The helpful medic

It was August of 2003, hot and muggy the way only Kentucky can be. It was August of 2003 and becoming clear that Iraq wasn’t going to be the cakewalk everyone had thought it would be. And the Army was becoming desperate to meet its quotas, to fill its tanks and Humvees and armored personnel carriers with volunteers. The barriers to entry, never very high to begin with, were lowered. Then lowered again. The crazy and violent, men and boys, eagerly signed up. To get to shoot guns, to eat and sleep for free, and to get paid for it at that? It was paradise for these men and boys who could only find work as short-order cooks or bus drivers in San Francisco. But they had to make it through basic training first. And the crazy and violent don’t like taking orders, don’t like to be yelled at, don’t like to make their beds, be told when they can piss, when they can eat, when they can speak. Which made basic training very difficult for them.

Up until now it was unheard of for the Military Police to be called into the training areas. During my first two years in the Army I worked at Fort Benning, home of the Infantry, home of the Sand Hill and Harmony Church training areas. I worked the Sand Hill zone whenever I could because it was quiet and I spent a lot of time running radar and writing tickets. Every once in a while I would get called to a medical assist, usually standing over a bleeding private after he fell off an obstacle or bringing water to heat casualties because the ambulance was always at least fifteen minutes away. The drill sergeants were never happy to see us, never happy to see our clipboards filled with forms.

Earlier that summer of 2003, maybe in June but maybe earlier, a private from Alaska died at his drill sergeant’s feet. The drill sergeant pouring water down his throat even though he had stopped sweating hours before. Stupid, and now unemployed, drill sergeant. He finally called 911 after the private passed out but by that time it was too late for anybody to do anything for him. After that incident, command made us carry five gallon water jugs in our backseats, a case of bottled water in our trunks. One of my friends got written up for drinking some of this water. He responded, “But I’m thirsty, too. What would you have me do? Buy water?” And yes, that’s exactly what they would have you do.

Anyway, the Military Police were never called into basic training land to handle a disturbance, to enforce military discipline. The drill sergeants were more than apt to handle that themselves. Sometimes, by any means necessary. But shortly after Iraq kicked off, after we had been fighting in Afghanistan for some few months—and that little war wasn’t looking so rosy anymore either—dispatches to the basic training barracks went up. And these weren’t easy calls. For a drill sergeant to call the Military Police, the drill sergeant had to be scared he would kill the trainee himself if someone else didn’t come and take care of the problem. Or the drill sergeant was scared the trainee would kill him. Either way, bad situations.

And as in most things, the Military Police were the somebody else to take care of a problem nobody else knew how to take care of. Not that we knew what we were doing either. But we had clubs and handcuffs, guns and pepper spray. And the authority to use them if we deemed it so necessary.

One night, late August, just as the sun was going down, the call went out over the radio to head to a basic training barracks for a violent trainee. Two patrols were dispatched along with the patrol supervisor. Dispatch knew it was going to be a problem. I wasn’t dispatched on the call, but I was close and bored and looking for something to do. Martinez pulled up outside at the same time as me, the blue and white lights on top of his car churning around and around. He saw me and said, “Henry, what are you doing here? Slumming tonight?”

“I’m hoping to use my MP club,” I said. “I’ve been doing this job for eight years and haven’t gotten to crack a head yet.”

The radio crackled and the patrol upstairs called out, “Will you please hurry for god’s sake?” Me and Martinez ran up the stone steps and down the long hall towards the noise of yelling and smashing glass. Scared privates stood at parade rest, a drill sergeant watching them like a guard dog.

The room was a large classroom. Desks and chairs and rubber duck M-16s strewn all around. Glass from the windows sparkled on the floor. It reeked of pepper spray and blood, a strangely sweet smell, and I started to cough, my eyes started to water. The private, his uniform bright green, his bald head dark red, blood pouring from the cuts on his arms, stood in the corner breathing hard and watching us.

“Jesus Christ, Olsen,” I said. “Did you spray your whole fucking can in here?”

Olsen looked at me. Tears streamed down his face. His uniform was all asunder, his belt crooked, his radio hanging at his feet. “I had to,” he said. “But he doesn’t seem to feel it.”

“Shit,” Martinez said.

We had heard about people like this in training, people who were immune to pepper spray. They told us about people like this, something like ten percent of the population, but never did tell us what to do with them. We looked at the private. He looked at us like a bull getting ready to make his next charge, a bull who knew he was already dead and had nothing to lose. “Maybe we should shoot him,” Martinez said. The drill sergeant, who I hadn’t noticed standing there, shook his head and left the room. More sirens outside. Sergeant Jackson and another patrol came running into the room. There were five of us now and only one of him. Still, I felt outnumbered.

“Jesus Christ,” Sergeant Jackson said when he walked into the room. “What in the fuck is going on here.” Sergeant Jackson had been a drill sergeant at Fort McClellan and still acted like one here at Fort Knox. It was actually kind of annoying. “Private,” he shouted. “What the fuck is your problem.” (Drill sergeants don’t ask questions. Everything they say is a statement. Even their questions.)

“Fuck you,” the private said, his fist clenched, his chest heaving up and down.

“Oh, no,” Sergeant Jackson said. “Fuck you.”

