Mine would be just another story about a menopausal woman leaving a thirty-year marriage to an orthopedic surgeon for her tango teacher, except that I’m a surgical nurse, joined the US Army, and ended up in wartime Iraq. I’ve almost forgotten about Paolo, slithering around in those black leather pants, and that I was smitten enough to blow my divorce settlement, buy him a dance studio and believe we’d run it together.
Triage is life, limb, or eyesight, here at Al Asad, the only US military hospital in west Iraq. I’m Head Nurse in the OR and my scrubs have a custom pocket for a 9mm Glock. It’s perverted to stand at an operating table, armed and dangerous, sopping up blood, saving someone’s life while poised and ready to kill someone else. When I see a shredded femoral artery or cradle torn bowels in my hands, I count steps to a pasodoble and relive the ecstasy of strutting and spinning in a young man’s muscular arms.
Scowling Marines with M-16s surround our hospital but we’re all too exhausted and anxious to pay attention to anyone’s mood. We don’t give a shit if no one smiles for days at a time. More choppers mean more sleepless nights.
My own kids are older than my nursing staff and yes, I’m too old for this, but I need money, a military pension won’t hurt, and I’m experienced in wartime surgery so they want me in spite of my age. In the early 90’s, my son enlisted to fight in Desert Storm and I cajoled his fine surgeon of a father into joining up with me; we’d all go together, one patriotic family. My husband did anything I asked for three decades and I can’t remember now why I thought he was boring.
Most of the Iraqis we treat are our informers and I can tell how poor they are by the holes in their shoes and the gaps in their teeth. Their faces contort with terror of being recognized when they leave our hospital because insurgents hide in plain sight. Even gaping gunshot wounds stagger in with an interpreter who stays only a minute or two, then skulks away. I communicate with hand gestures and gentle touch, bury my concern beneath my mask.
It’s blast furnace hot and the dust storms are as blinding as blizzards back in East Lansing. Dust sticks to my sweaty skin, congeals into reddish-brown paste in my nose and mouth. Standard issue goggles protect our eyes, even inside the tents, and balaclava covers our faces, necks, and ears. At least the toilets flush.
There’s a Burger King on base and I’m puke sick of Army chow, would love a Whopper and fries, but our mercenary Ugandan guards tell women not to walk alone, night or day, even with our Glocks. Too many sexual assaults they say, and of course, the snakes.
Lots of accidental shootings here but not among Marines. They’re tough as roofing nails, fearless, itchy to use their weapons. I stitched up a twenty-year-old jarhead last week; no anesthetic, deep, eighteen-inch gash down his face, neck, and chest, and when I clipped the suture he focused deep into my eyes, “Thank you for your service to our country, Major. And for helping me.”
Black vinyl body bags are packed in ice in their coffins for the trip home. When the C-5s land stateside, the coffins are off-loaded and guys on base open them, suck all the water out with shop vacs and then close them up for escort home to their families.
I had a skin lesion removed from my neck a week ago and it came back cancer but the doc said he got all of it. No big deal. I went shopping after the surgery. Army & Air Force Exchange Services allow the Turks and Iraqis to run little shops here on base. I bought a Heriz design pillow and spicy apple tea.
Paolo used to kiss that spot on my neck; called the lesion a beauty mark.
The scar is small.