When I was in my final year of residency, a soldier was repatriated home from Afghanistan. He was the first injured soldier to be returned to our institution from that conflict. As I was the senior resident on call that weekend, it fell to me to get him admitted and determine whether he needed emergency surgery or was stable. Details were sketchy – all I knew was that he had severe but not life-threatening injuries and would arrive at some point over the weekend. Being a Medical Officer of the Canadian Forces had some advantages. I knew the doctor who was coordinating the transfer, but she knew just as little as I did.

I informed the hospital staff and some resistance was apparent. This patient would need isolation and a private room. The implications for the operating room were manifest, ie, final decontamination, difficulty with staffing on a weekend night etc, etc. All of these are the common plagues of a modern, publicly funded hospital. As I heard more and more reasons why this was difficult, and why we couldn’t do it, my thoughts turned to the injured soldier.

I knew he was a reservist, an infantryman in the same regiment I served in before medical school. He was a true volunteer: Soldiers in the regular force are expected to serve overseas, those in the reserve may choose to, but are not required. They have other jobs and pursue other careers. I found myself identifying with this man even before I met him. Like him, years before, I had been a reservist and contemplated serving overseas in a different conflict. In fact, I was doing work-up training for a tour of duty when I was accepted into medical school. I wondered if he had similar aspirations and goals. There was at least one important difference between he and I: He had been injured in the service of his country.

On the same day that he was injured, six others were killed. They were in the same vehicle, members of his section, a group of 10 men which comprises the backbone of the Canadian infantry. A section is commanded by a sergeant and three sections make up a platoon, three platoons a company, three companies a battalion. The members of a section live and work together; they rely on one another, literally, for their lives.

“Fallen,” created after the first soldiers died in 2002 from an errant bomb

From the first day of basic training, soldiers are given fire-team partners and organized into sections. Your fire-team and section are everything in the infantry: You get all your orders from your section commander and carry them out with the members of the section, everything from a patrol to find or destroy enemies, to a defence to “dig-in” and defend an objective, to a “section-attack” – a frontal assault on an objective such as a machine-gun.

Because you train endlessly with these men, they become like brothers. Going into combat has been said to solidify this relationship. No one has expressed it better than William Shakespeare in Henry V

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

I certainly knew nothing about combat, but I was in the infantry long enough to know a little about this brotherhood, and it struck me how devastating it would have been to lose six of my brothers.

The day that they were lost was very close to the anniversary of another dark day in the history of the Canadian Forces. In 1917, on a small ridge in a place called Vimy, 3,600 Canadian men lost their lives. All these men were also volunteers, sent to fight in a land overseas, in a conflict that they likely understood just as poorly. They came from all across Canada, boarded ships that brought them to England and then to Europe, and for 3,600 on that day in April 1917, their final destination. They were young and just as filled with adventure and duty, but they, like all soldiers before and after, didn’t go to war for duty. They didn’t go for their country or their God or for pay. They went for each other.

“Ghosts of Vimy Ridge” by William Longstaff, 1931. This painting hangs in the Canadian War Museum.

I remarked later to my wife, herself a veteran of Afghanistan, how that day in 1917 we lost 600 times as many, and she said six doesn’t seem like that many. “That’s not what I meant”, I told her. Each one of those men had a story just as these ones did, and I was trying to get to the devastating loss that Vimy was to a young and much less populous country, how six soldiers seemed an enormous loss, let alone 3,600.

With these thoughts in my head, and a very overworked and highly underappreciated staff at my hospital, I had to put things in perspective. I told them that I didn’t care about private rooms and resource allocation. We would never endanger other patients, but short of that we will do everything we can to treat this wounded soldier. I said that he is a hero of his country, and we will treat him as such.

These comments produced a moment of reflection and pause and completely diffused the situation. He arrived and was treated, the first and certainly not the last. The civilian hospitals that treat these soldiers are unfortunately getting used to them, and they still are coming back.

Reprinted with permission from the Fall 2009 issue of COA Bulletin


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