Authors: Fiona; Field
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For Tim â who came back from Afghanistan alive and well. Not forgetting the very many hundreds who did not.
The olive drab army ambulance screeched to a halt, making Private Chrissie Summers, sitting in the back, grab onto the stretcher for support. She felt her heart rate jump as nervous anticipation kicked in. She knew from the emergency radio call that whatever she was about to confront wasn't going to be pretty. Terrorist bombings never were. She flung the rear door open and leapt out onto the ground, and almost gagged as her foot kicked a large mangled and bloody lump. The remains of a leg.
She could hear screaming. She'd never heard a man scream before and the sound was surreally high-pitched. And over and above the screaming, the sounds of the ongoing battle raged. Bullets crackled nearby, there was the thump of a mortar being fired intermittently, and now and again there was the ear-splitting
of a machine gun. It was dark and smoky with strobe-like flashes from the weaponry around her and lines of tracers arcing through the night, and Chrissie was terrified. Never in her worst nightmares had she envisaged being in the middle of a scene like this.
âSummers, over here.'
The command from her superior medic who also doubled as ambulance driver, Corporal Phil Johns, brought her attention back to the reason she was there. Swiftly she took in the situation. Three casualties: one was obviously a T1 â the highest priority. He was in a critical state; life hanging in the balance. The guy's leg had been blown off above the knee and blood was gushing onto the ground. Two of his comrades were packing wads of lint against the stump and he had a big âM' written in felt-tip on his forehead: morphine had been administered. The second casualty had a huge gash down his face, and what looked like a chest wound, and the third soldier was writhing around screaming his head off. He could wait. Chrissie's training had taught her that, in general, the ones who were well enough to make a noise were well enough to take their turn; it was the quiet ones you had to worry about. And the squaddie with the missing leg was silent. Only the pumping blood indicated that he wasn't already dead.
Chrissie stepped over the severed limb and ducked as she ran the several yards across open ground to join Phil by the amputee. She wasn't sure that ducking would make that much difference with the bullets flying about, but her instinct for self-preservation overruled any vestige of rationality.
âGet a tourniquet on this one,' he ordered, âthen get a line in. He needs saline.'
Chrissie busied herself while Phil ran to check the condition of the other two.
The two squaddies moved away from their comrade to allow Chrissie space. As she worked the packing fell off the end of the soldier's leg revealing the splintered end of his femur and the mangled mass of raw meat that had once been his thigh. She felt her gorge rise but managed not to be sick. She worked on, tightening the tourniquet before ripping open a sterile pack to extract a cannula.
âWill he be all right, miss?' asked one of the squaddies.
Chrissie's reply was interrupted by another huge blast which made her jump out of her skin. She dropped the cannula.
âFuck,' she muttered. She got another one out of her emergency medical pack. âNot sure,' she said. She tapped the vein on the back of the casualty's hand. âWe'll get him casevaced to the field hospital just as soon as we can. We're easily within the golden hour. We'll save him if we can.'
Over her head the two squaddies exchanged a look which clearly indicated they didn't share her confidence.
Chrissie finished working on her patient. The tourniquet was tight, the blood had ceased to flow, the drip was in and he was as stable as she could get him in the circumstances.
âRight, you two. Get him on the stretcher and put him in the ambulance.'
She glanced up. She could see Phil was still bending over the guy with the chest wound. She headed for the screamer. Not that he was screaming now, which was a worry.
She knelt down next to him. His eyes flickered towards her; he was still conscious.
âWhere are you injured?' She patted his hand reassuringly and checked the name on his dog tag. Private Perkins.
âIt's my stomach.' Even though he was whispering through clenched teeth Chrissie could detect his Geordie accent. His forehead was beaded with sweat but she couldn't check his skin colour because he was slathered with cam cream in shades of brown and green; at least she assumed it was cam cream and not dirt.
âOK,' said Chrissie. âSo were you close when that IED went off?'
âClose enough,' he said, his face contorted with pain.
Chrissie noticed that the front of his multicam jacket was dark â but it was all in one piece. If he had a blast injury, why wasn't his clothing shredded? Something wasn't right but she didn't have time to fart about analysing it. âWhat's your first name, Perkins?'
