Lieutenant Gil Hanley entered the Battalion Aid Station tent. He paused inside the entrance flap to orient himself. Stepping into the relative dimness from the bright sunlight required a few seconds’ adjustment. Behind him, Kirby, Littlejohn, Nelson and Caje filed in and fanned out beside him, each going through the same light adjustment. The first to recover, Hanley stepped toward the closest person who appeared to be medical personnel and caught their attention with a well-timed throat clearing.
“What can I do for you, lieutenant?” said the short man in the dirty white coat. It wasn’t dirty with dirt; it was smudged with blood and other unidentifiable dried fluids.
Hanley glanced around. “I’m looking for a sergeant in my platoon. Name’s Saunders.”
The doctor pulled a blanket over the man he had been leaning over, and stood. “Ah, yes. He’s over here in the corner.” By the time the words were out of his mouth, he was already briskly making his way to a curtained-off area in the back corner of the large tent.
Hanley motioned for his men to follow and put a finger to his lips indicating for them to be quiet. When he arrived, the doctor had already entered and the curtain had dropped back into place. Hanley pulled it back and shouldered his way in, the others taking up close positions behind him.
Saunders was in a low bed and appeared asleep. His hands and forearms were bandaged with large fluffy white bandaging almost up to the elbows and they were propped on his chest and stomach.
The enclosed area was small, and Saunders' bed was the only one in it. Hanley glanced around at the piles of sterile supplies, then spoke to the doctor who had busied himself checking Saunders over.
“Why is he isolated?” Hanley asked.
The doctor seemed startled. “Huh? Oh, uh, the risk of infection at this point is so great. We’re having to frequently un-bandage and debride the burns. It’s a slow and painful process. We’re keeping him pretty sedated.”
Kirby cleared his throat. The pained expression on his face revealed his thoughts. Too much information. “Uh, how is he, doc?”
The doctor rubbed the back of his neck, loosening the kinks accumulated over hours of bending over patients. “Well, considering what he’s been through, I’d say he’s a bloomin’ miracle.”
Kirby swelled with pride, then visibly deflated when he remembered how Saunders had come to be in that situation to begin with. He glanced up at Littlejohn and around him to Billy. They both stood with their helmets in their hands, heads hung, looking intently at their sergeant. Caje stood behind Kirby, so close that Kirby felt Caje’s breath on his neck.
“The tanker who found him said he was really out of it. Talking about his brother...” That was Hanley again, concern deepening and softening his voice.
The doctor nodded, “Yes, he told me that, too. Not at all surprising. Not at all,” he repeated, distracted as he listened to Saunders' chest with a stethoscope. He removed the earpieces and turned to Hanley. “With that much pain, not to mention shock, I’d be surprised if he didn’t see a few family members, both living and dead.” He shook his head. “Don’t worry men,” he said, addressing the small group. “He’s going to be quite alright. Right as rain in a few days, back with you in a couple of weeks.” His clipped New England accent lent an air of reassurance and authority. “If you’ll excuse me, I have others to attend to.” The small doctor elbowed his way out through the cluster of much taller men in his way. By this time, small smiles were intermingled with the deep concern-etched faces of the assemblage.
Hanley’s attention was drawn back by a small moan coming from the bed. Saunders turned his head slightly as if seeking the source of the conversation drifting over him. Hanley handed Kirby his helmet and sat easily on the side of Saunders’ bed and laid a hand gently on his shoulder, avoiding the hanging tubing from the IV bottle. “Sarge?”
Saunders’ eyes opened very slightly. Two small, watery slits of blue searched out Hanley’s face and finally came to rest on their goal. “Hey.” His voice was so soft that Hanley had to lean in close.
“Hey, yourself.” Hanley smiled and glanced up at the men, then back down to Saunders. “How’re ya feelin’?”
Saunders shifted slightly as though his back hurt, and winced at the movement. “Been in one spot too long.” He unconsciously raised his bandaged hands away from his body, holding them a few inches above his body, lessening any pressure on them.
Hanley reached over and pushed the pillows down so they supported both Saunders’ head and shoulders. “Better?”
Saunders nodded slightly. Keeping his eyes closed for a moment, he seemed to internally regroup. Then he opened them again, seeking out his friend. “Is everyone okay?”
Hanley gestured to the men standing behind him. “Yeah, they’re fine. A little smelly, but basically, okay.” He grinned up at his men. Kirby started to open his mouth but Hanley quickly silenced him with a withering look.
Kirby sheepishly ducked his head and shuffled. The lieutenant was right. News of Kelly would wait for another time.
