Avoiding Valhalla

an excerpt

Chapter One

The Humvee bounced erratically over the road in Iraq. Actually, to call it a road was being generous, the strip of pavement that ran through the rocky desert was potholed in many places and almost obliterated in others. US Army Captain Adam Whitaker glanced across the vehicle at the driver. The younger man's focus was on the road, with good reason. If not for the crap-ass condition of the highway, then for the fact they were being sent to retrieve a pair of soldiers that had been injured while clearing a building more than ten clicks from Forward Operating Base Grant. The man in the driver's seat was Sergeant Gabe Sobotta and riding in the back, manning the .50 cal, was Corporal Kurt Bailey. The three of them functioned as a triage to a medevac team when necessary here on the far edges of Iraq.

The radio crackled and the voice over the channel said, "Sierra Kilo one nine, this is Lima Tango seven. We have an update. One cat alpha and one cat bravo."

Adam leaned forward, picking up the mic. "This is Sierra Kilo one nine. Any idea what kind of wounds on the cat alpha?"

"Triple amp. We have tourniquets on."

Adam frowned. Traumatic amputation of three limbs was very bad. "IED?" As a doctor for the Army, Adam had seen more than his fair share of those kinds of injuries.

"What else?"

"How 'bout the cat bravo?" Adam asked over the radio.

"Shrapnel wounds, left foot. He's stable."

Looking at the GPS, Adam said, "ETA five minutes. We're close."

Sobotta glanced toward Adam. "What are the chances on the triple amp, doc?"

"Not good, but I have seen some survivors. We have I/O lines with us. It'll be his best shot." Adam referred to the intraosseous lines that could be secured straight into the bone when IVs were impossible.

In just slightly over five minutes they pulled up near a jeep that was parked in front of a decrepit building. The critically injured soldier was laid out on the ground near the vehicle. Two other soldiers stood near him. A third sat leaning against the tire of the jeep. Sobotta, Bailey, and Adam scrambled out of the Humvee, grabbing gear.

As Adam dropped to his knees beside his patient, he immediately felt for a pulse. There was a barely palpable flutter beneath his fingertips. One quick scan made him decide the humerus of the uninjured arm would be the best place to drill the I/O line in. "How long ago?"

"About half an hour," one of the soldiers replied. "We got the tourniquets on as soon as we got him out of the building. It was really all we could do."

The wounded soldier didn't even flinch when Adam rammed the I/O port into the bone. Damn. Adam knew the installation of the port often produced screams of pain. He screwed the bag of fluids into the line, and hastily put on his stethoscope. Wrapping a blood pressure cuff around the soldier's arm, he tried to get a read. Nothing registered. He checked the carotid again. "Gabe, bag him. I'm going to start CPR."

Sobotta pulled an Ambu bag out of their gear and began to ventilate the dying soldier.

Five minutes. Check. No Pulse. Ten minutes. Still no pulse. Adam gazed out past the parked Humvee as he counted compressions. He could barely see another soldier standing out a little ways from the vehicle. That man was covered in a layer of dust, his desert camouflage uniform pale with the sandy filth that covered him. Adam wondered if the soldier had seen the IED go off and was having trouble coping with the aftermath. He certainly wouldn't be the first. The distant soldier met Adam's gaze for just a second and Adam felt a sorry chill in his guts. That soldier knew that the CPR was a useless gesture.

"Stop. Check for a pulse again," Adam said.

"Nothing," Gabe replied.

"Anybody think of something we haven't done?" No one answered. Adam took a look at his watch. "I'm calling time of death as 1516." There was a moment of silence and no movement. "Is he the cat bravo?" Adam pointed to the man sitting against the tire.

One of the standing soldiers replied, "Yeah, Meeker. He's got a huge hunk of metal in his calf. We put a pressure dressing on it."

"Okay, let me have a look. Bailey, can you get a body bag for..." Adam realized he had no name for the soldier who had just died beneath his hands.

"Potts. Corporal Randall Potts," said the soldier standing behind Adam.

"Bailey, please get a body bag for Corporal Potts." There was no gentle way to give that order, no way to make it easier on the men around him. The best they could do was take the body back to the base and allow him to be shipped home for his family to grieve. Adam stood up and walked over to Meeker.

Meeker was conscious, but pale. He was visibly upset too. "I was only a couple feet away."

"I'm sorry." Adam began examining the leg wound. He carefully removed Meeker's boot and looked at the man's foot. Despite the fact the boot was soaked in blood, the foot was pink enough that it was still getting blood flow. "You're going to need to have your wound cleaned out in the OR and there may be some nerve damage. I'm going to start an IV on you just to be safe. You've lost a unit or so of blood."

Meeker gave him a small nod.

It took another fifteen minutes to get Meeker set for transport and the remains of Corporal Potts to be loaded. Adam put a hand on the shoulder of one of the soldiers. "Is the other guy okay?"

"What other guy?"

"The one I saw hanging out behind the Humvee while I was working on Potts."

"There isn't anyone else. Me, Meeker, Potts, and Dominguez." The soldier pointed a thumb at the man standing beside him.

Adam was confused. "I thought I saw a fifth guy. Really dusty, like maybe he'd been on the outer edge of the blast."

"Not our people."

"Um, okay, maybe I was mistaken. Are you going to follow us back to FOB Grant?" Adam asked.

"Yeah, I think we'd better."

* * *

Late in the evening, Adam laid in his bunk thinking about his day. Potts was the twelfth patient he'd lost. It was always a dismal feeling. He rolled over and pulled a composition book out from under his bunk and wrote the name of the young corporal down. Just what he was going to do with the list of names when his deployment was done, he had no clue. Somehow the list was important.

* * *

Three weeks elapsed before Adam lost another. This one had been brought to the base in the back of a transport truck. He'd been shot in the head and the impact had torn half his face off. Adam had trach'd him, pushed fluids, and even defibrillated him. Lieutenant Greg Holden had died anyway. As Adam was pronouncing Holden dead, that soldier was there again. Adam could have sworn it was the exact same man he'd seen in the field when Potts died. Not as dusty as before and not hidden by a vehicle, still Adam only got one good look. Blond hair cut military short, intense blue eyes that felt, for just an instant, like they were looking into Adam's soul and then the man was gone. Once Adam had ripped off his gloves and mask, he went looking for the man. He asked a couple of corpsmen if they'd seen a tall blond soldier hovering near the trauma bay at the clinic. No one had seen anyone out of place.