I shocked the medic the first time I met him when I flashed him. The laundry soap used by the Quartermasters during Operation Iraqi Freedom III in 2005 was giving me an allergic reaction. The rash spanned most of my torso and arms, working its way out like a toxic Virginia Creeper. Having shown my temporary leprosy to my Squad Leader, he sent me to the medical unit. They were operating out of one of the existing buildings on Camp Anaconda, now called Joint Base Balad. The base had belonged to Saddam Hussein’s Air Force before the war. Most of these buildings were fixer-uppers only marginally better than tents. The smell of dust and mold circulated through the air conditioning units built into the walls. Plywood served as the most widely used building modification material, adding the tang of chemically processed wood to the aromatic atmosphere.
After waiting in the folding chair-filled anti-chamber, I was ushered to a larger room of plywood cubicles with bedsheets for doors. It felt like the fishing booth at a school carnival. Mickey Medic appeared younger than my own 23 years and unsure about how to proceed. He asked if I wanted a female present for the exam. I replied, “Nah, I’m wearing a sports bra,” as if this article of clothing magically canceled breasts with its lack of color or adornment. Before he could reply, I whipped my shirt off and looked down at the red lizard spots covering the majority of my stomach. Having completed my basic training and advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood only six months ago, I was still in great shape and clueless about how I was shocking this poor boy. Gazing at my expanse of bare skin with wide eyes, he ran to fetch a doctor since I was in the early stages of zombie transformation.
The doc hooked me up with a 3- weeks supply of Prednisone and sent me back into the fight. The fight being renovating buildings to be livable while we lived in them. Our actual mission was delayed by a lack of materials or getting contracted locals to stop fighting each other long enough to deliver any materials.
The lull in our construction schedule caused the Idea Fairies to decide a company volleyball tournament was vital to winning the war. I have never been competitive enough for team sports. That tends to upset my teammates, who are not just playing for fun, despite contrary claims. Although it was adorned with a ratty net across the center, the sandpit had not seen the Arabic version of a Top Gun Volleyball scene since before the Gulf War. I was both sullen and outranked as I took my place at the rear of the sandbox.
The fleas were fierce Volleyball fans and chewed their way up the legs of anyone who didn’t smoke a pack a day while viewing the nearby burn pit. As I danced around scowling and slapping at my legs, I must have appeared to be performing a Haka to intimidate the other team. My volleyball war dance was short-lived. Either the fleas or someone hiding WMDs had dug a deep hole near the perimeter of the sandbox. I stepped back with my right foot, catching the edge of the hole, and rolled ankle-first into a pile of sandy pain.
As my ankle swelled beyond what could easily be cinched into a combat boot, my platoon sergeant grudgingly sent me to the medical clinic. My insubordinate ankle shattered our platoon’s hopes for volleyball victory. It was so thoughtless of me and my traitor ligaments.
I once again found myself seated in the sheet and plywood cubicle of Mickey Medic. An x-ray machine that almost wheezed as it warmed up confirmed I had no broken bones. A consultation of tea leaves and a magic eight ball determined I had an inverted sprain that would require constrictive gauze bandaging and a walking boot.
The first boot was too small, and I had morphed into one of Cinderella’s stepsisters. “My, what big calves you have?” exclaimed Mickey Medic in a convincing impression of Little Red Riding hood. We were mixing too many fairytales, and I was longing to return to my bunk. I casually mentioned that I had been a dancer when I was younger, resulting in muscular calves. I remembered hours of échappés for Swan Lake and shuddered.
Once I was wrapped, medicated, and handed crutches, the attentive medic smiled warmly and asked if I’d care to join him at the Chow hall. His bedside manner was improving, but I felt he had done all he could for my ankle.
Back at my bunk, I sprayed my mesh net with bug spray and checked that the flea collars wrapped around the bed frame’s legs were in place. The fleas had won the battle on their turf, and I wasn’t about to allow a second attack behind friendly lines. The fleas and Taliban must have been coordinating efforts. The next few weeks, we were at Threat Elevation Level Three, which meant that full body armor was required outside of hardened buildings. Helmet, flack vest, and crutches became my new ensemble.
Whether because there were no vehicles available or because my Platoon Sergeant was still bitter over the volleyball loss, I was walking to my follow-up appointment. I opted to crutch along the road and avoid the deep gravel through the usual shortcut. The distance to the clinic seemed to stretch ahead in a wavy heat haze. I was so set on keeping my 3-legged armored tank moving that I didn’t hear the air raid sirens start-up in the distance.
An armored Humvee with a Sergeant Major and a Lieutenant Colonel pulled onto the shoulder and yelled for me to get in. I was so tired and sweaty that I would have fallen into Robert Lee Yates‘ van if it had pulled up at that moment. Once I was safely inside, I relayed my destination and injury to the confused gentlemen.
Them: Didn’t I hear the alarm?
Me, eyeing all that rank: Nope. No, Sir.
Them: Why was I walking?
Me, trying to shrug inside my vest and looking like a sad turtle: No vehicles?
Them: What was my company, and where were they located?
Me, a clueless E-4: 659th Engineers, on the perimeter road in Castle Heights.
As they delivered me to the clinic’s front door, I was instructed to call my HQ after my appointment and request a ride back. They then gave me the number to their HQ Staff Duty if there were still no vehicles available at my company. Grateful and clueless as to the poopstorm that was about to cruise over to my company area, I thanked them profusely and crutched into the clinic.
Mickey Medic greeted me enthusiastically and started to unwrap my ankle for inspection. The swelling had gone down enough to distinguish the ankle from the calf. Still, the skin colors were a tapestry depicting my lack of elevation for the past week. Chastising me for not doing a better job of staying off my feet, he emphasized the importance of lying back with my leg in the air. What an odd thing to say. I was slightly distracted by my internal replaying of the Humvee conversation. I had a strange feeling that I didn’t fully grasp the situation there or right now.
While rewrapping my ankle, Mikey Medic looks at my foot and says, “I never understood how you girls could dance in those shoes.”
“There is a wooden block in the toe of the shoe, but the satin should be snug enough around the foot to help support the weight a little. I still ended up with bloody toes during long practice sessions,” I shared, thinking I was relaying insider information.
Mickey Medic looked dumbfounded. “Those heels have wood in them? I’ve never seen a stripper with wooden shoes.”
“What?” Realization hit me with all the indignation of a chicken walking into KFC. “I wasn’t a stripper. I was a ballet dancer!”
The horrified medic quickly finished wrapping my ankle and instructed me to come back in 2 weeks, all without making eye contact. Still stunned by the complete misunderstanding and change in his attitude, I returned to the waiting area. I was surprised to find the Duty NCO already there to drive me back to the company area. How thoughtful!
Watch your step wherever you go, and safe travels, my friends!
Deployment Burn Pit Registry Information: https://www.publichealth.va.gov/exposures/burnpits/registry.asp
Three’s a Crime Podcast: https://www.threesacrime.com/
Veteran’s Program founded by a fellow OIF III veteran: Continue Mission