[Editor's Note: Don't miss Siobhan Fallon reading from You Know When the Men Are Gone at Powell's Books at Cedar Hills Crossing on Monday, January 28th at 7:00 pm. Click here for details.
While my husband was deployed, I maintained an uneasy relationship with my telephone. Any unrecognizable string of digits flashing across the caller ID just might be my soldier calling from overseas. During 2004-2009, when my husband was deployed for a total of three years to rat holes with sketchy service at best, I never knew when he would get to a phone. So a missed call could mean another week or more of silence before he was able to call again.
The phone would ring. The electronic caller ID would read off a series of numbers that did not sound like any known American area code. I'd dash madly, knocking nicely folded laundry or my wayward toddler out of my path, filled with incredible dread and excitement. Excitement that my husband would suddenly be on the other end of that line, his voice alive and well and cracking jokes. Dread because what if, behind that mystery number, a stranger mispronounced my name, the voice too professional and too polite? What sort of horrible news would a disembodied voice like that deliver?
In 2008, my husband was the Alpha Company Commander of 160 men who were living in a gutted soccer stadium on the outskirts of a small Iraqi town. Although this sounds visually striking as a command post and pretty darn cool for soldiers, with its high walls, large open field, and stadium style seats, it was barely livable. All the wiring and piping had long ago been looted, which meant no electricity and no running water. Which meant no showers and no air-conditioning. Daily temperatures reached 130 degrees. His men, whenever they left the confines of what came to be known simply as The Stadium, wore helmets, long sleeved camouflage uniforms of durable, fireproofed material, long pants tucked into their laced-up boots, 40-pound Kevlar bulletproof vests, backpacks full of warm water bottles, and rifles.
My husband called one day in late August. My daughter was napping, his timing perfect, the sunny Texas day suddenly all the sunnier. Except that something was wrong with his voice; I could sense it instantly just in the flat way he said "Hey."
"What's going on?" I whispered, as if my fear were loud enough to wake my baby in the next room and cause her to start crying in empathy.
"Something happened," he said.
I froze. My husband didn't tell me bad news unless it was absolutely necessary. If it was his choice, he'd claim, he never went beyond the perimeter of the base, but spent his days sunning himself bronze and lazy, reading CNN online. But I was the company's Family Readiness Leader — I acted as the contact and information conduit between the battalion headquarters and the families — so he had no choice but to keep me updated on anything urgent that affected his soldiers or their families.
My husband related how, in the grueling heat of August in Iraq, it was a necessity that the soldiers get air conditioning, and get it fast, so a platoon was tasked with purchasing a few units from the local town. While First Sergeant Serra was utilizing some first-world capitalism purchasing power in the bazaar, Lieutenant Littel was checking on the soldiers who waited on the street with the Humvees. Lt. Littel found one of his soldiers, the medic, Specialist "Doc" Benjamin Lee, having convulsions in the backseat of a Humvee. The soldiers immediately rushed Ben to the nearest forward operating base, but no one knew how long he had been having the seizures before he was found. Ben remained unconscious and had a core body temperature between 106 and 108.
"That's when the brain and vital organs start to fail," my husband told me. "I don't think he's going to make it."
Less than 20 minutes after I hung up the phone, just long enough for me to search the internet for the effects of heat stroke (brain and nervous system damage, liver and kidney failure), Ben Lee's mother called. She said she had gotten word from some mystery major in Washington D.C. that Ben had been hurt but was given very few details. She asked me if I knew anything about her son.
During her call, I remember long silences on my part as I kept my eyes closed and tried not to cry, thinking, I am talking to a mother a few moments before her son dies. I was sure that she would get another call at any moment, that she would answer it and learn that her life had utterly changed.
She knew that her son had suffered some sort of heat-related collapse, that his core temperature had been at a level that did not usually allow for continued body functions. But she kept asking me, "He is going to be OK, right?" She desperately clung to her question marks, that breathy upswing at the end of her sentences offering a way out. And over and over again I murmured something I had no business murmuring, "Yes, he's a tough kid, he'll pull through."
I spoke to his mom most days for the next week. My husband emailed Ben's dad with a description of the events leading up to Ben's heatstroke, and received a reply full of descriptions of Ben's journey to a larger hospital in Iraq, of his being "intubated" and "kept unconscious." But most of all, Ben's father's reply was full of gratitude to Lt. Littel and the other men in the platoon who had acted so quickly in getting Ben aid. No blame or anger about his son being in 130-degree weather, weighed down with sweat and gear and war. Just gratitude.
And Ben, miraculously, made it; from Iraqi Hospital 332, to Landstuhl, Germany, and then on to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. By the time he reached the hospital in Germany, he was conscious, lucid, happy to be alive. I sent a care package to him at Walter Reed and, knowing Ben was a voracious and eclectic reader, I couldn't resist including a translation of Dante's Inferno.
A few months later, we had a Company Family Readiness Group meeting with the usual updates from the front. Ben and his mother attended. His mother hugged me, kept thanking me profusely, though I knew I had been nothing more than a voice at the other end of a telephone line, a voice letting her hold on to her question marks and hope. Then I hugged Ben. He was very thin, blond-haired, big-eyed, and smiled as if he was perpetually surprised to find himself smiling. He was wearing civilian clothes, a bowling shirt, and jeans, and I could feel the bones of his back; I swear I could feel how human and close to death he had been.
I asked him how he was doing, if he was glad to be back at Fort Hood.
He shrugged, a little shy but trying not to be. "I just want to get back to the guys," he said. He seemed uncomfortable under the eager scrutiny of the gathered spouses, uncomfortable with our obvious relief, our desperation that if this young man could have come back to us from the brink of death, wouldn't all of our soldiers return intact?
Ben looked away. "Ma'am, I just really want to get back to Iraq."