December 20, 2006

Frontline Faith

Former managing editor of the Adventist Review Myrna Tetz sat down recently to talk with Amy Ruthowske, a lieutenant in the United States Army, serving in Iraq, about life before and after the war.
2006 1535 page12 caphen we first met, you were a teenager living in Durham, North Carolina. Now you’re a lieutenant in the United States Army. Describe the years between high school and your decision to join the Army.
I’ve always been a headstrong child—my poor parents—and I enlisted in the United States Army at 18. My decision to become an officer came about 18 months later, when I grudgingly joined Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Best decision ever! This program was such a blessing to me. They took raw potential and molded me and my leadership skills. They challenged me to be a better leader than I would’ve known to be on my own.
It was also during this time that I made a commitment to the Lord, and demonstrated this by baptism into the Chapel Hill New Life Seventh-day Adventist Church. I have been blessed to find a warm, welcoming family-style church environment.
When did you arrive in Iraq? And please describe your position.
I arrived first in Kuwait. I was there for about two weeks before being deployed to Iraq (the day before Thanksgiving in 2005).
From November 2005 to the present I have served as the executive officer of Alpha Company, Medical Task Force 10, Baghdad, Iraq.
I came in as the executive officer of a 300 plus personnel-staffed combat support hospital (CSH, pronounced cash). These people are a mixture of doctors, nurses, techs, and other medical professionals of all ranks—everything from junior enlisted techs and noncommissioned officers to full bird colonel doctors and nurses. It’s unique to an Army hospital—we are not the norm. And that also meant this unit was something I’d never trained for.
What adjustments in your lifestyle did you need to make?
2006 1535 page12What didn’t I adjust! New boss, new clothes and accessories (only the Army physical fitness uniform or desert fatigues are authorized—unless asleep and in pj’s), the ballistic helmet and body armor with ballistic eye protection any time while outdoors, new living quarters (a flimsy trailer with sheet metal roof/walls, vinyl “wood” floors, leaky shower, and a very used mattress), new city (downtown Baghdad . . . where to start?), new foods, new drinking water, new air to breathe, new smells, new sounds, new people. Honestly, Myrna, you can’t ask what’s different; you have to ask what stayed the same!
Describe an experience you’ve had so that the readers can better understand what’s happening in Iraq.
This could be entitled: “I See Dead People.”
We had a sad day yesterday at the CSH. Around 1600 hours we had two different Stryker teams roll in with a total of 10 soldiers hurt. An hour later, we had seven more. Then around 2100 hours we had 11 more—three died. One was dead on arrival, one died in emergency medical treatment, and the third—well, here goes.
SPC (Specialist) Don was a gunner. His pelvis was shattered and his L-spine in several vertebrae was fractured. His pelvic fractures lacerated several major blood vessels, and sliced open his bowel. He had massive hematomas in his legs, and he was bleeding into his belly.
The emergency room (ER) staff kept him alive and got him to the operating room (OR) in about 15 minutes. In the OR, they called for blood products. In total, the soldier had more than 90 blood products transfused into him—and he kept bleeding. The floor in the OR was a pool of blood.
Because the OR was down several E-4s, I jumped in for Don. I spent the next five hours running up and down the stairs from the first to the third floor carrying his blood products and laboratory samples between the OR and the laboratory. Then I stayed in the intensive care unit (ICU) with him and his doctors until I had to make it home for curfew.
He was operated on to fix his pelvis, arm, and spine, to repair his damaged vessels, lacerated bowel, contused lung, splayed-open arm, spleen, liver, and broken ribs. By the time they transported him, his oxygen saturation levels (sats) were at 98 and 100 percent. He was looking like he might stabilize—then fluid, blood, and clear stuff started creeping up from his lungs and out the peep vent through his trachea tube. They suctioned his lung, and tons of fluid came out. He then crashed; totally shut down. They shocked him a couple of times, added epinephrine and more blood, but he never pulled out.
Describe how you and the other injured soldiers reacted during the fight for this soldier’s life and after he died.
I met his teammates. They asked me how he was doing. At times like this, I ask God for composure and strength and wisdom. I send a silent scream to God and ask to say the right thing and not a trite, insincere Army or God cliché. I take a deep breath, open my mouth to speak, and let God say the rest—at least I hope.
One soldier asked, “Hey, ma’am. How’s Don doing? He was in surgery for a long time.”
“At this moment, the physiology of his body is in bad shape, and he is very unstable and sick,” I explained.
They frowned, “He’s gonna die, isn’t he? He won’t make it, ma’am.”
That broke my heart. I didn’t have a good answer, but I offered a wimpy “Don’t give up yet. He’s got a great team of doctors working for him right now. Your boy Don has been fighting for eight hours; don’t give up on him.”
I sat on the stairs and talked to a soldier who was in a wheelchair and who had a broken leg and a serious concussion, complete with the bleeding and the head wrap, about his buddy in the ICU. We chatted about his buddy dying—or tried to chat about him pulling through.
At times like this I ask God to send strength and comfort to those who are injured. But also for the lieutenants and sergeants, especially the young ones, so they can wake up in the morning and face their troops and lead their soldiers through another day. I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a soldier of mine.
He’s not the first soldier I’ve seen die. He’s not the first soldier I’ve carried to the morgue. He’s not the first soldier I’ve seen very ill. He’s not the first soldier whose buddies I’ve talked to. He’s not the first soldier I’ve been a runner for. He’s not my first anything.
Why did this one bug me? Why did I get home and collapse and dream about him in the OR like it never ended? Why do I still see the pools of bright-red blood and surgeons on step stools? I’m not sure.
I don’t know why I’m asking all these questions. I’m not sure why it seems to be something I need to talk about. Maybe it’s because I was tired. Maybe it’s because we’re the health-care community that we feel an extra empathetic sense of wonderment that causes us to have verbal excesses about every case we experience (as opposed to just seeing a case).
Then, maybe it’s just me. Maybe this is how I have chosen to deal with stuff. It’s really comforting to me that I can go from feeling awful about myself and my day to having a tiny part in saving a soldier’s life, and suddenly everything is better. My problems are nil, and I’m happy to be here, awake and alive for that one person.
I do love the OR. So many good things happen there. So many lives are saved in there—94 percent survival rate of all people that present to my ER. That’s amazing. I’m proud.
But I’m ready to move on back home. To see my spiritual family in Chapel Hill. To have a home. To have a life outside these walls. To sleep at night without mortars, rotary aircraft, and sirens.
Fortunately, Amy has recently returned home. Thank you, Amy, for sharing so candidly. Please know that I, and the readers of the Adventist Review, will pray for you specifically as you lead in your assigned areas—wherever that may be. Have a blessed Christmas!
Myrna Tetz, now retired, lives in Durham, North Carolina.