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From: Kathy Warren
Date: Saturday, July 18, 2009
To: Karen Warren
Subject: Shocking news!

I’m sorry I haven’t written to you or mom and dad for over two weeks; I know you’re probably beside yourselves with worry, but the last two weeks have been so extraordinary, so beyond belief that I haven’t had the chance or the inclination to write. So tell everyone not to worry; I’m fine. But mix yourself a strong drink before you read on.

I’m writing to you because if mom and dad read this I think they’d both drop dead from heart attacks before they got to the end of this paragraph (I’ll call in a couple of days once you’ve had a chance to break all this to them – lucky you). You see, Karen, I’m currently in an American military hospital in Landstuhl, Germany recovering from an injury. Now don’t freak out: I’m okay. Really.

Believe it or not, my war wound wasn’t the most incredible thing to happen to me over this fortnight. There was something else even worse: I wounded someone. Seriously. And it wasn’t an accident. But that terrible incident has led to something wonderful, though I suspect you three will wonder if I’ve gone out of my mind when you hear what I’m planning to do next.

It’s hard to tell you what caused all this; the terrible mistake I made that caused so much pain. Maybe if you know my frame of mind going into that afternoon it will help you understand why I did what I did.

That morning (Thursday the 9th) I had my first trip “outside the wire.” I’ve counseled a few soldiers who regularly leave KAF (that’s Kandahar Airfield) in convoys. I thought if I was presuming to help them cope with stress-induced problems, I needed to know what they experience. So I asked to go on a short jaunt to Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, south of KAF, and to my great consternation they said yes: I really thought they’d say no, and I would merely congratulate myself on trying.

Let me tell you a bit about this experience. It begins with a briefing, which I have to suppose is designed to scare the uninitiated out of their wits. They tell you that it wouldn’t be all that surprising to find yourself exploded at some point. “We got hit here just last week,” the sergeant said in his matter-of-fact tone as he pointed to a spot on the map, “and frankly I’d be surprised if they didn’t try something here or especially here in the very near future.” Even the descriptive names they’ve given the roads do little to inspire confidence, like Ambush Alley and IED Alley. Seeing panic in my eyes, the sergeant tried to soothe me with the reassuring news that “Nobody has been injured on the run to CNS for six days now, and nobody’s died for 27 days, so don’t worry.” At that point I was praying that there would be some psychiatric emergency I’d have to deal with to give me a face-saving excuse to back out; unfortunately everyone (except me) remained perfectly sane that morning. So, more frightened than I’d ever been in my life, I put on 40 pounds of body armor and a helmet and got into the LAV (Light Armored Vehicle) in my mad quest to tempt fate.

When you first leave KAF you go along a road that’s strewn with garbage. The Afghans are continually trolling through it for anything that may be of value: that’s how desperately poor they are. They live in bombed out buildings or mud huts or rickety lean-tos. There’ll be a family of 10 living under a tarp. You want to help, but there’s so many who need so much, it’s impossible. Some kids ran alongside our vehicle asking for food and candy, but we didn’t stop; we couldn’t—too risky. Here I am in an armored vehicle covered in Kevlar and shaking in my boots, and these kids are running alongside us in their rags. It’s surreal. Next you notice the chaos of everything. Thousands upon thousands of men and children (but not many women), dogs, donkeys, goats, bikes, handcarts and white Toyotas; everywhere white Toyotas. And they drive faster than New York cabbies. The soldiers marvel at how the Afghans are so laid back until they get behind a wheel, and all their aggression comes out. So you have these cars and trucks and motor scooters hurtling by, and any one of them could have a suicide bomber.

As if the gut-wrenching fear isn’t enough, there’s a gut-retching stench to the city—garbage everywhere, human and animal feces in open sewers—that nearly cost me my breakfast. I actually had to focus on my fear to keep from vomiting, but that didn’t turn out to be too hard. Every bump we hit, I’d cringe waiting for the explosion. The soldiers gave me a bit of a guided tour. “Right here is where Corporal Crawford died and Private Pillon lost his right arm.” And a little later, “We were attacked here two months back, but we all came out of it with barely a scratch. I could feel the heat of the blast, but the LAV protected us. All we found of the suicide bomber was part of his head. Good enough for the prick.”

