Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Purple Heart

"They gave me a Purple Heart," he struggled to repeat himself, barely audible. "They gave me a Purple Heart and I don't know where it is."

The colonel across the bedside from me reassures the baby faced soldier lying between us. "They put all your belongings together, we'll track it down for you." The colonel leaves me and the soldier alone. I put on gloves and start wiping the blood off of his hands. He's fresh out of surgery, doped up on morphine...he doesn't have a leg anymore.

Another volunteer comes up, holding a large bag of belongings. Here's his stuff. He plops it down next to the bed. The soldier is drifting in and out of consciousness. As I'm wiping off the dried blood, his eyes flutter open. "Your stuff is here. Do you want me to check for your Purple Heart?"

"Yes ma'am. Please."

I start digging through his stuff. All of the stuff he had with him this morning, before he knew that when the sun set again he wouldn't have a leg anymore. Gum. ID card. Dog Tags. Wallet. Chapstick. I don't see the Purple Heart. Then my hand hits a heavy plastic case, slightly larger than my own medal cases. Here it is. I pull it out. "Do you want to look at it?"

I hold it up for him, he takes it between his two dirty hands. His face is perfect, smooth flawless skin and beautiful brown eyes. He stares at it. I lean over, my hands elbows resting on the guard rail of his bed, I've never seen a Purple Heart in person before. It's heavier than I thought it would be.

He keeps staring at it. I start to worry that maybe I shouldn't have let him see it, maybe this is too overwhelming. Moments before he had just recanted what had happened to him to the colonel. He recanted losing his leg, step by step. "And then I reached down and I could feel my bones...". He keeps staring at it, holding it, and I'm really starting to worry. "The Army ain't gonna have a place for me anymore, are they." His eyes are the widest they've been since I met him a few hours before. He's suddenly alert. I take his hand, close the Purple Heart case gently. "You don't worry about that right now. You just worry about getting better first."

I can feel my eyes well up as I bend over, struggling to hold back tears as I place the Purple Heart back with his belongings. Time for me to go. Time to go take a few breaths and pull it together. I do, and then I'm fine. But it's just the beginning for him, the first of many one-legged steps. I think his name is burned into my memory forever.


stacey. said...

So sad. It's amazing that you volunteer. I don't think I could handle it.

On a nerdy note: this was really, really well-written.

Anonymous said...

Faja here; it's great that you are there to give aid and comfort. It probably doesn't seem like much to you, but I'm sure any little bit of kindness, gentelness, and concern are really appreciated by the infirmed. And i agree with Stacey - this encounter is very well presented in print.