“Lieutenant, I saw Joey. He was here.” The distress in Saunders’ face startled Hanley.
Hanley’s hand gripped tighter on Sanders’ shoulder. “I know, but you know he’s not, don’t you? It was just a dream. Joey’s fine.”
“Are you sure?”
Hanley was unaccustomed to the bewildered look that he saw in his sergeant’s countenance. Saunders was his most experienced, reliable and competent NCO. Tough as nails and straight as the day is long. He had seen him hurt before, but never before confused.
“Yes, I’m sure.” Hanley hoped he could dissuade Saunders so he could relax. “You just got a letter from him last week, remember?”
Saunders’ eyes flickered. He did remember. Now.
“He told you he tried to enlist but they wouldn’t take him when they found out how young he was.”
Kirby laughed and chimed in, “Yeah, yeah, Sarge, remember he tried to change the date on his birth certificate? Boy, your ma’ sure was ticked off about that. She made him go down to the court house and get another one.”
Saunders grin told them he did remember. “Yeah. Yeah. I remember. It was just so…”
“Well, don’t worry about it, Sarge,” Kirby interrupted, “hell, Littlejohn thinks it’s Christmas the way he’s been hanging up decorations in the bivouac area.”
“I just wanted it to look nice and not have all that stuff laying around on the ground for us to trip…,” Littlejohn replied, indignantly.
Hanley smiled, “Alright, alright, simmer down.” Hanley turned back to Saunders, whose eyes were beginning to drift shut. “You get some rest and when you wake up, I’ll help you write a letter home.”
Saunders nodded and let himself drift off again. His shoulders and arms relaxed again as he settled into deep, dreamless sleep.
Hanley signaled silently for his men to back out. Taking a last look at his sergeant, he left the curtained area, and let the sheet fall back into place behind him.
Out in the main room, he watched as the men distractedly made their way through the infirmary. Kirby stopped to chat up a nurse and Billy watched in fascinated silence as another nurse changed a bandage on an unfortunate soldier who had lost a leg. Hanley herded his men out into the sunlight like a sheepdog with wayward sheep.
They stood gathered close for a moment, then Nelson ventured forth an idea. “Say, lieutenant, don’cha think one of us should stay with him?”
Hanley turned to Nelson, looking as if he’d just noticed him for the first time. “Hmm?”
“I mean, well, sir,” gathering his courage he plowed on, “well, I just think that Sarge should have someone he knows there when he wakes up. He might need somethin’ and there might not be anyone in there. He can’t even light a cigarette by himself with those…”
“Yeah, lieutenant, what if he starts seein’ people again?”
“Alright, alright, Littlejohn, let’s not go off the deep end.” He rubbed the stubble on his chin; his habit when thinking. “I think it’s a good idea.”
All of the men moved to volunteer at once. “Now hold it! We can’t have everyone going in there. You saw how small it is in there.” He thought for a moment longer. “We’ll hear from command soon about our next mission. I’ll ask for a couple of days, but eventually they’re gonna send us out.”
Kirby said, “Well, that’s okay, lieutenant, by then he’ll be better.”
continued rubbing his chin. “Yeah,”
then coming to a decision, “alright, Nelson, you’re first since it was your
idea, then Littlejohn, Kirby and Caje.
You guys work out the schedule.
Include me too. I’ve got to go
report in.” He turned to leave, then
turned back. “Now listen, if the
doctors or nurses say you have to go, you go, no arguments. Clear?”
After accepting nods from everyone, he strolled off, hands in pockets
with his helmet stuck up under his arm.
Kirby thrust his helmet and jacket into Caje’s hands and headed for the hospital tent, unnecessarily smoothing his buzz-cut hair. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Hey! The lieutenant said I could go first!” Nelson’s voice raised an octave when he was agitated.
“That’s right, Kirby, let the kid go first,” Caje added.
Kirby stopped, turned and glared at Caje. “But I was just makin’ some headway with that little nurse in there…”
Littlejohn stepped forward and loomed his full height threateningly over Kirby. “Is that all you think about, Kirby? Don’t you care that the sarge is in there and he needs us?”
Kirby was offended. Contrite, indignant, but offended just the same. “Well ‘course I care! Why do you think I wanna go back in there? Sure, there’s a nice nurse in there, but that’s not the only reason! You guys just always think the worst about me!”
“Then let Billy take his turn like the lieutenant said. We all need to go get cleaned up.” Littlejohn’s voice was flat, his usually impassive face set rigid with intimidation. Any outside observer might be reminded of a grizzly bear the way he loomed threateningly over the much smaller Kirby. Anyone who knew him, knew that teddy bear was a more accurate description.
