Courage and Compassion

“Ashen-faced and pallid, if I don’t act fast he will bleed out…”

Of the many lines that I have written, this stanza from the poem ‘Care Under Fire’ is one of my favourites. The plain speaking urgency of the words never fails to remind me of the weight of responsibility that I felt when I was charged with the care and wellbeing of another person; someone’s child, someone’s husband, someone’s father. In 2007, that sense was heightened by the fact that I was now a father and the fact that at the ripe-old age of thirty-six, I was old enough to be the father of the younger soldiers in our Regiment.

Over the course of twenty years, I progressed from being someone who cared for soldiers, to someone who led others in the care of soldiers. In Afghanistan, I also had the privilege and responsibility, of doing so in an environment that was unforgiving under the most challenging of circumstances. Elsewhere, I have described ‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ as being a story of compassion and courage under in combat and so it is. That courage and compassion was demonstrated back in Camp Bastion just as much as it was in the field.

I will never forget how taken aback I was by the comment from one of our young Royal Logistic Corps drivers, who formed part of the Ambulance Troop in Camp Bastion. On one of my few stays in Camp Bastion, I chatted with this soldier, inquiring about her welfare. The driver confided in me that she had really shocked by the number of casualties that she would drive on the short trip from the helipad to the Emergency Department entrance. This young woman was not a medic and was totally unprepared for the scale of trauma that she would witness. Her war consisted of repeatedly driving the same short distance, all the time hearing the sound of a team of medical specialists battling to save the life of a wounded man. Most times, the team won that battle, sometimes, they did not. Either way, once the crew had handed their patient over, they would have to clean out the back of an ambulance whose floor was all too often awash with the blood of the wounded.

The level of medical support that was afforded to our soldiers in Afghanistan was almost certainly the best that the British Army has ever fielded. A comparatively small force was supported by a medical system that provided several layers of care, ranging from self-aid and buddy-aid, to trauma resuscitation in the field and evacuation by a dedicated helicopter which delivered an Emergency Department team of specialists to transport the patient back to the medical facility at Camp Bastion.

The combination of helicopter and skilled medics was known as the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT) contributed to the saving of countless lives and captured the public’s imagination through media coverage. It’s easy to see why; what could be sexier than a team of skilled medical professionals flying into the battle zone to pluck a wounded man from the jaws of death? Not much; which is the reason why I used to rage at the TV documentaries that so lionised the MERT.

Why so angry? The answer is simple – for MERT to have a casualty to evacuate, the soldier would have to be alive in the first place. For this to happen, the unfortunate man’s colleagues would first have to win the firefight by applying sufficient firepower to make the Taliban keep their heads down. While this was happening, someone would often brave rifle and machine gun fire to get to the casualty and drag him to a place of safety before starting first aid. At some point a professional medic would take over the care (often in close proximity to the fighting) and provide sufficient treatment to ensure that the wounded man could survive the journey to the helicopter. Finally, the Company Sergeant Major, in our case the phenomenally indomitable Pete, would have to transport the patient to the helicopter by quad bike and trailer, choosing the safest route across rough terrain within range of small arms and mortar fire.

Saving lives in Helmand was a team effort and everyone had a vital part to play, including the young driver who was so shaken by what she had witnessed but had the courage to carry on anyway. I neglected to tell her story in my book, but she and many like her deserve to be acknowledged, which is why I have mentioned her here.

‘On Afghanistan’s Plains’ by Barry Alexander will be available via Amazon and Kindle on 5 May 2016.

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