Lethal Expedition (Short Story) (12 page)

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
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DeAengelo “Angel” Washington was a Crip from South-Central, but he had been born again, was just as Bible-struck as Wyman, and the two had grown as close as brothers. Angel had been riding shotgun with his SAW—squad automatic weapon—up front. He jumped back, pulled Wyman’s body armor off, stuck a tampon in the tubular wound, pushed three ampicillin caps into Wyman’s mouth, and gave him water.

“That hurt, dog?” Angel was holding Wyman in his arms. Wyman was big, but Angel was built like Mike Tyson.

“Not too much.” Smiling, voice soft, dreamy. “I get him?”

“You got the mother. Dog meat now.”

Angel turned and screamed
at the Humvee driver, Corporal Dorr, a quiet young soldier from Arkansas, who was staring back at them, wide-eyed and slack-jawed.

Wyman and Washington were paratroopers of Viper Company, 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment. COP Terok sat high on one side of a steep, twelve-hundred-meter mountain overlooking Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. The Korengal River flowed through the valley’s green floor, throwing silver loops around yellow fields of wheat, disappearing into the blue distance. Early in the mornings,
white clouds curled around the black mountain’s flanks and hid the valley floor completely, and at such times Wyman and Washington agreed it was so lovely and peaceful that it could have been heaven. But this was perishable heaven, and by 0800 hours sun seared away those clouds, uncovering a valley of death laced with infiltration routes for veteran fighters from Pakistan.

Just after noon, orderlies rolled Wyman on a gurney into Terok’s medical unit. He looked pale and spooky-eyed, but he was conscious and holding a black pocket Bible on his chest with his good hand.

“Hello, Sergeant,” said Major Lenora Stilwell, MD. She was trim and pretty, with short brown hair and kind eyes and freckles from the Florida sun. Her Tampa practice was orthopedic surgery; her Terok practice was gunshot wounds and blast trauma. Not so different, she told the people back home—surgery was surgery. But that wasn’t true. It was very different.

In a way, Wyman was lucky, getting to a real doctor so quickly—and he had, incongruously, the Taliban to thank. Because Terok did such a good job of sending hajis to meet their seventy-two virgins, the Taliban had targeted it for annihilation. Then, of course, the Army had decreed that Terok would never fall. Dien Bien Phu and Khe Sanh redux. More, bigger, fiercer Taliban attacks, worse atrocities. More troopers, arty, gunships, Bradleys, drones. Taliban and Terok, two scorpions in a jar, stinging each other slowly to death.

The one benefit of the Army’s commitment was a combat support hospital (CSH). Most COPs had plywood cubicles with extra sandbags where medics stanched bleeding, doped up the bad cases, and waited for Chinooks. Terok had an actual little hospital with two surgical theaters, two ten-bed wards, twelve nurses, and three doctors. One was Lenora Stilwell.

“Hello, ma’am.”

Good strong voice, Stilwell noted.

“Are you hit anyplace other than the shoulder?”

“Don’t think so, ma’am.” The kid was grinning now. Amazing.

Nurses scissored off his uniform, started IV ampicillin, removed the tampon, irrigated the wound.

“What’s your name, Sergeant?”

“Daniel, ma’am. Wyman.” That stopped her. Stilwell’s son was named Danny.

“Do I hear a little Kansas there?”

“Yes, ma’am. Delacor, Kansas. You, ma’am?”

“Tampa.” Stilwell probed, assessed. His jaw muscles clenched. “Ketamine twenty cc’s IV,” Stilwell instructed a nurse without looking. “Through and through. You are a lucky young man, Daniel.”


“Bullet missed bone. A couple centimeters lower and you’re minus an arm. I’ll clean you up, start you on antibiotics, get a drain in place.”

“So then I can go back?”

“Back where?”

“With the squad. Angel and all.”

“You’ll be here awhile. Maybe Kabul.”

“No way. Really, ma’am?” Kabul was the home of CENMEDFAC, the big military hospital. He looked more troubled by that possibility than by the wound.

“Way. We want you to have that arm for a long time. Hey, it’s not so bad here, Daniel. We have some vivacious nurses.”



. Well.” The grin returned. “Thass good. Thank you, ma’am.”

He yawned, the ketamine working. Without his combat gear, Wyman’s wide blue eyes and towhead buzz cut made him look more like the high-schooler he had so recently been than the expert killer he was now. That had been the hardest thing for Stilwell. Not the gore and carnage—those she saw in operating theaters every
week. But the youth. Kids too young to drink whiskey in a bar damaged in every imaginable way and some that were simply unimaginable until seen. That was the hardest part.

Danny was fifteen and talking about enlisting already. In a few years, a doctor in some godforsaken corner of the world might be ministering to him. Her eyes felt hot. She put a hand on the exam table to steady herself.

“Are you okay, ma’am?” She had thought him asleep, but he had been watching, concerned, up on his good elbow now.
was worried about
. Stilwell patted his healthy shoulder, eased him down.

“I’m fine, Daniel. I was just thinking …”


“Nothing. You go to sleep, Sergeant.”

Wyman rubbed his eyes like a little kid and dropped right off.