The soldiers seemed calm, but listening to their threat assessments petrified me. “What’s that guy holding? Is that a rocket launcher!” one of the men screamed. I squeezed my eyes shut feeling certain I’d soon be smithereens, but another man laughed at his buddy and said it was just a big pipe. A bit later, “Van coming right at us!” someone in the lead vehicle shouted in a panicky voice. “He stopped. He’s looking right at me. Should I shoot?”

I’m thinking, Oh, God, this is it! What in the name of God am I doing here? Please don’t let it hurt too much. I hope mom, dad, and Karen won’t be too sad. But then the voice said, “Oh, he’s turning left.”

The corporal next to me saw me sitting wide-eyed and practically in tears, and did her best to settle me down. “Just be thankful we’re not the guy driving the fuel truck,” she said, which got me laughing. Anyway, we got to CNS and back to KAF without incident, unless you count my throwing up as soon as we got to CNS. I have a new respect for the men and women who do this for a living. It’s unbelievably stressful and absolutely exhausting for the crew who have to focus so hard on everything around them. But I’m glad I did it. I think I can bring a more helpful perspective if I need to counsel these soldiers in the future. And it was a real rush to cheat death. As I think back on it, it convinced me I could be brave if I really needed to be … and I needed to be that afternoon. I was bold—too bold as it turned out—and I came so close to ruining everything!

About two weeks ago Role 3 got this young patient named Jawed. Role 3 is what we call our little plywood hospital right next to the runway—people chuckle at me because I gasp and duck every time a jet takes off as if I expect to be sucked into an engine as it flies through the ward. Even though it’s a military hospital, we get lots of civilians. It’s so sad to see children who’ve been caught up in this awful mess; they come in with missing limbs or with bullets or shrapnel in them. There’s so much misery in Afghanistan; we feel so sorry for the people. But being able to help the injured Afghans, especially the children, helps us to deal with all the heartache we see every day.

Jawed was just 16 years old; he lived in a little village west of Kandahar in the Panjwayi district where the Taliban are a big problem. Unfortunately, that village had been overrun by the Taliban, so our Canadian troops went to get them out. The Taliban were putting up quite a fight, so American helicopters were called in to deal with them. Jawed told us that the helos opened fire on them. “They were shooting at everybody;” he told me (through an interpreter). Now this isn’t as inhumane as it first sounds. The Americans actually drop pamphlets warning that allied troops will be coming and that anyone left will be considered a target. So we warn them we’re coming! So much for catching the Taliban by surprise. Most of the time the Taliban leave with the rest of the locals, but not before sowing lots of IEDs.

I don’t know why Jawed’s family remained in the village, but they should not have been there. His whole family was killed: mother, father, two sisters, a brother, aunts, uncles; everyone! Jawed got so much shrapnel in his right leg, it had to be amputated. He was flown to our hospital where our surgeons operated on him and saved his life.

But now he’s dead.
You may have seen Jawed on CTV news. CTV’s embedded reporter wanted to file a feel-good story after all the sad news she’d covered in Afghanistan, and she chose the story of our surgeons saving Jawed’s life. After the segment aired at home, I gather there was an upswell of pity for Jawed, which put pressure on the government to bring him to Canada since we were responsible for orphaning him. So the politicians, being politicians, decided that the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration would visit KAF to meet Jawed in person, and invite him to immigrate to Canada in front of the CTV camera.

You haven’t seen the main event on TV because the camera filming it was seized by the Americans for reasons of security. God, when I think of how close we came to unspeakable disaster, I still shudder. I’ve never been so wrong about a person in my life.

