I thought I would depart from my normal blog posting today. Typically this blog is about The Voice: the story of how it came to be, the people, and some of the decisions we made in the translation itself. But since this is the week of Independence Day, I thought I’d tell you a story I heard recently from one of my former students. It reveals a great deal about the character of our country.
The names have been changed to protect their identities.
In the late 1990s I had a student named Jimmy Hardin. He was a good student. He graduated from Houston Baptist University and soon enrolled in medical school courtesy of the United States Army. He finished medical school in good form and went on to do his residency in orthopedic surgery. When he finished his residency, he was ready to serve his country wherever the army decided it needed him.
During his last tour in Afghanistan he was assigned to a forward surgical unit not far from Taliban-controlled territory. As he told me about the situation there, he said it was a lot like “M*A*S*H,” the popular TV series starring Alan Alda, Harry Morgan, and others from the 1970s and 80s. Hardin and three other surgeons were responsible for stabilizing the wounded and getting them ready to transport so they could be air-lifted to safer, more sterile hospitals for further surgery and recuperation.
The surgical teams operate in tents often wearing 60-70 pounds of armor because bullets are ripping through the canvas and mortar rounds are exploding nearby. They work in a harsh environment, doing everything they can to save the lives and limbs of their patients. Among the critically injured are U.S. and allied soldiers wounded in the course of battle or troop movements. The most common threats to our efforts involve IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices). Injured soldiers are brought in during all hours of the day and night with shrapnel and blast injuries because of these insidious creations. Hardin, an orthopedic surgeon, often has to decide which limbs remain and which have to be amputated there in the field.
But it is also common for our U.S. Army doctors to work on Afghani civilians and others caught in the crossfire of battle. Our makeshift hospitals are often the best chance injured and sick Afghanis have for surviving. He said to me, “When they bring in patients, I don’t ask which side are they on. I’m a doctor. I just go to work.”
When the injured come in, teams of doctors, nurses and assistants spring into action, ready to serve but never knowing exactly what they are going to find. One of those assistants was a young man named Jose Elizondo. Jose was not part of the medical team; his job was to support the mission with the clerical and organization skills he had. He made sure the doctors and nurses had the supplies they needed to be able to render their life-saving aid. The doctors could not work their medical magic without him. As Hardin told me the story, “Radar” O’Reilly came to mind.
Jose was a bright spot in everyone’s day. Everyone knew him and liked him because he was always positive and efficient; he knew exactly what to do to break the tension which mounted as each new patient arrived. He had a gift for making people laugh and feel comfortable even in this most inhospitable environment.
One day as Jose was returning to camp, the vehicle he was riding in was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and Jose was badly injured. Those who survived the blast did what they could to repel the attack and get the injured back to field hospital.
When they were told injured soldiers were coming in, Dr. Hardin assembled his team but he had no idea that one of them was his friend. As soldiers carried in the limp, lifeless body of Jose, Hardin felt his heart leap into his throat. With adrenaline pumping the team of surgeons and nurses went to work on their colleague. They worked for nearly four hours, but Jose did not make it. By 4 o’clock that dreadful afternoon the doctors knew that nothing more could be done. He died within minutes.
Half an hour later the surgeons heard that more injured were on the way. Exhausted from the previous hours of surgeries and grieving the loss of their friend, the surgical teams washed and prepared for another round. As they entered the surgical tent, a Taliban soldier, Zareen al-Hourani, lay on the gurney before them. One of the medics leaned over and said to Hardin, “This was the Taliban soldier who shot the grenade into Jose’s vehicle.”
“Here is the man responsible for my friend’s death,” Hardin thought.
Hardin composed himself and quickly went to work. Zareen was badly injured and would be needing blood, lots of it; but the blood supply was dangerously low because casualties had been heavy the last few days. As the news circulated that the docs were working on the Taliban soldier who killed Jose, a call went out for blood. Would anyone volunteer?
The doctors worked for nearly twelve hours to stop the bleeding and save the Talibani’s life. It took a total of 73 units of blood. Despite the enmity of the war, despite the loss of their friend, 73 American soldiers stepped forward that day to donate blood to save the life of the man who had aimed the rocket-propelled grenade into Jose’s vehicle.
Weeks later, after Zareen had recovered, the decision was made to release him. On his way out of the U.S. Army camp, one of our soldiers placed a New York Yankees baseball cap on his head. Since Yankee ingenuity and Yankee blood had saved him, it made sense for him to leave the hospital sporting a Yankees cap.
The act of those surgeons, nurses, and blood donors that day to save the life of the Taliban soldier who took Jose’s life speaks volumes about the character of our nation: “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Regardless of what many say, America is an exceptional nation. We are not perfect, of course, but we are remarkable.
Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (The Voice)
For everything that happens in life—there is a season,
a right time for everything under heaven.
A time to be born, a time to die;
a time to plant, a time to collect the harvest;
A time to kill, a time to heal;
a time to tear down, a time to build up; . . .
A time to love, a time to hate;
a time to go to war, a time to make peace.
Let’s pray that a season of peace will soon be on this great nation.