Stress constant companion for combat medics
Some question career choices
Jeremy Redmon - Staff
Tuesday, November 1, 2005

Forward Operating Base Mahmudiyah, Iraq --- The bloodstain on Spc. Jonathan Bentjen's boot looks like nothing more than a dark smudge.

But it is special to Bentjen. It came from a fellow Georgia National Guard soldier, Sgt. Jim Kirchner. He has left it on his boot for good luck and to remember Kirchner.

"He is with me all the time," said Bentjen, one of several hundred Army medics serving in Iraq.

Some medics stay behind at base aid stations where they treat everything from headaches to heart troubles to shrapnel wounds.

Others go out into the field and engage in firefights. Most soldiers try to keep their medics safely behind them. A wounded or dead medic can hinder a mission and hurt morale.

Medics are often first on the scene to help wounded soldiers. Under combat conditions, they must quickly make decisions on whether to insert a breathing tube, apply a tourniquet or amputate a limb that can mean the difference between life or death.

It was the morning of June 12 when Kirchner spilled his blood on Bentjen. Insurgents were firing mortars at their base about 15 miles south of Baghdad. One landed just outside Kirchner's tent, blasting him out of his cot and spraying his back, shoulders and right arm with shrapnel.

Kirchner started screaming: "I'm hit! I'm hit! Medic! Medic!"

Bentjen was across the base when he heard the explosion. He rushed toward the commotion around Kirchner's tent.

Inside, Bentjen saw dust floating in the sunlight streaming through holes in the tent.

"It looked like a starry sky at night," Bentjen recalled. "All of this blood was all over the floor. It was surreal, like you were watching it on TV or a movie or something."

Kirchner was bleeding heavily. His left lung was collapsed, and his breathing was labored. His liver, a kidney and pancreas were damaged. He had at least 28 pieces of shrapnel in his body.

Bentjen bandaged Kirchner's arm. He closed the wounds in Kirchner's back with sticky gauze, improving his breathing and buying him precious time. Then he helped carry Kirchner to an ambulance.

Bentjen didn't recognize Kirchner until he rolled him onto his back. The two had shared the same tent in Kuwait.

"That surreal feeling came again," Bentjen said. "I had never treated anybody that I had actually known. It freaked me out."

Kirchner, recovering back home in Paulding County, credits Bentjen and other medics from the 1st Battalion, 108th Armor Regiment with saving his life.

The medics at this base are a tight-knit group. Most of the 32 medics in the battalion have survived roadside bombings, some more than once. Two were severely injured in bombings and sent home

Several shaved their heads in solidarity, leaving only narrow Mohawk-like strips of hair. A few got tattoos of menacing looking skulls on their arms that boast "Combat Medic." Occasionally, they get together in a wooden shack and sing silly songs about the war.

All agree that treating fellow soldiers, whom they consider family, is emotionally draining.

Back home, Bentjen, 33, is a charge nurse at Atlanta Medical Center. He lives with his wife and two young children in Douglasville. He has a photo of his son, Sam, and daughter, Emma, stuck to his rifle stock. He enlisted because he thought he would look good in a uniform. Now, he wonders about the decision he made.

"If I was given a chance, I would be home in a second," he said. "I miss my family and my work more than anything. I'm not much of a soldier."

Still, fellow medics say Bentjen, with his civilian experience in emergency rooms, fills a vital role at their base. Because of his depth of knowledge, higher-ranking soldiers call him "specialist in charge."

Bentjen said his work in Iraq had been rewarding, despite his second thoughts about joining the military. It has reinforced his desire to continue working in a hospital.

A fellow medic, Spc. Colby Smith, has had a far different experience. He joined the military so it would pay for his college tuition. He wanted to become a cardiologist. But he is now soured on the idea. Treating fellow soldiers has been too traumatic of an experience.

It all started on July 20. Smith was with a convoy of soldiers hunting insurgents near the town of Yusufiyah when he heard an explosion. He turned and saw the Humvee behind him rolling over. It had been hit by an insurgent's bomb.

Spc. Richard Ingram of LaGrange was thrown from the vehicle, and it rolled over his left arm, nearly severing it. Smith rushed to his side.

"There were five million things going through my head. I was coughing up blood," Ingram recalled. "I even asked the medic, 'Am I going to die?' "

Smith playfully hit Ingram on the shoulder.

"I hit him because I didn't know how to answer him," Smith said.

Smith reassured Ingram that everything was going to be OK. Another soldier had improperly tied a tourniquet on Ingram's arm. Smith removed it and placed it in the correct position. He thought about amputating but decided against it, instead placing Ingram's arm in a splint.

Another passenger in the vehicle, Sgt. Joe Brown of Dallas, Ga., was also injured in the rollover. He had a broken jaw, broken ribs and was bleeding from his right ear. Smith treated him, clearing his airway so he could breathe.

After the wounded soldiers had been safely evacuated, Smith's adrenaline started to wear off. His hands were shaking. A fellow soldier helped wash the blood off them.

"I really felt nauseated. The adrenaline was so high that I was getting tunnel vision," said Smith, 23, who lives in Athens and works at a video store.

Just a few days earlier, Smith and Ingram had been tossing a football around. They shared the same barracks at Fort Stewart. And Smith said Brown often gave him marital advice.

He talked about them one recent evening as he sat in a wooden shack where the medics hang out between shifts.

"I came into this shack and bawled my eyes out," Smith said. "After you work on someone who is that close to you, medicine is sour. The beauty of it is gone."

Ingram credits Smith with helping save his life. He recently received a prosthetic arm and is fly-fishing back in the United States. Brown has recovered from his wounds and is back in Iraq.

Smith said he wants to pursue something else when he returns home. He's thinking of starting a computer business. Or he might run for political office some day.

But no more medicine. He said he is through with that.

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