Flags - Profiles In Courage
CPT Ryan Hepworth BSN (Ret) Task Force 115: Emergency Medical Treatment Registered Nurse
The following account contains information that has not been approved for release from the family members involved. I will provide specific names of the soldiers and family members once approved. I apologize for any inconvenience and appreciate your cooperation.
MAY 12th 2011 Helmand Province, Afghanistan Camp Dwyer
Helmand Province is the wild west of Afghanistan. More American lives have been lost here than any other place in Afghanistan. There was no shortage of casualties here. Five months in to a 12-month deployment, I was pretty comfortable with taking on whatever this “hell hole” of a place had to offer. At least that’s what I believed. I never thought in a million years I would still be connected so closely to the events I am sharing now.
May 12th, 2011 started off basically the same as other days. Come in the ER Tent and talk about last nights events, types of casualties, check/double check my medical equipment, inventory my drug supply, and so on. Our ER Team is a “well oiled” machine capable of taking on just about anything thrown at us. We take on casualties and wait for shit to hit the fan. We all anticipate it, not because we want that rush, only because that’s the norm.
We received the call on the radio: “Attention on the net, attention on the net, inbound 5 CAT Alphas, multiple GSWs, how copy?” I get on the radio and confirm a good copy. I asked about the ETA and they gave me 5 mikes (min). That time could mean 1 mike so move your asses. I took on the 1st trauma bay with CPT Kamal Kalsi (ER Doc), SPC Matt McGee (Combat Medic), MAJ Marcus Lee (ER Head Nurse) and LTC Houman Tavaf (Cardiac Surgeon). We know each other well and can anticipate each other’s moves, making us a great team. We know our roles and we know we are getting the worst of the worst. So we wait. Anticipating. Our mood is different. We are super sharp, on the edge, you know. We bust our asses to save our brothers.
We hear the birds roll in. They came in hot (fast)! Shit, here we go! I apologize for the language but it’s real. My heart rate is up but that’s my comfort zone. I look for the flight medic to bring me report and he’s sprinting towards our Team. I remember glancing past him for a moment and seeing the body of one of my Marine brothers. He’s lifeless. It’s like being punched in the gut after having the air knocked out of you. Put it behind you, lock it away, and anyone caught tearing up or showing any other emotions needs to get the hell out. It makes you look weak and incompetent. Those Marines need that assurance that we are going to save them. I told the Team to lock that away for later, I dunno, maybe I had to tell my self that. It’s just war so man the f up and deal with it!
My patient rolls in fast. He’s gray but still there. We’re on him like white on rice. I jump on his chest while the others start interventions. I’m just pumping and thinking ahead to the next step. Things were happening so fast. I find an entrance wound in the Marines right arm pit area. It was an AK-47 hole, 7.62, across the chest! I’m praying. CPT Kalsi and LTC Tavaf gave me that look and I know what needed to happen. Lets crack his chest and track the path. We cracked the chest. You never forget the sounds, smells, pooling blood swishing in the thoracic cavity. I pulled back on the ribs hard to get a bette r view. Kamal is asking me what I can see. I just see blood. I roll the Marine towards me to look for other wounds and to dump the blood out. Hell, it’s not going back in anyways. I remember the warm sensation on my stomach and legs. Did I just piss myself? What the fuck! Nope, that’s the Marine’s blood leaking on me. My brother’s blood. Tavaf is pumping the heart manually and finds the bullet’s path. I don’t give a shit because I don’t quit! We all don’t quit! By this time, the other wounded Marines are having their GSWs treated. I can hear them screaming. 7.62 rounds are vicious. Give them drugs? Of course! It’s not just the physical pain these guys a feeling, it’s the pain of seeing their leader in this condition. They call out for Dad, Boss, His actual name. No response. I learned an awful skill - like covering a gaping wound with a small band- aid, I lie to the Marine’s Team. They’re his kids, his sons, His Marines. They want to be like him. You can see that as tears stream down their faces. I lie to them. I tell them I got him and that I’ll take care of him.
