Bitter are the tears of a
child: Sweeten them.
Deep are the thoughts of a child: Quiet them.
Sharp is the grief of a child: Take it from him.
Soft is the heart of a child: Do not harden it.
- Pamela Glenconner
Last night a grain of hot metal tumbled through the air, a swift manmade meteor crashing through the heavens. The statistical chances of this solitary round impacting one the scattered buildings was negligible, and the chances of it actually injuring someone were almost infinitesimal. But in stark defiance to all known laws of probability, this small sliver of dead steel plummeted downward, downward, downward… until its path intersected a house. And then it continued on, tunneling its way into a little girl sitting down for the celebration of Ishtar. The round smashed into the girls head, its sheer velocity driving it on a merciless path through her neck and into her chest. Left alone she would have died in less than five minutes, her death throes painting the kitchen with bright spatters of arterial blood.
But she wasn’t left alone. Instead her father picked up his beloved daughter and carried her trembling form out into the dusty street. As he stumbled outside the door, blinded by the agony only a parent can know, his movements were tracked by two sets of practiced eyes. Those eyes belonged to our two battle seasoned medics, who had heard the painful cacophony and leapt to action as surely as if someone had bellowed out their names. The medics assessed the situation in less then a second, and then without pause they both set out at a dead sprint. In those first terrible seconds they recognized how grave the girls condition was, and passing the information to one of our platoon sergeants. While they struggled to stabilize their patient the little girl continued emptying her precious life into the street. As the medics labored under the harsh light of their LED flashlights, SSG Rock was making coordinations with a MEDEVAC helicopter for immediate pickup. Fortunately they didn’t have to wait long.
Mala survived long enough to make it onto the medevac bird, and then she left our protectorship. When the helicopter whisked her away at full combat power she disappeared from sight, but not from our memory. The minute we arrived back in the barracks the commander jumped on the line and made a call to the CASH (Army Combat Hospital) to find out if Mala was still alive. The nurse on the other end of the line told him that Mala was in surgery, and that we could call back at midnight to find out if she’d survived the surgery. The last couple days had wore us to the bone, but instead of succumbing to sleep the company leadership waited for the time to crawl by. The evening quietly slipped by, the small coffee pot set up in our command post straining to keep up with this sudden spike in demand. The coffee was hot and nourishing, but it did little to lift the tension that fogged the room. A little before midnight, unable to wait any longer we made a second call to the CASH. In a cool, professional tone the nurse on duty told us that Mala was in ICU. Something about our tone must have hinted at the storm of emotion on our end of the line, and taking pity she added “she is going to make it”. As the news spread though the barracks everyone breathed a deep sigh of relief. Then, with our concern slaked we all crawled into our bunks to get some desperately needed rest.
The next morning brought even better news. The bullet had broken her jaw and nicked her carotid artery, but despite the agonizing injuries she was awake and alert. Hearing this news we decided that instead of our usual patrol we would return to Mala’s home and escort her family to the CASH. Although it was still early in the morning when we arrived at the small home Mala’s extended family told us her parents were already making their way to the CASH to see their daughter. We loaded into HMMWVs and made our way to the IZ, hoping to link up with Mala and her family. As we entered the hospital there was no sign of the family, but when we got to the ICU ward we found Mala’s family anxiously waiting for her in the hallway. They were as silent and grave as marble statues. That all changed the moment they recognized us. In an instant they had returned to life, and they started to shower us with blessings and tear filled praise. We looked around sheepishly, uncomfortable with this sudden outpouring of praise. A few of the soldiers looked through the ICU door to see Mala for themselves, seeing instead her father anxiously signaling for us to join him. We walked over to Mala’s father, and as we did Mala came into sight in the hospital bed behind him. She was awake, and as we walked up she gave us a tired, thin smile. We had brought some stuffed animals along to cheer up the antiseptic sterility of the room, and her eyes flared with joy when we placed them at the foot of her bed. As we were arranging the stuffed animals SGT James T., the medic that had worked so hard to save little Mala, came into the room. Although the young sergeant was making an earnest attempt to maintain some semblance of medical detachment he beamed like a new father at the birth of his first child. Mala didn’t recognize him, but he wasn’t looking for praise or thanks. He just wanted to know that his little patient would survive her terrible wounds. We didn’t want to tire out Mala by extending our stay, and once we were convinced she was going to make it we left the room. We said our goodbyes to the grateful family, made our way to the vehicles, and returned to the FOB.
Ten years from now our unit will have long since passed out of local memory, the desert swallowing any physical trace of our year in the Land of the Two Rivers. But there will be one living, beating heart that will bear testament to our company’s mission and the good we tried to do. And right now that somehow seems enough.