America to Canada - "Thank You"

May 9, 2011 Published Work


When Canada recently ended its long combat role in Afghanistan, I was reminded of two Canadian nurses, and of a spring day in Germany two years ago.

A few of us are standing on the edge of a red sandstone cliff looking through a cold and heavy mist. Just in front and below us are the church towers of the small, medieval town of Landstuhl. Not far beyond the town is the sprawling Ramstein Air Base, an American base since 1945. Behind us is the U.S. Army's Landstuhl hospital, a complex of brick and stone buildings set back a hundred yards or so from the cliff's edge.

For years, American and other NATO wounded have been air-evacuated into Ramstein from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within minutes after an evac flight touches down, the wounded are transferred to specially equipped buses for the short drive to the hospital.

We are hoping to see an evac mission finish its seven hour flight from Afghanistan. But, the low, gray skies make it hard to imagine we could spot the C-17 even after it is on the ground. Suddenly, a gust of wind from the north ushers in a steady rain. Landstuhl's nearby church towers disappear in the gloom. We'll see no landing today. We walk back to the main hospital across slick lawns and rain-blackened pavement.

At one end of the hospital there is a canopied entrance where the buses from Ramstein deliver the air-evac'd wounded. The canopy provides shelter from the drizzle for me and some hospital personnel. Then, the word spreads among the waiting group. They have "wheels down" at Ramstein. The C-17 from Bagram has landed. In twenty minutes or so the wounded will be here.

The receiving area begins to fill with stretcher bearers, critical care nurses in yellow smocks, physicians, liaison officers, medical technicians and two chaplains. A support team just like this one meets each incoming group of wounded.

In almost all respects, today's arrival will be no different from thousands of other arrivals over almost a decade of war. Wounded soldiers, marines and airmen arrive virtually daily. The process for receiving them long ago evolved into a well-choreographed routine.

Yet, today will be different from most days at Landstuhl. Most days planes arrive carrying only American wounded. Today, two seriously wounded Canadian soldiers are arriving with a group of less seriously wounded Americans. The waiting crowd includes two young Canadian nurses and a Canadian chaplain.

The two nurses stand apart, facing the road from which the buses will approach. I walk over to them and they agree to chat. One is a light-haired mother of two on a six-month tour, her first. The other is on her second tour; her straight, dark hair reflects her family's Vietnamese origins. Both are in uniform, and each wears a brightly colored beret that signals her service, one Army the other Air Force.

Canada, like the U.S., sent its troops into the most dangerous parts of Afghanistan. As a result, Canada took serious casualties. Still, today's arrival is going to be particularly hard on the Canadian team at Landstuhl. The two Canadian soldiers were badly wounded when an improvised explosive device hit their vehicle. The explosion killed their 21 year old driver, Trooper Karin Blais. Ms. Blais was the second Canadian woman to be killed in combat in Afghanistan.

The word passes through the waiting crowd that the buses have climbed the long, steep hill to the plateau where we wait. It is now just minutes to their arrival. The stretcher bearers (four to each side of a stretcher) position gurneys under the canopy and then take their positions, ready to lift stretchers from the bus to the gurneys.

Because the most seriously wounded on this evacuation are the two Canadians, they will be first off the first bus. The Canadian chaplain has stepped into the stretcher-bearer line. The wounded are always carried from the bus head first, so the chaplain's position in the line is important. He stands so as to be near each wounded man's head, able to speak directly to his countryman as he is lifted to a gurney.

The double doors at the back of the first bus open wide. First one, then the other, Canadian is lifted from the bus. The stretchers support not only the soldier's weight but also the seventy or so pounds of medical gear that monitored him on the flight from Bagram. A Critical Care Air Transport team cared for the soldiers on the flight. That team did its job. Now, responsibility falls on the medical team at Landstuhl.

The Canadians are wheeled beneath the canopied portico and into the hospital, on their way to surgical theaters preset for their needs. Walking alongside each is one of the Canadian nurses. Each nurse leans close to her countryman, touches him gently, and speaks softly as the gurney moves along. One speaks French, the other speaks English. One soldier is from Quebec, the other from the west of Canada. The words are the same in both languages. "I am a Canadian nurse. You are safe now. I will stay with you." And, that is what they do.

The two soldiers may have heard the nurse's words. They may not have. Both are highly medicated. Yet, if they did not hear the words, perhaps they saw the nurses' uniforms or the brightly colored berets. That is the hope; if not the words, then a familiar uniform, hearing the one or seeing the other. As the nurses told me, if the words, the beret, or a soft touch on a shoulder help assure the wounded even a little, then that is something. Merely knowing that Canadian nurses are at their side may accelerate the healing process, physical and emotional.

I do not know how those two soldiers fared. If all went well, they were air evacuated to Canada by the Canadian Air Force two or three days after I saw them wheeled into operating rooms. The nurses, of course, stayed at Landstuhl, waiting for the next, and inevitable, arrival of Canadian wounded.

This past summer Canada left the fight in Afghanistan. It did so with the most Canadian combat deaths and injuries since Korea. Although Canada will continue to provide a small force of non-combat trainers to work with the Afghan army, Canada is done with this war.

We should not only remember, but also thank, those Canadian soldiers and airmen who risked everything to stand with the U.S. We should also remember and thank two young nurses, among many others, who served far from home with commitment and grace.

The commitment was obvious from their words and their gentle touch: "you are safe, we are here, we will stay with you." Their eyes conveyed the grace of caring.

Thank you. Merci bien.

The writer's grandmother was a Canadian who served as a nurse with the U.S. Expeditionary Force in World War I.