So, last Thursday afternoon the Ministers of Defense and Immigration arrived at KAF to bask in the spotlight. With them were the pushy political types and the haughty foreign service types who were making it difficult for us to do our jobs. We had to move most of the patients to the overflow tents just outside the hospital. The political aids invited the village elder from Jawed’s village to attend. The commander selected a handful of patients to be in the ward with Jawed: an Afghan soldier, two American soldiers, and two Canadians. He also chose a Danish nurse, an American surgeon and, believe it or not, me. I asked why me; they told me the Minister’s senior aid requested it. I noticed he kept making eyes at me—if you want to be considered truly beautiful throw away your makeup and forget your diet; simply move to a place where the men outnumber the women ten to one. I was worried he was going to make a pass at me, but before he could all hell broke loose.

Before I tell you how the incredible and depressing incident unfolded, I need to mention one of the injured American soldiers in the ward. He had been brought to Role 3 the previous night. I had introduced myself when my shift began because his head was wrapped in bandages (part of my job is to do an initial mental assessment of patients with head wounds). He was polite, but not at all forthcoming. He told me his first name—Bret—and that he was American and that was about it. He kept talking to me, though, I think because he hadn’t been able to interact with a woman for quite a while. So he directed the discussion away from him to me, which is so unlike a man. I told him who I am and what I do at Role 3. He found it strange, but admirable, that a civilian would volunteer to go to Afghanistan to help out for a couple of months at a time; I’m sure the American army must have psychiatrists galore on staff. He seemed lonely, holding his gazes for a little longer than politeness would demand. Not that I found this in any way annoying: one’s tolerance for flirting is directly proportional to the attractiveness of the flirter, as everyone knows.

It was fascinating to contrast a man from our culture with Jawed. Jawed was not used to our cultural norms to put it mildly. At first, he wouldn’t make eye contact with me; I’m told it’s disrespectful in their culture for men to look at women. I assured him it was okay to look at me as a health professional (I didn’t say it’s critical to a psychiatrist since the eyes often tell a different story than the lips). When he did look at me he stared at my light hair and my bare arms as a teenaged boy in Canada might gape upon his first encounter with a bare breast. I felt uncomfortable, as if I was naked before him. After that I pulled my hair back into a pony tail and wore long sleeves around him, even though it’s hotter than a sauna in country.

So it’s 1600 (4 PM for you civilians), and the TV camera is rolling. As the Defense Minister approached Jawed—who looked nervous lying on his bed—the Immigration Minster was telling the reporter that Jawed will soon be settling in Hamilton as a refugee, and would be placed with an Afghan family with financial assistance from the federal government. We all felt wonderful for Jawed.

Then it happened: Bret lunged at Jawed! Written words can’t do justice to the shock of seeing an injured soldier leap out of his hospital bed right onto a helpless young boy. Everyone watching was utterly astonished to see this bandaged patient grab Jawed’s right wrist, pull him up and spin him around to end up behind him; he grabbed Jawed’s left wrist and put his left arm around the boy’s throat; he pulled his prisoner out of bed and backed against the wall where he held both of Jawed’s arms fast while choking him with the crook of his elbow. This took all of five seconds.

At this point, the two “injured” Canadian soldiers jumped out of their beds, grabbed the Ministers and rushed them out of the room. The village elder shouted something in Pashto and ran to help Jawed, but the other “injured” American soldier, who everybody thought was unconscious, hopped out of his bed and intercepted him, pinning him on the floor; the man continued to holler frantically. Then all the aids rushed out without a thought given to the dying child. The Afghan soldier, apparently the only patient who really was wounded, nevertheless tried to help his young countryman. He got to his feet and shuffled toward Bret, but I was astonished to see the American surgeon kick his legs from underneath him; the fall to the floor put him out of commission.

Thus far I’d stood there stupefied, but since no one else was doing anything to save Jawed, I ran to Bret and screamed, “Let him go this instant! Have you gone mad?” I thought his head injury might be the cause of this. He held the struggling boy in his grip and continued to choke him to death. “Bret!” I shrieked as I tried to free Jawed. “Let him go! You’re killing him!” He would not desist; he didn’t seem to know anyone else was there besides Jawed. Jawed had an obvious look of pained panic on his face, which was by this time turning purple. But he continued to struggle, trying desperately to free his arms from Bret’s grasp; I was amazed at his doggedness, especially after the massive trauma he’d suffered several days before. As Bret redoubled his efforts to subdue Jawed, he looked up at us and bellowed, “Get the hell out of this room!”