Kirby looked at each of his comrades in turn, their faces set hard as stone. “Aw, c’mon guys. I just wanted to catch her before she goes off duty.” There was no change, no give at all in the faces of his friends. “Oh, alright. You’re right, you’re right. I give up. Go on, Billy, go take care of the sarge.”
Three faces relaxed into smiles. Caje slapped Kirby on the back. “I knew there was a nice guy somewhere under all that grime.”
Kirby shrugged him off and stalked off toward the shower tent. “Aw, git off! C’mon, we gotta get this stink off or I’m not sleepin’ in the same room with you guys tonight.”
Littlejohn turned and put a big arm around Billy. “You too, Billy. You need to shower or they’re not going to let you back in there.”
As one, what was left of first squad, King Company made their way across the busy road to the shower tent to wait in line for a lukewarm shower, lye soap, and sandpaper towels.
It was nearly midnight and Hanley had finally managed to complete his report, make the proper notifications, and call the appropriate departments, divisions and designated flunkies. His official duties were completed. He had even managed to grab a shower and a change of uniform. Now, his sole purpose was to head back to the hospital tent to check on his men. He had no doubt that one or more of them would be there, if not inside, then hanging around outside.
Not to be disappointed, he spotted the distinctive glow of two cigarettes flaring and dying in the darkness. As he drew closer, he recognized the owners as Caje and Kirby, sitting on upturned boxes near the entrance to the hospital tent.
“Why aren’t you guys back getting some sleep?”
Kirby scrambled to his feet instinctively. Caje, much more relaxed, didn’t bother. Kirby said, “Uh, well, we did, sir. Yeah, we did for awhile, but well…”
“The truth is, sir, we just couldn’t sleep,” added Caje.
“I see.” Hanley pulled up a barrel and perched on it, looking at his two miscreants. Kirby nervously took his seat again, but looked ready to spring up again if need be. “Okay you two, tell me what’s going on.”
“Whattaya mean, sir?” Kirby took several short drags on his stub of a cigarette and then tossed it into the dirt.
“I mean that Saunders. Hell, all of you, at one time or another have been in the hospital before. You always come visit, but I’ve never seen you hold a vigil like this before. So what gives?”
Silence. Neither man spoke, but they did look silently at each other, then back at their boots.
“Oh, I know what it is.” Hanley’s head bobbed knowingly. “I can’t say I haven’t had a few moments over it myself. Actually, it’s almost all I thought of all the way back here.”
Kirby’s and Caje’s heads slowly came up, as they fixed their eyes on their commanding officer.
Hanley took a deep breath. “You two, and Littlejohn and Nelson included, haven’t got a thing to feel bad about. It was my order that kept us from going back after him. It’s my responsibility alone.”
“No buts, Kirby. It was my decision. I can’t say I’m proud of it, but at the time, it was the one that had to be made. I had five other men to get back alive. I couldn’t even think about sacrificing the five of them for one man.”
Kirby saw the lieutenant swallow hard. He hadn’t thought that maybe the lieutenant was having problems with this himself.
“That’s enough, Kirby…Caje. It’s my problem to deal with, not yours. You had to follow orders. You always do. It’s what you do. What I do is give them, and then take the responsibility for the consequences.
There was a long silence. Finally Caje spoke. “Sir, if I may say so, the sarge would’ve done exactly the same thing.”
Hanley smiled in the dark. “Nice try, Caje, but you and I both know that’s not true. You know Sarge as well as I do. He would have made you guys stay behind with Kelly and he would’ve gone back himself.” Hanley smiled at the chuckles of recognition coming from the men. “You know it’s true.”
“Well, you sure got him pegged, sir,” Kirby finally allowed. “I guess he is just a hair more reckless.”
“And brave to a fault. I know, Kirby. I know all about him and then some. Why do you think I keep such close tabs on you guys? I’m constantly amazed at what you are able to accomplish. You’re all extraordinary soldiers, and you have one extraordinary leader. I wish I had a dozen of you all.”
Caje’s voice was quiet in the darkness. “I’m sorry about Kelly, sir.”
“Yeah. Me, too,” Hanley answered. “I’ll tell Saunders when he’s feeling better.”
Hanley stood and brushed off his pants. “Well, whattaya say we go in and check on things? Say, where’s Littlejohn and Nelson?”
“Oh, they’re already in there, sir.”
“I shoulda known.”
