Everybody needs a hero.
Heroes make us believe that people are capable of doing amazing things and give us hope in a world where so many people fail either themselves or us. Heroism comes in many sizes, shapes, and colors. Mine happens to come in a variety of uniforms depending on what year you found her. All are the uniforms of her country.
A long time ago, I was a Division officer on a submarine tender named USS Hunley. The ship was already getting old by the time I got there but I was fortunate to have a good group of people to work with. One of those was a young Machinist Mate named Jeannie. She did a good job for me but made it very clear that the service was not her cup of tea. I have many wonderful memories of that time but when I retired, she also finished her tour and went off to find her future.
Jeannie Keith and her friend Fay the day they were both frocked to Petty Officer Third Class.
Future for Jeannie included going back to college and becoming a nurse. That was not a surprise since she seemed like a very caring person. What surprised me was when she told me she was joining the Army as an Army nurse. Shortly after that, she married her present husband (also an Army officer) and they proceeded to start living happily ever after. Until 911.
On 911, Jeanie was stationed at Walter Reed Hospital and Mark was working in the Pentagon. That story will have to wait for another day. I hope Jeannie will take the time to share it when she is ready.
Fast forward to 2003. I knew that both of them were deploying to an undisclosed overseas location and we prayed for them every day. Then on March 19, 2003 I got this email from Jeannie:
“Well, everyone, the time is near. Less than 8 hours to go. Tonight we sleep in our uniforms and have all battle rattle at the ready. Tomorrow’s uniform is full battle rattle plus NBC level increased (can’t tell you what level”. High sense of alertness but a calming atmosphere. Haven’t seen real nervous people.
Loaded containers today for the front. Don’t know when we are leaving, but I am still scheduled to go forward by helicopter, may make it there before my other people and work with another unit until they get there. Had a shower today and steak and lobster for dinner. Every Weds. They do the steak/lobster deal. Pretty good.
Received everyone’s emails. Thanks for the assistance and thoughts. I will need some small bottles of hand sanitizer if anyone wants to send it. Need to go. Time went quickly tonight.
Don’t worry, I am fine.
Funny, the thought of that email still brings tears flowing from my eyes. Don’t worry? Really?
For the following months, emails would come sporadically.
As I have reopened long lost files to see how I could transfer them, I have been struck with the brutal nature of what Jeannie and her fellow soldiers went through. It has been fourteen years, but the harshness has not dimmed with age. The stories of the women and men of the 28th Combat Surgical Hospital where Jeannie served are all preserved in those emails. One example comes from July 2003.
Jeanie’s email: Subject: 23July03
“Sorry for the grouped email but mail has been down for 48 hours. Yes, you guessed it, we had a VIP come to visit and all the internet was shut off d/t his majesty, plus we’ve had a busy 48-72 hours
This morning we had a 26 y/o soldier come in from another RPG/Blast injury. This time he wasn’t so lucky, as the others have been, by just losing one of his extremities, he lost both of his hands and half of his forearms. He also had shrapnel to his thighs and lacerations to his face, his eyes had corneal abrasions and his ear drums busted. People have come to him hour by hour and asked how he was doing. Finally he said “Okay if you don’t have any hands”. I was glad to hear him say this b/c he isn’t fine and he doesn’t have to be fine or okay. And I began asking people “how would you fell if you lost your two hands?” They finally quit seeing him as a sad subject to come and view, as they would in a circus or a zoo.
What his future holds for him I don’t know, but only hope with him being in one of the most technological countries in the world, that something good will happen to him as far as prosthesis.”
The letter goes on and Jeannie talks about a couple of Iraqi citizens who are in the hospital with her as patients.
“Now our unit has two Iraqi civilians in it and hopefully two of them will leave by Friday and the other one will either extubate soon or he’ll die eventually. Not harsh, the truth. With our advanced medical practice, there’s just no hope for them over here if they don’t get better while they are with us.”
From: Robert MacPherson
Date: Thursday July 24, 2003 2:51 am
Subject: Re: 23July03
Never apologize for sending me any kind of news. I love to hear from you each and every day because it means that you are still doing okay. I will have to admit that I have had a few tears for the young man you spoke about. I always used to have dreams about my submarine going down when we were facing the Russians and drowning. Sometimes when you spent three months under the water, your imagination will get a little carried away. But I could never imagine losing even one of my hands or both.
I know it’s probably not appropriate, but please tell him I have said a prayer for him. I also pray for you. When this is all over (and it will be over soon my friend) please be ready to talk to somebody about what you are going through now. If we didn’t learn anything from Vietnam, we should have learned the human soul can only see so many things without being touched in some way. I am not there so I don’t see the things you do or smell/hear/feel the things you do. But reading your emails has filled me with sadness and a sense of pride for the sacrifices the men and women have given for their fellow man. I know there is no way that we can repay them for what they have done. I promise you that for my part, I will never let the politicians forget their promises to those who have made those sacrifices.
But when I think about what our enemies have already done to the people of the United States and what they could have done to the people of the United States in the future if you and your comrades had not done what you did, it makes me even more aware of the sacrifices you all have made for us. The leaders of Iraq are more evil than people in a free society can ever imagine. The tortures and deprivations they subjected their own people to is horrible in itself, but if we had not acted, we can only imagine the devastation they could have brought to our shores. The thought of innocent women and children being subjected to poisons and gasses that were being produced is more than the mind could imagine. You only have to read the reports about the Kurds and Iranians that Saddam and his monstrous thugs used those weapons on and be repulsed.
On September 11, the terrorists showed us how vulnerable we are in a world filled with mad men. You all have shown us with your courage, bravery and sacrifice that those enemies can be defeated. I am forever in your debt. I am forever in the debt of that young man whose future is so much in question. But I believe with all my heart that God is with you all and will watch over you until you come home again.
With much love and respect,
The rest of the story will have to wait for another time. I saved every email and picture on an old Dell laptop but the technology of that time did not allow for an easy transfer of the hundreds of files. I am still working on an easy solution but I am hopeful we can save the stories for another time.
Jeannie, I hope you do write that book. I will buy the first copy.