“This man is out of his mind, and he’s murdering a helpless boy. Someone please stop him!” I screamed. The reporter and cameraman stayed on task as if this were a movie and a real human being wasn’t dying. The American surgeon walked up to me, took my arm and started dragging me away. As I resisted and screamed, a sizable corporal who’d been guarding the entrance to the ward ran in to assist. The surgeon let go of me and stuck out his arm as the corporal ran by, which knocked the soldier down to the floor on his back. As those two struggled, I returned to help Jawed. I tried kicking and hitting Bret, but nothing worked. By this time it had been maybe a minute since Jawed had got any oxygen and he was fading fast.

“He’s Taliban!” shouted Bret as he slowly lowered the boy to the floor while maintaining his stranglehold.

“He’s just a boy!” I yelled back. I don’t think the nurse had moved during this entire ordeal; she was frozen in disbelief or terror. I saw a hypodermic needle sticking out of her pocket, so I grabbed it, took off the cap and stabbed Bret in his thigh. He screamed in pain, but he still would not release his prisoner. Jawed looked almost dead by this point, but refusing to believe it was too late to save him, I looked into Bret’s eyes and poised the needle over his groin. “Let him go!” I warned.

“You don’t understand,” he protested. “He’s got a …”
I thrust the needle into his groin. His pained shriek filled the ward and he tried to kick me away, but he could not move well with a needle causing such pain in the most tender of male spots. I screamed, “Let go of him!” Tears poured out of Bret’s eyes, but he would not let go. I moved the needle to and fro until finally he let go of Jawed and rolled away moaning in pain. I ignored him and checked on Jawed. He wasn’t breathing, so I rolled him onto to his back to give him mouth to mouth resuscitation, but I jumped back at the sight of a small canister with a button on the end. At the other end was a wire that ran up under his hospital gown to his turban. The American surgeon pushed me back and gingerly removed Jawed’s turban: out dropped a small packet of soft, dough-like material. “Plastic explosives!” exclaimed the nurse as she dashed out. The surgeon neutralized the bomb. Canadian and American soldiers rushed in to begin securing things.

Turns out the two “injured” Canadians were JTF—Joint Task Force—our Special Forces. Bret, the other American, and the surgeon were Delta Force soldiers - American Special Forces. They suspected the village elder of being Taliban, and were arrayed in the ward in case of an attack on the Ministers.

Later on I asked one of the JTF guys why they didn’t stop the whole event or detain the village elder if they were so suspicious. He said “politics.” He explained that the whole base had adopted Jawed; he was a media darling in Canada; and the politicians were climbing over each other and flying halfway across the world to share the limelight. Stopping the ceremony was a “no-go,” he said. Plus they had no grounds to suspect the village elder “other than hard and bloody experience with the Taliban.” They had searched him thoroughly and found no weapons. Their only course was to keep a close eye on him, which the base commander had approved.

They were as shocked as I was when Bret jumped on Jawed, but they knew he must have had good reason. The guessing was that the village elder must have had the C-4 and detonator in his turban. Knowing he’d be searched prior to the ceremony, he passed them on to Jawed that morning. They told me what the village elder was shouting at Jawed: “Push it! Push the button!”

Not knowing any of this, I made a complete fool of myself, endangered the lives of everyone there and worse, much worse, I seriously hurt the man who had saved the day. When I first realized this, a wave of shame, grief, and guilt overcame me and literally knocked me down to my knees. I began to weep as I looked at Bret who was writhing in agony on the ground. The pain was so intense this Special Forces soldier was actually crying. I crawled to him to see if I could help.