The next morning Angel visited. Wyman’s bed was one of ten in a long, rectangular room. Only two others were occupied: by a corporal who had dropped an eighty-pound mortar tube on his foot and a Humvee driver with back injuries from an IED.

struck Angel. Outside there were whapping helicopters and thrumming generators and outgoing arty thumping like the drums of God.
quiet. Here, it felt weird.
. Angel stopped at the blue curtain drawn around Wyman’s bed.

. You awake? How you doin’, dog?”

“All good, Angie. Come on in here.”

Angel thought Wyman looked normal, a little drowsy maybe. His shoulder was bandaged and he had needles in both arms.

“What they sayin’, Wy?”

“No biggie. Hit muscle, missed bone.”

“How long you be in here?”

“Doc said couple of days.” Wyman was not going to mention Kabul. Bad juju.

“Ain’t the same without you on the five-oh, Wy.”

“Roger that. Anything happening?”

“Same ol’ same ol’.”

Wyman yawned. “I think they been giving me a little dope.” Crooked frown. “Don’t like th’ stuff.”

Angel chuckled. “Oh my. Back in the ’hood, dog … No, forget that. Look, Wy, I’m gonna go, let you sleep. You need anything?”

“All good, Angie. Thank you f’ comin’ over here.” Eyelids drooping.

“You send for me, you be needin’ something, hear?”

“I will. See you later.”

“Roger that.” Angel started to leave. Then he turned back and put a hand on Wyman’s good shoulder. “You sure you don’t need nothin’?”

“Needa get back on the fifty.” Wyman tapped Angel’s hand with his fist.

“All right. I’m gone.”

“Hey, know what? The nurses in here are
, man.”

“They what?”

Wyman laughed, a groggy chuckle. Angel, not sure what the joke was, laughed, too. If it made Wyman laugh, it was a good thing.

Lenora Stilwell returned that evening, expecting to find Wyman better. Instead, he was feverish, BP and pulse elevated, skin sallow.

“Ma’am, I think I’m coming down with flu or something.” He said this without being asked.

“What are you feeling?”

“Hot. Sore throat. My body hurts.”

“How about the shoulder?”

“Hurts, ma’am.” Paratroopers’ pain thresholds were off the charts. If this one was telling her it hurt, it

She removed the dressing and a yellow reek rose from his wound. Between tribiotic ointment and IV ampicillin, Wyman should have been infection-free, but Stilwell was seeing puffy, whitish flesh
flecked with dark spots, bacterial colonies oozing pus like rancid butter.

Stilwell cleaned and irrigated Wyman’s wound, applied more tribiotic, replaced the drain, and put on a fresh dressing.

“There’s some infection, Daniel. I’m putting you on a different antibiotic, tigecycline. And something for the pain.”

This time he did not argue. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“All right. Rest, drink a lot. I’ll come by later tonight.”

She did not return then, nor most of the next day, nor even the next. The same action that kept the doctors and nurses up to their elbows in blood for almost four days kept Angel and his squadmates in the field as well. On the first day, Viper and Tango companies surprised insurgent units moving in daylight, a rare thing but, as it turned out, no accident. The firefight quickly became a complex encounter that unfolded according to a careful plan—the insurgents’ plan.

They did not hit and run, as usual. In fact, they made contact and then engaged even more aggressively, taking a page from the old North Vietnamese Army tactic of “hold them by their belts.” This clutch of death negated the Americans’ artillery and most of their tactical air support. The initial action became a running battle that the insurgents seemed to have no interest in breaking off. Going to ground during the days, they were resupplied with fresh fighters and matériel each night and renewed their attacks on multiple fronts under cover of darkness. The KIAs and MIAs mounted. After the first day, medevac helicopters flooded Terok with an endless red stream of wounded troopers.

Angel wasn’t a casualty, but once he was finally back at Terok, he fell asleep in his gear and didn’t wake for ten hours. It was late afternoon, six days after Father Wyman’s wounding, when he walked back into the ward—which, though still white, was no longer silent. The ward was filled with damaged troopers. Extra beds had
been rolled in. Instead of the silence that had greeted him before, Angel now heard a sound that made him think of chanting by drugged monks, an endless chorus of moans and cries from soldiers in morphine-proof pain. The mobile unit’s flimsy floor and walls seemed to vibrate with the sound.

There was also a funny smell he had not noticed last time, a sour tang like meat gone bad. He stopped in front of Wyman’s drawn blue curtain.

“Wy. Hey, Wy. You up, dog?”

No answer.


Angel eased the curtain aside and stepped in. Father Wyman was lying on his back. Blood soaked the sheet covering him and had gathered in dark red pools on the floor. Wyman’s breathing sounded like steel wool being dragged over a washboard. Angel stepped forward and pulled the sheet back, smearing both hands with Wyman’s blood. Silver dollar–sized patches of Wyman’s skin were missing, exposing red, raw muscle. His left cheek looked like it had been chewed by animals, the white eyeball floating in blood. He smelled like a slaughterhouse.

“MEDIC! MEDIC! I need a medic here!”
Angel kept screaming until a slim, white-coated doctor with short brown hair and a blue flock of following nurses pushed him out. Somebody whipped the curtain closed. Other soldiers—the few who could manage—were sitting up in their beds, staring, looking at each other:
What's going on, man?
Angel, terrified as he had never been in battle, backed out of the ward wide-eyed and open-mouthed, tears of fear and horror streaming down his face as he left a trail of wet, red bootprints going the wrong way.

BOOK: Lethal Expedition (Short Story)
12.38Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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