We were airlifted off the hill. Tweet and Markus half carried me into the Rhino, and as it took off, I looked through the open cargo door, and wished I hadn't. The remains of our foxholes were mixed in amongst shell holes. Countless dead were everywhere. The smoke of the battle hung around in the depressions of the hill, like a fog that didn't want to leave despite the sun.
The Rhino landed at The Docks, and the load master gently but firmly told us to get off, that they had to go back and get more wounded and take supplies and fresh troops back up the hill.
We walked away from the landing pad, into organised chaos. It had been a major attack all along our line, not just our sector. Wounded are everywhere. Med-Crews are doing triage on the sand. I watch, numbed, as one soldier has his arm amputated just a few feet from me. His arm, is thrown onto a pile of other torn and broken limbs. If we had suffered casualties like this, then we must've inflicted worse on them?
It was the flies that reminded me of the filth I was wearing. I became frantic, I had to get out of the clothes I was wearing. The waters edge was a hundred meters away, and by the time I ran into the surf, I was naked. The cold water rushed over my head, but my matted hair hardly moved.
The water on Robaan is fresh. When we had needed to refill our canteens, sometimes we just went to the beach if we were able. Now, the sea was my bath. I started to wash furiously. I felt a hand on my shoulder, and flinched and cowered away, falling into the water. Small feminine hands search for me, and find me. With a strength that deceives, a nurse helps me stand. I look into a face that is full of sadness, and pity. A face that shows the physical and emotional effects of nearly two solid days straight of performing medical services on bodies that should by all rights be dead.
She holds out something to me. The water dripping down my face cannot be mistaken for just sea water, the sobbing in my chest gives it away. I look, and see she holds soap, and a washing cloth. A small simple thing, can sometimes be enough to save you from the brink of the abyss. Her compassion was my saviour.
For the next hour, I washed and scrubbed myself until I almost bled. The fact that I was stood in the full view of everyone who walked along the bay was none of my concern. The nurse helped to wash my back, and my hair. Running my fingers through my hair after days of wearing a helmet was luxurious. By the time I had worn half the soap away, I was clean physically, but I don't think I would ever be able to wash it all from my mind.
She led me out of the water, and I saw Tweet and Markus sat in the sand. Sat next to them, were other members of our Company. Most were from 1st and 2nd platoons, one or two were from 2nd Section. All in all, there were fifteen of us. Fifteen from ninety six. Nearly all were bloodied and wounded. Some had their weapons, none looked capable of any offensive action.
“Sergeant, use this to cover yourself up, I'll go and find you a spare uniform from somewhere...”
The little red haired nurse with the sad eyes passed me a blanket, and walked off towards some tents marked with red-cross symbols.
I look at the survivors of Charlie Company, and refuse to accept that this is all of us.
“Is this it? Is this everyone? Where's the rest of the men?”
“They're either still on that fucking hill, or in those tents back there. They sent 30 Rhinos to come get us off the hill, but we could've all fitted into just five.....”
For the next few minutes, I listen to what would normally be a debrief. Instead, its a shocked survivor telling other shocked survivors of just how they were able to survive when all around them there was death. One of 1st Platoon says about how he went from foxhole to foxhole looking for ammunition, and found only dead comrades. One of the 2nd Section survivors tells of how he used his helmet as a weapon on the enemy, when his rifle jammed. After he had killed a couple of the enemy, he used their own guns on the next ones he saw.
The nurse returns, with a set of spare combats for me. As I dress, I watch as she takes care of the rest of them too. Little things, like a drink, fresh coffee, something to make them feel human again, or at least start to. I feel tears start to well up in me again. Only this time, I manage to control myself. Using the cuff of my jacket, I wipe away a tear and turn around to look out into the bay.
“Are you ok Sergeant? Here, take this...”
She holds out the bandanna that she had been wearing like a neckerchief to me. When I stand there looking confused, she raises it to my face and wipes a tear from me. She puts the bandanna into my pocket, and starts to walk away.
“Hey, Miss. Wait, I don't know who you are.....what's your name?”
For the first time since I had first seen her, an hour ago, when she looks at me, there is something other than pity in her eyes. A small smile appeared on her face, and for the first time, I became embarrassed about the fact she had help me to clean my own crap off me.
“My name? It's Megan. What's yours?”
And like that, my sanity was saved. Without knowing it, Megan had brought me back from the brink of my own abyss.