19 April 2010

The True Heart of the American Soldier

He'd gotten blown up. Sustained burns to the face and hands and suffered blast inhalation. Breathing in superheated air is not good for the bronchial tubes and lungs. He’s being mechanically ventilated.

I watch him struggle even when completely sedated, but some patients have a real rough patch before extubation. To make sure a patient can breathe on his own, first the docs need to dial back on the meds.

This is called "waking him up".

Still out of it, he gradually becomes more and more aware of his pain and the discomfort of the breathing tube. He feels like he's choking. Constantly. And he's too out of it to understand why.

His hands are restrained so he can't pull the tube out. But he keeps lifting them, trying. His legs squirm. He lifts and turns his head.

Then the RT (respiratory therapy) guy comes in and tells the patient he’s turning off the ventilator as a test, and if it goes well, the tube can be removed. He now has to breathe on his own, sucking in air through the narrow tube. He must be scared to death wondering why he can hardly breathe.

"You probably feel like you're breathing through a straw, right?"

The patient nods. He looks unconscious but he's tracking everything.

The RT encourages him, "This is all you, man... you're doing great. Keep going!"

After 5 minutes the RT deflates the outside of the tube so the patient can now breathe around it as well as through it, which is better, but as he slowly comes around the agony of the tube becomes unbearable.

He has to breathe like that for 20 minutes.

I keep telling him, "You're in the Army hospital in Germany. You have a tube down your throat... don’t fight the tube… try to relax!" He does... but he’s so dopey that he forgets after like 30 seconds and starts struggling again.

It’s time. A small group of nurses and docs gather outside his door. You hear them say, "Ok, we gonna do this guy now?"

They flow into the room, tell him they're pulling the tube, and that he should try to cough when they say ‘go’.


When it's out they place an oxygen mask over his face and he gags and chokes and gasps for air and coughs up huge globs of junk which they suck out with a suction tube.

He finally lays back, exhausted. People slowly leave. But his nurse stays - as always - hovering, watching his vitals, carefully checking all of his many lines and the machines connected to them.

I move back to his side and he tries to say something, but his throat's raw and he can't talk. I lean in, apologizing because I can't understand.

"How much... how much... longer?"

I know these guys. He wants to know how much longer he has to stay here before he can go back downrange.

Exchanging glances with his nurse, and deliberately misunderstanding, I tell him he'll be out of the Intensive Care Unit in a couple of days. Even in his sedated state he knows exactly what I've done and gives me the dirtiest look imaginable.

Then, "fffff.... mmmm fffff.... "

He's saying, "Friends... my friends... "

I tell him everybody from the truck's ok. He did good, everybody's ok.

His face screws up like a child's as he breaks down and cries with relief.

I watch the tears roll down over the ointment covering his face, over the seared redness of his skin, over the blisters on his nose and lips.

* * *

It's hard for people on the outside to understand. They always seem to focus only on the "terrible things" that we see. But we also have the honor to see something else: The true heart of the American Soldier.


Bill T said...

I know this could be many, many of our guys.... but it sure sounds a lot like what my son Andy went through. He was the driver, and the rest of his crew were all safe thanks to his getting the vehicle safely stopped.

He is doing well now. He will be getting a new leg in about a month. The Soldiers Angel we met in Germany can attest to the remarkable work done by everyone from the first aid done by his crew, to the chopper crew, to the hospitals in Balad, Landstuhl, and San Antonio, and all the doctors, nurses, chaplains, RT's, etc. More people than we could ever thank. But thank you all for giving us our son back and letting him be here for the birth of his daughter. We thank God, but we must thank a lot of his faithful servants too....

Bill T said...

And thanks for a moving story MaryAnn.

MaryAnn said...


I've been trying to write this post for over a year, hoping to be able to do justice to Andy and everyone who has gone through the same experiences. At some point I have to stop hoping, and just hit "publish".

This is a difficult thing to see, even for non-family members such as myself. But for all of the moms, dads, and spouses out there... well, I just cannot imagine how you felt watching Andy go through this.

One thing I do know - that even as your heart was breaking, it was bursting with pride for Andy's strength and for his courage.

Much love to you and the rest of the family. And thank you for raising a true hero: An American Soldier.

Debey said...

Thank you, MaryAnn...............

Mona Ware said...

I,m the sister of this soldier. Thanks for telling this story.

Carolyn said...

Thank you for sharing the courage and the pain of this hero so eloquently.  Thank you for the courage and love that keeps you there by the side of so many of our heroes and their families, Mary Ann.  You are a heroine with wings.

lisa-in-dc said...

How's "perfect", MP?  Not only are you there, but you have a talent with words, too.  Thank you.  Chatted with some family members yesterday who've been living through times just like that of late.