âLee.' He winced, then added, âAnd what's yours?'
âChrissie, and I'm here to help you now, Lee. I'll just see what's wrong and then I'll give you something for the pain.'
âIt's not so bad. I don't want you worrying too much over me, bonny lass.' And he smiled at her. Chrissie's heart went out to him. Typical soldier â putting on a brave face, despite everything.
She ripped open the Velcro flap at the front of his combat jacket and reached for the tab of the zip. The fabric, she noticed, was sticky and warm. Lee was obviously bleeding â and pretty heavily. Something still didn't quite add up but she was too involved with his condition to stop and think. She pulled the zip down and as she did so, grey intestines slithered out onto the muddy ground.
âYou should have seen your face,' said Phil, grinning broadly over the top of his pint.
âIt was a rotten trick to play.' Chrissie was still smarting with embarrassment.
âIt wasn't a trick, it was part of the exercise. I thought you would be bound to spot that his combat jacket was completely undamaged and realise you'd been set up.'
Chrissie glowered in response. Around them, other soldiers, still in grubby combats from two weeks on manoeuvres, were also grabbing a quick pint in the garrison bar, winding down by reliving the highlights of the exercise before their evening meal in the cookhouse and then heading off to make the most of a free weekend. The noise was deafening.
âAw, come on, surely you can't still be angry.'
âAngry? I'm furious. No one warned me it might be that extreme.'
Chrissie slammed her Bacardi and Coke on the bar with such force it slopped over and splashed her hand. They hadn't warned her, either, about how affected she'd be by the plight of the wounded; the false bravado of the soldiers had been something else. She'd been so wrapped up in the exercise she'd forgotten they were all acting, but now she didn't doubt it would be the same for real on the battlefield. And then there had been that last casualty â Lee Perkins. She hadn't been able to get him out of her head since. Stupid, she knew, but that's how things stood.
âListen, war isn't a game,' said Phil.
âI know that. But I thought I'd at least get let in gently.'
âThe lads in Nad-e Ali don't,' said Phil.
Chrissie sighed. âOK, you've made your point. Maybe I should change trade.'
Phil shook his head. âYou'll be fine. You're a grand combat medic.'
âReally?' Chrissie brightened up a bit.
âYes, you're a natural.'
âExcept when I hurled at the sight of those guts. I knew we'd have some amputees pretending to be recent bomb victims. I was geared up for that, but not guts. By the way, what were they? Sheep?'
âPig. Local abattoir obliged.'
âWell, you'd better get used to it. If you go out to Afghan, it'll be for real.'
âI know, I know, I shouldn't have chucked, but it was just a shock. It won't happen again.'
Phil stared at her. âWere you in nursing before you joined up? Is that why you seem to know your stuff?'
âNot proper nursing. My mum was ill for ages and I looked after her. There wasn't anyone else to help.'
Phil nodded. âThat would explain it. So how is your mum now?'
It was Phil's turn to look discomfited. âShit, Chrissie, I'm sorry.'
Chrissie shrugged again. âIt was the only way it was going to end. She had multiple sclerosis so it was always when, not if.' Chrissie knew she sounded quite blasÃ© about the fact that her only known living relative was gone, but she'd had a year to come to terms with her loss. Besides, she'd done her grieving over all the years she'd watched her mum decline. By the time the end had come, it was almost a relief that the hideous illness had drawn to an inevitable close.
âTough on you, though. It's not what should happen to kids, is it? Not much of a childhood.'
Chrissie nodded. âIt wasn't great.'
And that's an understatement, she thought. She couldn't actually remember a time when she hadn't cared for her mother. All those years of putting her mother's needs first, of never being able to go on school trips, of not being able to join after-school clubs, or the sports teams because she couldn't go to away matches; and then later not being able to go out on the lash with her mates, or go on holiday, or go clubbing, or any damn thing. But of course, with the death of her mother, the state benefits went, and with no job, Chrissie still had no prospect of
rather than existing. And for once she wanted to be taken care of. She needed to be fed, housed, clothed and paid, and â she realised one day as she passed the Armed Forces recruiting office â the army was the perfect answer. And they'd said she'd be perfect as a medic. Result.