"Quiet Clay"

Reid, over at A Storm in Afghanistan posted this article today from the September 26, 2006 edition of the European Stars and Stripes.

By Dr. (Col.) W. Thomas Frank
European edition, Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Editor’s Note: This column appeared Sept. 26 on the Opinion page in the Mideast, European and Pacific editions.

It’s Sunday in Afghanistan.

I was sitting — completing some clerical task or other — when the patient administration clerk stood at the door.

“Sir, mortuary affairs needs a doctor.”

“What?” I replied. “The last place they should need a doctor is mortuary affairs.”

“No, sir. They need a doctor to sign some death certificates.”

Usually on a Sunday, I can finish my work a little early and take some time off in my hooch — watch a movie, read or nap. I was eager to do so now.

I walked to the ER to see if the doc there was busy. If not, he could do this. This is a task that would usually fall upon the ER doc, but I suspected he was engaged. The telltale sound of a chopper outside suggested more business was at hand. The doc in the ER was working on a wounded American soldier.

“All right, I’ll go,” I muttered, an irritated edge in my voice.

The mortuary affairs sergeant picked me up in his white van — unmarked except for a white placard in the window that declared “Mortuary Affairs” for all to see. We drove up the ironically named “Disney Drive” — which is, in fact, named for a dead American soldier rather than for the fairy tale king — until we came to the little plywood hut that is mortuary affairs.

Outside were several stacks of oblong aluminum boxes labeled “head” on one end and “feet” on the other. Inside the building was cool and it had a tiled floor — a distinctly unusual feature for these field buildings. The tile here of course has a purpose. It can be easily washed, and there is a drain in the center.

In the middle of the room were three stretchers on stretcher stands. On each stretcher was a body bag.

“Here you go,” said a soldier who handed me a clipboard with a piece of paper on it. A death certificate.

He walked over to the first bag and, without flourish, unzipped it and pulled it open. Before me lay a young man perhaps 19 or 20. His eyes closed. His uniform in tatters. The flesh of his face and torso seared a brown color but not blackened.

Across his chest and flanks, large patches of flesh hung off in loose swatches. There was a large wound in his lower left leg.

I picked up the clipboard and stared blankly at the form.

“Cause of death.” What was it? That leg wound clearly wasn’t the cause.

I asked the soldier to lift the head of the corpse so I would know if there was any obvious brain injury. No. The head was intact. His mouth and nose were clearly burned, however. The last gulps of air he took into his lungs were on fire. He died of “burns.”

The next bag was unzipped. I stepped back. It was a woman. I hadn’t expected a woman.

Her arms were reaching up in front of her, her fingers having a grasping aspect — as if they were trying to steal back life from the lifeless air around her.

Where her head should have been, there was only a chin. Her uniform blouse was pulled up a bit revealing a regulation brown T-shirt tucked into her trousers.

Her belt, I noted, was exactly like mine. Store-bought, nonissue variety. It was pulled tight — just the way she had done it yesterday morning. Tomorrow someone else would loosen it.

I picked up the clipboard. “Cause of death.” I obviously couldn’t write “head blown off.” I thought for a minute. “Traumatic brain injury.” I first printed, then signed my name.

In the clerk’s office of this girl’s hometown, three pieces of paper would likely summarize her life — a birth certificate, a marriage certificate and a death certificate.

Now the third bag was opened. This soldier looked younger. His face was less altered by death. Aside from a few places where his skin was scorched, his face looked like that of one asleep.

Strange, I thought. He looks a little like me.

Below his neck his uniform was in disarray. His skin was burnt. There was a large defect in his groin where his thigh joined the hip, both legs nearly separated below the knees. “Cause of death — burns.”

I stood back. It was so quiet. A poet once referred to a corpse as “quiet clay.” How odd, I thought when I first read it. How true, I thought, as I looked upon these three dead American soldiers. They never expected to die. Given a choice they would not be dead now.

They, like me, had read each day the names and number of the day’s dead in our newspaper, Stars and Stripes. They, like me, never thought their names would one day appear. They were driving down the road. They never saw the blast. Their vehicle was engulfed in flames. One had died in the explosion — instantly. The other two could not get out before being consumed by the fire. So now there were three dead American soldiers.

They were dealt a bad hand. Today I considered something I had never before given much thought — the fact that I, too, am playing at the same table.

I have six more months of hands to play. Six more months of hands to be dealt. Like me, they too were married. They too expected to return to their lives again. When they pulled their belts tight … they expected to loosen them again. Now someone else will loosen them.

I felt some shame for the frustration that I had expressed before coming here.

The driver took me back to the hospital. The duty physician and a couple of other docs were still working on our fresh casualties in the ER.

I finished my work at my desk without much heart and was surprised when the loudspeaker system announced there would be a fallen comrade ceremony in one hour. The bodies would be flown out today. I hadn’t expected that.

At the appointed time, I joined the commander and the sergeant major and we drove out to the airfield where a C-17 was waiting with the ramp down. The senior officers of the installation stood on the tarmac nearest the airplane, as they always do for these occasions.

All along the road for a mile or so — from mortuary affairs to the airfield — soldiers lined up to pay their respects to the “quiet clay” as it proceeded to the airfield. For these few minutes most, I suspect, were aware that we are all playing at the same table — and every day each of us is dealt a new hand. Soon we were called to attention and then, to the strains of the dead march, the colors passed by and the aluminum boxes were carried past, now draped with flags.

I go to ceremonies like this at least once or twice a week. But today was different. I had seen these soldiers — I knew what was in those boxes.

Usually, once the coffins have been brought up the ramp, we stand at attention on the tarmac, while the generals and a few of those who served with the dead go up the ramp of the airplane and pay respects at the boxes themselves. Today we went into the airplane, too, because two of them were medics.

Each person in the plane walked past the coffins and knelt — most in prayer. I rested my hand on each box and said to myself, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

Tomorrow, when I cinch my belt, I will think of three dead American soldiers and I will think of my wife and my daughter and of home.


- hfs

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