MaryAnn said...


Judging by your name, I think I know who your brother is... I haven't spoken with your family in a while and hope his recovery continues to go well.

As I mentioned to Bill T above, I started this post well over a year ago. It is not about a specific individual. It is intended to portray the courage and "heart" of all who go through this.

The fact that both you and Bill T could relate tells me I have been at least somehwat successful with this portrayal - a small tribute to all of our wounded warriors.

God bless you and your family, and much love from Germany.

Karen said...

Came here by way of Mudville Gazette.  They are right, based on this sample, your writing is divine.  Storytelling like this, while carefully crafted, is solid because of the heart behind it.  Thank you for this story, it is fine.  I hope the compilation of soldiers are doing okay.

PDS said...

  MaryAnn, I think you captured the experience our wounded soldiers go through amazingly well!  This article is a fine piece of journalism!  May all of our wounded know that we love them---even after we get them all back home! 
  Just to let you know---expect another package to arrive in a week or so.  I keep forgetting to put my email address in the boxes I send to you folks but you know, I'm not looking for kudos!  No, my "reward" is in knowing that these soldiers know that they are loved!!! 
  Last month, I sent shorts, t-shirts, boxershorts, personal care items. fleece blankets (don't worry---more quilts will be on the way also!), and loose clothes for our female troops(also the personal items that help women to feel "girly" again!). Also sent some plastic easter eggs filled with jelly beans.  This time, I sent Lounge pants, t-shirts, some pocket combs and a few other things that I thought someone could use. 
  MaryAnn,  you are doing an awesome job and as a parent of a deployed---I want to thank you!  You have seen many wounded, stood by their side and I know it's heart wrenching when you loose one of these brave souls but take comfort in the fact that you were able to be by their side.  To that soldiers family, it means so very much to know that their loved one had someone nearby.  You and your staff of volunteers are such a blessing to all of our soldiers and their families who have traveled through those hospital doors in Germany.  Keep doing what you are doing b/c it brings so much comfort and hope!!!

Jill Smith said...

MaryAnn, This story has touched me like no other than I've read. We've been through this twice with Jeremy and I think this is the first time I've cried. God bless these Heroes and God bless you!

brat said...

MaryAnn, you did wonderfully!  A beautiful tribute to our soldiers.  Thank you..

Mrs G said...

THIS is what I was talking about. Sharing the stories that show the strength and courage of our American Soldiers during some of their darkest hours, showing how dedicated the medical staff are and giving the families a glimpse and maybe some comfort in knowing how our heros are loved and cared for when they themselves cannot be there.

One day, when you finally decide to write your book and hit publish, it WILL be the most beautiful tribute to our troops and our military.

Thank You MaryAnn for sharing, Thank you for what you do.

Kathy Sweeney said...

Thank you so much Maryann. This is a wonderful post, difficult to write but you absolutely hit it! 

AFSister said...

MaryAnn... never think that you are "somewhat successful" portraying our soldiers or what you do for them:  you are INCREDIBLY successful, and do what so many of us wish we could.  Your words and actions are an inspiration to us all.  Simply amazing.  You help bring them home.  Thank you.

ponsdorf said...

Thank you!

flyingman said...


Joshua said...

First to Bill T. and Mona Ware, May God continue to speed your loved ones recovery and please let them know that their fellow brothers and sisters in service continue to pray for and appreciate them.

MaryAnn- This wrecked me but in a good way! I'm a 31 year old Marine and it's rare these days that I find the time or the emotional impact to shed a tear(and at work no less) I find my self choked up with the singing of the National Anthem or the Marine Corps Hymn but this story reminded me of the friends I've lost and those that have survived and thus d*mn near brought me to my knees.
Keep telling their stories so that our citizens may cry for our service member's losses and cheer for their triumphs but always remember.
Thank You.

Lynda said...

My pray are with you....I thought of my grandson who is in the Army...he was in Iraq in 2004 God Blessyou and "The American Soldier"

C. Murphy said...

Hey Mary Ann,

I've been hanging around this blog for a while now and had to comment on this entry. As the daughter, neice, cousin and sister of servicemen I want to let you know how much your care and devotion to the wounded means to me. If ever any of my loved ones are wounded (God forbid), I hope they are put in the excellent care of yourself and all the personnel at Landstuhl. God Bless.

Skip said...

Mary Ann, thanks for sharing this.  I didn't know about Soldiers' Angels, but I did know that there were a lot of good people in Germany, so if something happened here, I'd be in the best hands.  It does make a difference.  My tour here is coming to an end and, fortunately, I did not have to personally meet you and all the others in Landstuhl.  So thank you for this article and thanks to all in Landstuhl for their efforts.