The private charged and knocked over Martinez and came for me. And I’ll admit now, although I wouldn’t have then, but I almost ran out the door and back to my car. Such was the look of madness on his face. But I didn’t have to run away because Olsen tackled him and the rest of us piled on. I don’t know what the scene looked like from the outside, but I can imagine it. A ball of six men in uniform. A flashlight was swung down hard on the private’s legs. Then another one. We were punching and swinging clubs and trying to grab his arms and legs, but he was as slippery as a fish. In training we learned how to subdue people. But in training the people are never crazy. And they’re never very motivated. Finally, after much sweat and blood and beating, we got his arms behind him and in cuffs, his shoulder popping out of its joint. We stood up and looked at him.

“Better call an ambulance,” Sergeant Jackson said. And I found my radio and called for one.

The private started kicking and bouncing himself across the floor. “Jesus Christ,” Sergeant Jackson said. “Olsen, grab his legs. Martinez, put your knee in his back. Didn’t you fuckers learn anything at the school house.”

They did this and the private turned his head back and forth, started pounding his head on the floor. The drill sergeant watched from the door with a smile on his face. Sure, he was going to be up all night filling out paperwork, but it was worth it after this show.

An ambulance pulled up outside and presently two fat civilian paramedics walked into the room out of breath from the climb up the stairs. “Who broke his nose?” one of them asked.

“He did that himself,” I said.

“Sure he did,” he said and winked at me. But I ignored him.

“Where’s the stretcher?” Sergeant Jackson asked. “He needs to be tied down.”

“We ain’t bringing that thing up all them stairs,” the other medic said. “Can’t y’all just carry him down.”

Sergeant Jackson swore under his breath. “All right, soldiers,” he said. “Grab his arms and legs and let’s get him downstairs.”

The private was still face down. I grabbed his left shoulder and Martinez his right. Olsen and the patrol I’d never seen before grabbed his legs. The private started thrashing and cursing again as we carried him to the stairs feet first. The drill sergeant was already yelling at the other privates to quit standing around and get the room cleaned up and put back together. Drill sergeants were efficient like that.

The stairs were narrow and it was awkward carrying him down. The paramedics walked down before us, Sergeant Jackson behind us. We looked like a strange funeral procession. The private kicked again and Olsen dropped his foot and Martinez dropped his arm and he came down with a huff. We picked him up and started again. We were nearly on the first landing, half-way to the door, the paramedics looking back at us. The private had buried his face into the back of my leg.

One of the paramedics asked, “Is he biting your leg?”

“No,” I said. This jackass medic had given this jackass private a jackassed idea. “But he is now!”

Sergeant Jackson started punching the private in the ear. Over and over again but he wouldn’t let go. We finally let go of him, let him fall down the stairs, and his grip on my knee was released.


At the hospital the private was restrained to a gurney. Thick metal and leather straps secured to his arms and legs. And still he writhed against them. MPI had already come by and taken some pictures of my leg—all bruised but the skin barely broken—and a doctor had given me some antibiotics to take to ward off infection. “The human mouth is the dirtiest thing around,” he said.

“I don’t doubt that,” I said. “Fucker probably hasn’t brushed his teeth in weeks.”

Olsen was back at the station doing the paperwork. As he was first on the scene, it was his case. Poor bastard. Me and Martinez stood in the room watching the nurses work on the private, trying to calm him down and get his vital signs, trying to figure out what was wrong with him. A nurse in scrubs with teddy bears dancing around kept pushing a catheter up his dick, a brown and hairy thing, but the crazy fucker kept pushing it out. The room was all noise, it reeked of piss and shit and blood.

“You see that new girl in first platoon?” Martinez asked me.

One of the nurses came in with a giant needle to sedate him.

“No,” I said. “What new girl?”

“I saw her this morning at PT,” Martinez said. “She’s got a nice ass. I don’t usually like those bending over stretches, but shit. You should come to PT more.”

“I don’t like PT,” I said. “All that running.”

“You traffic guys have it nice. And I’d run all day if I got to run behind her.”

“We have it nice?” I said. “I’m working four 24-hour shifts this week. And on the days I don’t work duty, I have to be up at 0400 to shut down Custer Road.”

“I think I’m going to ask her out,” Martinez said.

The nurse stuck the needle into the private’s arm and pushed the plunger down. It’s amazing sometimes how quickly things work. The private went right to sleep and the other nurse pushed that plastic tube up his piss hole without any further complaint.

“Who?” I asked, thinking Martinez was bold to talk about asking the nurse out right there in front of her. Why wouldn’t he just ask her out?

“Who? Are you listening to me?”

“No,” I said. “I guess not.”

“Gentlemen,” the doctor said. “Thank you, but we can handle it from here.”

“Awesome,” I said. “I’m starving. Let’s go get some Burger King.”

“Sure,” Martinez said. “I’ll tell you about the new girl again.”

“What new girl?”

“Jesus Christ, Henry. I just told you about her. First platoon, PT shorts, legs up to her ass.”

“Oh, right,” I said. “Your latest ex-girlfriend. You just better hope she doesn’t pepper spray you like the last one did.”

He smiled, wiped the sweat from his lips. “That was alright,” he said. “It was worth it.”

We called into dispatch that we were ten-eight from the hospital and that we’d be ten-five at the main post Burger King.

“10-4,” the bored dispatcher said. “Lawman clear, 21-17 hours.”

Comments are closed.