man who's been meeting the flights for two years now.
"The Marines don't like to accept anything," says volunteer Ed Smolarsky, whose wife has greeted the injured here going back to the Vietnam years. "You got to twist their arm a little bit." Ed uses charm; Elsie offers to make milkshakes.
An hour after the flight arrives, the first service members wander into Ed's storeroom. One woman picks up three Beanie Babies and a deodorant stick. Another takes pajamas, sweats and underwear. A lanky man who doesn't want to talk to anyone settles in front of the TV news with a heaping plate of chicken.
Army Spec. Timothy McIntyre, 23, is back from Tikrit, Iraq, after nine months there as a combat medic. He says it took him six days to reach Andrews, an ordeal that left him unable to sleep for days at a time. "Most civilians don't really have an understanding of where I'm coming from," he says. "What happens in Iraq isn't what happens on the news. I met some of the coolest people in the world over there, from Uganda and India, the workers who guarded the base or worked in the laundry or serving chow. But the truth of what it is there -- I don't know how to explain it."
He stares straight ahead for a long while. "If people knew, they would have a different attitude," McIntyre says.
He's pleased to be home, eager to see his family in Florida, but he says it's going to be hard to explain his experience to those who haven't lived it. "Only in my songs," he says, only there can he hope to express what he's seen, only in the Christian rap tunes he's been writing in his head for months.
He closes his eyes and faintly hums himself to another place.
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