Matt and I shielded our Marine’s body with our bodies. Staying true to the lies I’d been telling, I provided empty promises to his Marines as they were rushed off to surgery. Good luck boys, you got this, you’re still in the fight. SFC Hopkins is helping the Marine in Trauma Bay 2. He’s freaking huge! Tall glass of water! Nasty GSW to his leg. He keeps calling for Dad, Boss, His name. I tell him that his Dad is OK and that I’m good at what I do. Maybe I was just trying to reassure myself. It’s hard to feel confident in times like this. I just kept lying to him and let his drugs kick in. Go to sleep for a little while -Until the nightmares come. CPT Kalsi and LTC Tavaf made a decision and they verified with all of us if anything else could be done. I remember saying lets keep working y’all. Marcus and Kamal are closest to me, they said it’s OK Ryan. Let it go man. This Marine has a ring on his finger and his rank tells a great deal as well. Wife, kids, parents, DAMN!! A lot of lives are about to change.
I always took it upon myself to guard our lost brothers and sisters. Be involved in the Ramp Ceremonies. Carry them and help them home. Honor them. Matt and I escorted this fallen Leader to the Marine Mortuary Affairs vehicle via Ramp Ceremony.We place flags on our fallen. Sometimes that flag gets left behind and that’s what happened with this Marine. The flag wasn’t taken or secured. The flag stayed and I secured it with my gear for some reason. Re-set, forget about all this, try to improve, and move on to the next one. Numb your mind to function. Easy?
We later found out the story behind this massacre. These Marines were training Afghan Police. We were helping them help themselves. The asshole “officer” who committed this act decided that he needed to have a jihad on them because the US was killing women and children. Funny he said that. I have seen, first hand, how women and children are treated in Afghanistan by Afghan “so called men.” Girls are for breeding and boys are for pleasure. Spare me! Next time save our bullets and time and have a jihad on yourself. Sorry. So two Marines killed and four injured after a lunch celebrating this killer’s graduation. Now there are two Widows left to raise six children on their own.
I kept this American Flag for the rest of my deployment. It has been resting in the same place I left it back in May of 2011. Like a splinter that’s too deep to be dug out, you let it work its way to the surface. I’d had the flag for three years and it was time to give it to its rightful owner. My wife told me to give it to the Marine’s widow. Simple? I reached out to CACO of the Marine Corps. I told them the story. They said it sounded like a movie! Not in a funny way though. I asked if it would be OK for me to speak with this Marine’s widow.
A couple of weeks went by. I thought I had crossed the line and was feeling like an ass. Then CACO called me one day with her number. I called her immediately. I was so scared. She answered and I introduced myself. I told her I was the ER Nurse that had tried to save her husband. I must have apologized over a dozen times. A flood of guilt and sadness came over me. It was heavy. She asked me what exactly happened to her husband. She knew he had been shot and who killed him. She didn’t know any specifics. I told her that I would tell her everything face to face. Not over the phone. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to. I told her I had her husbands flag and that I had kept him all this time. I told her I understood if she hated me for that. She said she didn’t hate me at all and that she was grateful I did it. She thanked me for working so hard to save her husband. I told her it was the whole team. I asked her when she wanted me to deliver the flag to her. She told me to wait until I retired this summer and to bring it to her. Her kids would be so happy. She went on and on about how important it was for their kids to take care of their Father’s grave-site in Arlington. They sound like amazing kids. I confirmed the plan to deliver her husband’s flag and hung up the phone. I haven’t spoken to her since. I have been reaching out to her with no success. CACO is involved and hopefully something works out. The splinter is still there. Right under the surface.
SFC Hopkins had the “tall glass of water Marine” find her in Texas. She was managing a Wal-Mart when an associate informed her she had a visitor. She went to the front and there he was. Tall as Hell and walking with a cane. He hugged her and thanked her and all of us for saving his life. He could have bled out with the injury he sustained. He was medically retired from the USMC. Through the tears he expressed gratitude for being able to be with his wife and family. What a great reward.
It’s hard to remember the ones you save. I remember the ones we couldn’t save. They chime in during my dreams, when I hear helicopters, when I write stuff like this. This is a good thing though. I will get this flag back home to its owner. They deserve that. It’s not just a flag.
Thank you for this opportunity. I am not the best writer or historian. I played a small role in this situation. It was such an honor and privilege taking care of my Brothers, my real life Heroes. I know what kind of dedication you all have towards this cause. This story isn’t courageous. I didn’t kick down a door or run across a battlefield. Sometimes courageous acts involve doing the right thing and this was my intention.
Thank you again.