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The Other Side of the Gunfire: Life in a Battalion Aid Station

By Sean Tyler

There are plenty of firsthand articles about the life of a door kicker. This isn’t one of them. I don’t want to paint the picture that I’ve ever experienced combat first hand. I was an enlisted infantryman prior to OIF/OEF, and then a medical platoon leader/headquarters company executive officer in an infantry battalion in my career as an officer and during my deployment to Ar Ramadi, Iraq in 2006-2007. My experience in a combat zone is much different than that of the combat infantrymen and line medics I know and love. I don’t know what it’s like  take a life or to treat wounds under fire. What I do know is the result of combat operations when things don’t go quite as planned.

When people ask what it was like as a medical platoon in a combat zone I simply reply “It was like running an ER for all of my best friends,”  but that didn’t quite paint an accurate picture. Being “dual-hatted” as the battalion medical officer and an executive officer, 95% of my time in Iraq was spent doing the behind-the-scenes work.. Yet only 5% of my most influential memories were from this position.

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Running a battalion aid Station is far from a glorious endeavor. The cacophony of indiscernible noises made by a severely injured human being is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Sitting there just watching things like that unfold never sat well with me. The juxtaposition of emotions I felt by knowing there was nothing I could do besides patiently wait for casualty evacuation and wish for time to speed up summarizes the time warp that is the aid station. Minutes felt like hours. Hours felt like minutes. A few times I hoped for the quick death of a casualty, because the reality was the longer they continued to fight meant the longer they were going to suffer. There was no coming back from some of the injuries, only extending the misery. Trying to make sense of my hoping for the death of a comrade is something I wrestled with for years, and to some extent it still bothers me.

Victories in the aid station are bittersweet. Winning in the aid station. means somebody has already lost. Our success came from minimizing the extent of that loss. It’s hard, if not impossible, to ever get that feeling of “we kicked ass.”  Even when my medics did something miraculous (as they almost always did) there were no celebrations, no high-five’s, and no atta-boys. Sometimes we had a quick huddle to talk about what went wrong, what went right, and how we could improve. But for all intents and purposes that was a necessary formality. I think we all felt like a little bit of us had just died.

Onlookers would always comment as to how unorganized yet synchronized casualty operations seemed. It was controlled chaos. There was never any real trajectory as to how the treatment of a casualty would progress. Some of the most seemingly benign injuries would take the efforts of four medics and a doctor or physician assistant. You could never tell by just looking at a casualty exactly what was taking place inside of their body. And it took all of these people to figure it out and stabilize the casualty. Other times,  some of the most gruesome injuries merely needed some meds, a quick tourniquet, and a single medic to monitor stats and console the injured.

My medics were trained well, thanks to the patience and tutelage of the platoon sergeant under me. His ability to calmly direct the guys amidst absolute mayhem always marveled me. He even had the wherewithal to redirect me, his high-strung platoon leader. There were times when I would venture away from the radio to help triage, carry litters, and even put my EMT skills to use. But when things calmed down, he’d always remind me where I needed to be. Sure, I did what I felt needed to be done, but my job was to keep stats on casualties and remain glued to the radio communicating injury stats to the CASH and battalion headquarters. I always wanted to do more than what my job entailed and felt that if I did more maybe I could help save a life. The reality is that despite how much more I wanted to help, there wasn’t much else I could have done to change things besides do my job. Despite this feeling as a useless fly on the wall, I did my job. I did it well.

And unfortunately, albeit the Medical platoon job was an important and meaningful role, I must admit, I feel as if a trained-monkey could have done what I did. Today I try to remember I was the best trained-monkey in Ramadi…