02 The Prodigal Soldier

It was mid-afternoon, and the sunlight shone through the small window of my hospital room in the burn unit at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. I don’t know how long I had been there, but I guess it had been three or four days since the accident.

My left hand was intact, or somewhat intact, with fingers protruding from a lot of moist gauze. The other one felt like it was there, but since the stump of bandages didn’t extend far enough to reach my hand, I knew it really wasn’t. I couldn’t remember much about what happened, but the strongest portion of memory I retained was my hands burning. I guess my squad leader was right about always wearing gloves when we are out on mission. That jerk. I would punch him in the face if I still had a fist.

I didn’t answer the knock at the door, since I didn’t really want to be bothered. Typical to any hospital, the person on the other side was really only knocking to be polite before they entered the room. I did a double take after giving only a cursory glance at my visitor. The sight of the nurse that came through the door was enough to take my mind off the self pity. She was hot – I mean objectively hot, not just hot because I hadn’t seen a woman in seven months. Not many people can make maroon hospital scrubs attractive, but these seemed to fit perfectly. She had an angular face, and her dark hair was cut short so it fell along her jaw line. To top it all off, she was wearing a Santa hat. It was a deep enough red so it didn’t clash too badly with her scrubs, but it stuck out.

No soldier in his right mind would pass up this opportunity. I tried to give her a winning smile, but it turned into more of a grimace as the self-consciousness took over. The sight in the mirror this morning was not the most charming, and it would probably take a while for me to get used to the burn scars on my face. I was worried about my smile too, knowing I lost an odd assortment of teeth when my face impacted the armor of my unit’s Stryker vehicle. As a nurse, maybe she would look past all of that.

Only yesterday was my dose of painkillers low enough for my sentences to regain a lucid quality. After a few false starts I passed off as clearing my throat, I managed to say the most charming thing I could think of, “What’s with the hat?”

“It’s Christmas, didn’t you know?” She was blunt enough for me to know her question was rhetorical, but I couldn’t stop there. “This will make for quite a story, huh? Christmas in an Army hospital.”

“Uh, huh,” she said noncommittally, not looking up from the clipboard where she took notes on my vital signs.

Maybe I wasn’t really in my right mind to think she would talk to her horrifically burned patient. I persisted anyway, glancing at her nametag and giving her a line, “Still, Anne, I’d rather spend Christmas with you than anywhere else.”

I guess she took enough pity on me to at least talk to the poor, broken war veteran. She set the clipboard on the end of the bed and came a little closer.

“You wouldn’t rather be home? What do you usually do on Christmas?”

I couldn’t resist a little teasing, “Well, I would usually go down to the old folks’ home and play the piano. All the Christmas songs you could think of – Jingle Bells, Frosty, Let it Snow – all of it…”

I didn’t even finish the sentence before her eyes got really wide and her hands covered a look of horror. Correcting myself immediately, I gave an apology, “Oh, I’m kidding. I’ve never been able to play the piano. I promise. Sorry, bad joke.”

She punched me firmly enough in the gut to prevent any more teasing. I flinched pretty badly for an infantryman, but she must have known I didn’t have too many burns there. Recovering pretty well from the shock, she gave a frustrated screech, “You jerk! Play the piano… No, really, what did you do with your family on Christmas?”

I guess I got my foot in the door, but this wasn’t my favorite topic, “Well, you know…my mom, she was really churchy. My family did all kinds of devotionals and scripture readings. The younger kids dressed up like shepherds, blankets over their heads and stuff like that. I usually fell back asleep on the couch, or pretended to, once I opened a few presents. She always made us waffles with powdered sugar for snow. While she had a rapt audience, with mouths full of food, she would read us the Christmas story out of the Bible.”

Finally, a smile as she responded, “That sounds a lot like my family. We always had our own Christmas pageant with my little brothers, and dad read the story from the Book of Luke. What church does your mom go to?”

Another uncomfortable subject, but I tried to shrug it off, “I mean… I was raised Mormon, but I was never very good at it.”

“Oh, then there are two Mormons in this room. Did you get to go to church while you were deployed?”