Doctor Jacob Hanna strolled into the hospital tent at 0630, his usual punctual arrival time. Just in time for rounds, a half hour before the night shift goes off and the day shift comes on. He liked this time of day. The usual hectic pace of the day usually slowed at night and the nurses and orderlies had time to put things back in order, to clean, to straighten. The patients were still in their drugged sleep, not yet awake enough to feel the pain of their wounds. Of course, by mid afternoon, it would be as if Satan himself had come to call, but for now, the serenity of the early morning hours pleased him.
“Good morning, Bradenton. How was your night?”
It was the same question every morning. Hazel Bradenton, RN came to expect it, even to welcome it. It was her chance to let the boss know what was happening with their patients. Not to just let him read the charts, the facts and figures. They shared a passion for their work and a commitment to these men who needed them. Her sly grin let Hanna know that it had been a good one. No catastrophes, no emergencies. Of course, if there had been any, he would have been called.
Bradenton reported that two men had been brought in over-night with minor flesh wounds, one to the upper leg, and one to the right side. They had been cleaned up and made comfortable. He could check on them at his convenience. Then, with a Cheshire- cat grin, Bradenton grabbed Hanna’s hand and pulled him toward the back of the tent. “You gotta see this, Jake.”
Bradenton dragged him to the curtained-off area that they had made for the sergeant with the burns. He had insisted on the barrier because he had seen what the least bit of infection could grow to in freshly debrided skin. With dressings, there was little danger, but when the dressings were removed and the skin debrided, he insisted on as close to sterile as he could get in these conditions. He had put the sergeant through two very painful ordeals yesterday and had not the heart to try again last night. Today he planned on rigging a whirlpool of sorts to try and debride using water. The how-to had been ruminating around in his brain for most of the night.
Bradenton pulled back the curtain and stepped aside so Hanna could enter. Looking around, he chuckled, then laughed quietly. Saunders was sound asleep, his overly-bandaged hands looking for all the world like big, white, puffy boxing gloves. One rested across his abdomen and the other was up on the pillow next to his face. The stark white of the bandages bore little contrast to the paleness of the still face. Only the pillow was whiter.
Around Saunders’ bed was his pack of guard dogs. At least, that’s what they reminded Hanna of. The tallest one, the one they called “little-something” was propped against the bed, his back to it and his chin resting on his chest. The youngest one was curled in a ball on the floor next to him.
In the corner nearest the head of the bed sat the lieutenant who had come to call yesterday and had asked all the questions. His head was resting on his hand which was propped on a case of saline solution bottles, his long legs stretched out across the floor and partially under the bed.
The other two were at the foot of the bed, one sitting, the other laying half under the bed. They all had green, wool, army-issue blankets draped over them. Hanna turned to Bradenton with an amused and knowing grin.
“Well, they looked cold,” she said with a shrug.
“You’re an old softie, Hazel.”
They chuckled quietly together. After a moment, Hanna made his way over the bodies to see his patient. He perched on the side of the bed and felt the sergeant’s forehead. The fever of yesterday was still there, but no worse. The pallor was expected. He took his stethoscope from around his neck and listened intently to the sergeant’s breathing. Pneumonia was a common, and wholly unneeded side effect in cases like this, to be prevented at all costs. So far, so good.
Satisfied, Hanna rose and turned to leave. As he stepped over the lieutenant’s long legs, the owner of said legs stirred and woke. He looked bleary-eyed up at the doctor, who, if he’d been standing would have been a foot shorter than him. “How is he, doc?”
“Fine, just fine, lieutenant. You and your men can stay for awhile, but I need you out of here when we start to work on those bandages. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” Hanley shifted onto his side and went back to sleep with a heavy sigh. Hanna wondered how many of these men would need aspirin for sore backs and necks later on.
He picked his way back through the tangle of arms and legs to where Bradenton stood holding the curtain open. Standing in the doorway, he turned back to survey the makeshift room.
“Ya know, Hazel, I said yesterday that that man was a miracle. At the time, I was referring to his grit, getting back to our lines in the condition he was in. Now I’m beginning to think there’s something else going on here.”
Hazel cocked her head to the side questioningly.
Hanna explained, “Any man that can inspire this kind of loyalty has an advantage that the rest of us can only hope for. Miracles can come in all forms. If these men have any say-so with the Man upstairs, that sergeant will be alright. Partly because of his own fortitude, and partly because of the sheer good will of these men. Maybe that’s where miracles come from.”
Hazel squeezed his arm and wiped a tear from her cheek before he could turn and see it. “C’mon, softie, let’s get to work.”