Oh, Karen, what I had done to the man who had just saved my life not to mention several others, including two senior politicians! I turned him over as gently as I could and said, “I’m so sorry,” but he pushed me away with such fury that I slid and rolled 20 feet until I hit the opposite wall. It didn’t really hurt me, but I found I could not move from that spot; I just lay there in a fetal position sobbing harder than I ever had.

The American surgeon sedated Bret and wheeled him into the operating room. Some people came to help me, but I could only lie there and cry. I was so ashamed. I hurt him so much, I cry every time I think about it.

The surgeons in Role 3 determined that Bret’s right testicle was damaged beyond repair, so they removed it. Exhausted, I had fallen asleep, but when I learned this upon waking my tears began anew. As he slept, I stood next to his bed with my arms folded against his rage and tears dripping off my cheeks. When he awoke, I was still standing next to him with a somber and contrite expression. I again apologized sincerely. He roared, “Get the hell away from me!” I ran out crying.

Bret decided to get an artificial testicle, an operation that would need to take place at the military hospital in Germany. Later that day, as they prepped him for the flight to Germany, I hovered about hoping for a sign of forgiveness. He just leered at me with a look of absolute loathing. I stayed as close as possible, still hoping I could somehow atone for the grievous hurt I’d done him.

I was about to be granted my wish.
As they took him away on a stretcher, I stood watching forlornly at the entrance to the hospital. The next thing I knew a huge blast threw me back on my butt. The Taliban had begun shelling the camp. The warning siren started howling (it seems to come after the initial blast every time as if that’s very helpful). I was kind of stunned but unhurt. I looked over and tried to see through the heavy dust kicked up by the explosion. The missile had landed close to them, I knew. I ran to him.

As I approached with dread, I saw Bret lying on his side on the ground and the other two men stumbling around in a daze. A British soldier helped the two stretcher bearers to the bunker. We’re supposed to go to bunkers until the siren stops, but all I could think of was helping Bret, so I ran to him. As I reached him, I heard another bomb coming in—God it’s a scary and helpless feeling! I hugged him close because I wanted to protect him, and I wanted to be protected by him. He didn’t push me away. Well—don’t freak out, sis—the shell landed really close, and I felt a searing pain in my right shoulder. I looked down and saw a lot of blood; my blood! I didn’t really know what had happened at first; it was almost as if I was looking at someone else. But when my arm started to go numb, I started to cry. A piece of shrapnel had found its way into my shoulder. Despite the pain he was in, Bret immediately responded by applying pressure to slow down my bleeding while screaming, “Medic! We need a medic here now!” The hatred in his eyes was gone; I saw only concern and pity there as he cradled me in his arms.

I blacked out at that point, so I can’t say what happened over the next two days. I remember snippets like waking up in pain in our hospital after emergency surgery to remove the shrapnel and then being sedated; waking up confused on the plane to Germany and being sedated; waking up in the American hospital in Germany just a little while before being anesthetized for more shoulder surgery to repair my broken collarbone; and finally waking up in my hospital room here and warning anyone who tries to sedate me that I’ll kill them. My shoulder now has a pin in it, but it should be fine, they tell me, although I may need a skin graft later on—my scar isn’t very sexy. I’m sore but medicated. (With my right arm in a sling I’m typing this with my left hand, so it’s taking forever.)

Don’t despair, Karen, for at the end of this long, dark tunnel there is a shining light. Last Monday, Bret came rolling into my room in his wheelchair with a warm smile. He had had testicular replacement surgery two days before. I asked if he was okay, and he answered yes in a high-pitched voice, which got me laughing, which really hurt my shoulder.

I asked if there was any way he could find it in his heart to forgive me. He answered, “Are you kidding? You saved my life out there!” I was taken aback at that response; it never occurred to me that I had done that, and I wasn’t convinced it was true until Bret opened his hospital gown to show me a nasty laceration and bruise on his upper chest. “This was done by the same piece of shrapnel that went through your shoulder,” he said. “If you weren’t there to shield me it would have gone right through my chest. That was incredibly brave of you.”