“Uh,” I squirmed, “I think there was some kind of meeting with the chaplain there, but I quit doing the church thing a while ago. I haven’t been to church since before I left home.”

“You know,” she said, glancing at her watch, “Your family is probably sitting down to those waffles right about now. You should call. It will brighten their Christmas to hear you are doing better.”

“I don’t really think they care. Besides, how am I supposed to dial?” I asked. The words came out with a little more bite than I meant, and when I held up my bandaged hands her look assumed I made some kind of obscene gesture.

“I know you’re in a lot of pain, but you don’t have to be rude about it,” she corrected me gently.

“Yeah, sorry,” I mumbled.

“I helped replace your bandages last night. You should be able to use your left hand again soon. Occupational therapy will work with you as soon as the holiday is done. In the meantime, I will be happy to dial the phone for you.”

Still resisting but not wanting her to go, I came up with the best excuse I could, “I appreciate it, really, but I don’t even know the number.”

She crossed her arms and tilted her head to the side, “I don’t believe that.”

More anger came to the surface without me really intending it, “No, seriously. They don’t even know I’m here. You know that ‘record of emergency data’ the Army makes you fill out when you get sent downrange? I put ‘do not notify due to ill health,’ and I want to keep it that way. They didn’t care then, why would they care now? Believe me, no one knows I’m here.”

Her voice seemed really quiet, but held a firm conviction, “Heavenly Father knows that you are here.”

Letting my anger get the best of me, I let loose on her, “I think I yelled at the Chaplain yesterday after he told me he didn’t have the answers. Don’t you try and preach at me. I got enough of that at home, and I am never going back.”

She backed off a little bit, getting the hint that I didn’t want to talk about family or church. Thankfully, she must have still wanted to talk, “So, how did it happen? How did you get burned?”

This girl had a true knack for finding all of the worst conversation topics. I grimaced a few times, then started with the first thing on my mind, “I wasn’t wearing my gloves.”

Her eyes widened, “Was it an attack?”

I don’t know why I told her, but I couldn’t hold back, “A roadside bomb, up under the vehicle. I felt the impact like it was right on top of me, forcing all the air out of my lungs. There was fire everywhere, so it must have hit a fuel line. My squad leader saw I was hit and pulled me out as soon as it started. I don’t think anyone else made it out before the rounds in the back started cooking off. Anyone else who tried to go in after us would have been killed too. My buddies strapped me to the stretcher, with Doc Wilson working frantically.”

Tearing up, there was an empathic twist to her lips. “He did a good job,” she said.

“He’s the best medic in the whole battalion,” I said, shaking my head. “But I was sure I was a goner. To tell you the truth, it was the first I prayed in a long time. I stopped before I left home. It never seemed to do any good. I prayed for the other guys in my squad, and I prayed for my life. I called out to God, full of regret and wanting only to have another chance. The guys must have thought I was losing it. Once the morphine kicked in, I couldn’t really focus anymore. I woke up here, with the rest of the prayer still on my lips, pleading for my life. I suppose my prayer was answered, even if I didn’t finish it.”

“Does that mean you still believe?” she said through a sob.

“I know what my mother taught me. She was right, and I resented her for loving me. After all these years she probably prays for my safety every night. God protected me from the fire, I know that. Well, I guess I know… Maybe I should tell her.”

“Come on, tell me the number,” she insisted, wiping the tears from her eyes. When she leaned over to take the phone from the table on the opposite side of the bed, I got an intoxicating whiff of whatever product women put on in the morning that makes them smell so good. Through some combination of that inebriating aroma, the haze of painkillers, and her persuasive nature, I relented.

“Alright,” I said, “Alright. Fine, I will call them.” I recited the number, and she was polite enough not to point out the fact that I really did know it. Then she sat down in the chair next to my hospital bed, leaning over again to hold the phone to my ear. She was really gentle about it, which made me realize just how bad the exposed burns on my face must have been.

In a sudden eternity, there was a voice on the other line, “Hello?”

“Hi, uh…mom? It’s…uh…it’s Dave.”


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