War Reflections: An Air Force Nurse Treats A Severely Wounded Soldier in Iraq

  Words By By Andy Hoeffler, Maj., USAF, NC.

I was perusing social media the other day, and came across an article someone shared about their experience as a deployed soldier in Afghanistan. National holidays and articles such as the one I read always remind me of the veterans I cared for, both living and dead, while serving as a trauma nurse in the U.S. Air Force. One soldier who is most forefront in my memory is SSG Thomas Turner.


I was off duty that day, but had stopped by the ER where I worked at Balad Air Base, to check my e-mail and call home, the usual off-duty activities.  While I was at the hospital, I entered in a game of scrabble with my colleagues, a common activity in which we engaged between waves of casualties. While I was there, we got word that 5 soldiers were arriving via helicopter with severe burns. Since I was there, and the ER team needed any help they could get, I put on some scrubs over my PT uniform. While I changed, the Blackhawk landed and the patients started arriving on litters. As I arrived at the bedside, my friend, Technical Sergeant Alan Folsom, was already waiting for my help. On the litter was a soldier with 3rd degree burns over about 90 percent of his body and a severely fractured ankle. Also at the bedside was Lieutenant Colonel (Dr.) Jim Frame. When his eyes met mine, we both knew the prognosis. 90% burns of this severity are not survivable. The patient was, however, awake and able to talk to us. I asked him his name and, between his cries of pain, he said, "Turner, Tom Turner!   "SSG Turner, "Tom", as I have come to know him, was from Cottonwood, California. He was a dedicated husband and father of two, and loved bow-hunting and riding motocross. Tom was assigned to the 1st Squadron, 32nd Cavalry Regiment, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division. On July 13, 2006, Sgt Turner and his team were on a routine patrol in Muqdidaya, Iraq, when an improvised explosive device detonated under their Bradley fighting vehicle, igniting the fuel tank.

Health care professionals want nothing more than to cure our patients, but we knew that, given the scope of his wounds, all we could reasonably do for Tom was alleviate his pain as soon as possible. We heavily sedated him and placed him on a ventilator. Tom died of his wounds on July 14th, 2006 while en route to Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany. Him telling me his name was the last thing he said on this earth.


Since then, I have recounted the events of that night numerous times. In an effort to alleviate my own pain, I tracked down his family and e-mailed them. I even spoke with his mother by phone, and learned much about the man that he was. Tom was a dedicated and loving father and husband. He was a loyal and skilled soldier, and an exemplary non-commissioned officer. His casket was met by the local chapter of the Patriot Guard, and was accompanied by a hand written letter of condolence from Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.  Afterward, I was sitting on a bench next to one of our chaplains, Maj. Jan Dascher.  I was telling her how hard it was to feel so helpless in my ability to help Tom, apart from taking away his pain, and how I wasn't even supposed to be on duty that night.  She said to me, "You did for him all that you could, and God put you here, now, for that purpose."  I immediately broke into tears at the humility I felt at that moment, and because of the emotional stress I was experiencing. I felt defeated and small, because even though I knew we couldn't do any more than we did, I wanted desperately to save Tom.  I felt humbled because Chaplain Dasher’s words made me feel unworthy of God’s purpose.  As I went to bed later that day, I supreme feeling of emotional peace washed over me, and I wept.

In my career in the military, and as a health care professional, I have seen the best and the worst of mankind. I've seen the results of acts of barbarism, and acts of supreme heroism and kindness. I have seen many soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines who were wounded or killed in combat.  I remember a few, but I feel all of them, none more than SSG Tom Turner.

There was recently a book (and a film) about a soldier killed in action called Taking Chance. The final words of the film say it all for me: I never knew Tom Turner....but I miss him.

Picture Courtesy HBO Films

 

About the Author:

Maj. Hoeffler is a Family Nurse Practitioner currently stationed at Luke AFB in Arizona. He holds a Master’s Degree in Nursing Science, and will receive a Doctorate in Nursing Practice in May, 2015. He has been awarded the Air Force Commendation Medal, The Air Force Achievement Medal, and the Army Achievement Medal.   He has served in the U.S. military for almost 30 years, and continues to serve on active duty.  Maj. Hoeffler lives in Waddell, Arizona with his wife, Jackie, and his 3 children.



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