I considered whether to leave him in the dark about what a chicken I really am, but I want to be completely honest with this man. So I confessed: “I was scared as hell!”

He laughed and said, “So was I. Everyone is scared as hell when their life is at stake; it’s how you act when you’re scared that tells you the kind of person you are.”

With his new perspective on me, he even had praise for my actions in Role 3. He said that he understood I didn’t know Jawed was a terrorist, and that I showed admirable concern for a child and wasn’t afraid to risk myself to save him. But he added that he was still a little “pissed” at me because he had been “quite attached to his right nut.” I laughed; I hurt; I apologized.

We’ve spent the last five days just talking. And I have to tell you I’ve never met anyone so fascinating. He’s a brilliant man. He has an engineering degree and was working as an electrical engineer in New York on 9-11. The next day he enlisted in the army. He’s been a Special Forces “operator” for four years now and has spent most of that time in Afghanistan. His unit is very secretive and he can’t tell me much about what he does, but I gather he’s a demolition specialist.

He didn’t say much about the war per se, but did let his guard down for a minute. “We kill a hundred, and a thousand more come crawling out of the woodwork. They can’t beat us on the battlefield; they get slaughtered every time. But they keep coming. There’s no shortage of ignorant and stupid people anywhere, but the religious zealotry, poverty, hopelessness, and boredom in Afghanistan yield a never-ending bounty of fresh recruits.” With a reflective expression he added, “After a battle, the Taliban just blend back in with the civilians and walk right by us. We know any boy over age 15 or so is probably with them, but we just let them pass even though they just blew up 50 civilians. They know we can’t engage them unless they’re armed. They smirk at us as they walk past; they know we know, and they know we can’t do a damn thing about it. They are without scruple, and they use our scruples against us. It’s so goddamn frustrating!”

But enough of war. We’re through with it! Bret (his last name is Nichols) has been offered an honorable discharge from the army as a result of his injury. He’s decided to take it because as he put it, “There’s something not right about a job where they praise you for killing a 16-year-old boy.”

Last night he kissed me for the first time. It was wonderful! As we talked, it became obvious he was really concerned that he wouldn’t be able to, umm, “perform” any more. In my capacity as an MD I assured him that he’d still be a fertile, functional man with the other testicle undamaged. He remained unconvinced. So, in the interest of helping a fellow human being—don’t tell mom and dad this, for God’s sake—I demonstrated to him first hand (so to speak) that he is still fully functional. He was quite relieved, but he told me he would need a lot more convincing in the future. As a caring physician, I’ll help him through the hard times.

I have one more bit of shocking news, so hold your breath, Karen. Believe it or not, Bret’s been recruited by an NGO that builds schools in the Taliban’s back yard in Western Pakistan and southeastern Afghanistan. His knowledge of the Taliban, of Pashto, of the terrain and of engineering make him a perfect candidate. He decided to do this “because anyone who’s been in that hellhole a while knows that the only hope is to educate the children and hope they grow up different than their parents.” He really is a good person, which I might not have believed of a Special Forces soldier before I met him.

After he told me, I looked at him with concern and then blurted out “Can I go with you?” He said he was about to ask me! He said my skills as a physician—as opposed to my skills as a psychiatrist—are invaluable in an area of the world where so many people still die from curable diseases. “And besides,” he said, “I can’t stand the thought of being apart from you.” I threw my arms—my arm—around him and kissed him. I know this will shock and maybe scare you and mom and dad, but I’m going with Bret. I know how crazy this must sound to you; I’ve only known this man for a week. But I can’t bear the thought of being apart from him either. He might be the one, Karen, and I have to know.

Please break this gently to our parents, and tell them not to be too worried for me. We’ll mostly be in Pakistan, and they’re not fighting a war there, so it shouldn’t be all that perilous, especially as I’ll be accompanied by an ex Delta Force operator. On those cold mountain nights with terrorists nearby, avalanches threatening, and Yeti trudging through the deep snow, I’ll be sound asleep in the arms of the man I love.

Your loving, and at long last happy sister,

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