It was a bitterly cold night in the mountains of southern Afghanistan. A raw wind tugged at my clothes as I stepped out of my simple quarters, and I was instantly enveloped in darkness. Standing on the abandoned helipad at the center of our forward operating base, the darkness was so complete that I felt like it swallowed me up. It felt threatening as it blinded me to the presence of the walls around the compound, almost like it could allow the Taliban to ooze through our security perimeter. With our base on black out conditions, I spied light leaking around the doorway of our primitive hospital and I let it vector me in. As I opened the door to the hospital, the warm light washed over me like a veil of safety and protection.
Darkness has long been associated with fear, a sense of abandonment, and the presence of evil. We as humans have always tried to extinguish darkness by using anything possible from fire to electric light. So this summer, it was somewhat ironic that for a few minutes our nation gathered to celebrate darkness. In August, the great eclipse of 2017 sliced cross the country and my home in South Carolina was right in the middle of it. We gathered in the backyard, and using our special glasses, we watched the moon slowly take bites out of the sun. Then in an instant, it was dark. We saw the lights of Greenville begin to wink on from our mountain home. The cicadas began to thrum and an otherworldly darkness came over the landscape. It was then that we were able to put down our glasses, and we saw a magical site. A crown of light rippled around a black sphere. The light seemed to pulse around the darkness. We all stared skyward with childlike fascination and joy. After less than two minutes of magic, the sun burst back out around the moon.
All of us face dark seasons in our lives, times when hardships are thrust upon us like the loss of loved ones, unemployment, illness, and financial hardship. Every Nov. 11, our country pauses to honor and remember those who have faced a different type of darkness, the darkness of war.
War moves across a soldier’s life like the moon blotting out the sun. Under the shadow of death, destruction, despair, and loss, some soldiers are swallowed up by the dark and their lives begin to unravel and shred. But at times, war’s shadow reveals the corona of courage, bravery, and self-sacrifice in those who have put on a uniform. The sun’s corona is an aura of plasma that surrounds the star and is 150 to 450 times hotter than the surface. Even though the corona is always there, it is normally visible only during an eclipse. For some soldiers, character traits unknowingly harbored and hidden under the trappings of everyday life, are revealed in the trials of war. And in those times of conflict, these traits are exposed and surround the dark sphere of war with the hope and promise of who we can be.
I witnessed the corona during my deployment to Afghanistan as a combat surgeon. We had just arrived in country, green, untested, and scared, a 14-person medical team of reservists plucked from our civilian jobs and dropped into a front-line forward surgical hospital. Only two of us had been in a war zone before, and most had never even cared for a gunshot wound. Just a few days into getting our bearings in this new place, our brick and mud eight-bed hospital went on alert as the radio crackled with news. After an intense firefight between the Taliban and some Afghani soldiers, we had multiple casualties inbound. We set up stretchers, spiked IV bags, stacked bandages and prepared for bedlam. I studied my team and their nervous looks hardened with resolve, their fear was tamped down as their firmness of purpose kicked in. The doors flew open, and then chaos and noise overwhelmed us. Six wounded were lined up on stretchers. The air filled with the coppery smell of blood, as the white linoleum floor began to run red. The muscle memory of medicine kicked in for all of us. Orders were given, vitals were called out, wounds were inspected and packed. Our once timid team hit its stride, and I could see their confidence soar.
As my team worked with focused purpose, I felt my own doubt grow as I examined the most critically injured patient. After sustaining a head injury, he was showing signs of an intracranial hemorrhage and progressive neurologic decline. My trauma training had taught me the answer to this problem: he needed a burr hole, a hole drilled in the skull to emergently vent the life-threatening blood that was putting pressure on his brain.
As a general surgeon who worked mainly on the abdomen and on breast cancer, I had never done a burr hole. I looked up and feeling intimidated said to the nurse assisting me, “He needs a burr hole.” Without missing a beat, she said, “I have helped on many of these. I will get you the drill.” The next thing I knew she handed me the drill like it was no big deal. Drawing upon her undeserved confidence in me, I let training take over and drilled a hole in the soldier’s skull. The blood immediately drained and he showed instant improvement. As I reexamined him, I felt my own confidence grow as the darkness of doubt receded.
After all the casualties had been cared for, we began to cleanup. As we mopped the floor and restocked the shelves, the people around me had changed. We had survived our first encounter with the “enemy.” My team stood a little taller, spoke a little more confidently, and the resolve and tenacity that many of them did not know they had, flickered to life amidst the shadow of war.
On Nov. 11 as our country pauses and takes time to honor those who have donned the uniform and served this country, we also need to remember the cost of that service for each soldier, sailor, airman and Marine. The darkness of the eclipse of war has left many veterans living in the shadows, the shadows of PTSD, the shadows of broken bodies and broken families and in a darkness that many can’t escape.
This Veterans Day look for a chance to shine the light of thanks on a veteran’s life. It can be a word of thanks, an act of kindness, or attending a Veterans Day ceremony. Take time to visit a veteran in a nursing home or in a VA hospital. Ask them their story.
Our nation has stood tall for over 200 years because brave men and women have shone bright and offered us not only an example of light coming out of dark times, they have ensured the light of freedom for all of us.