By Ralph D. Caldroney
KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — A senior British officer would affectionately refer to him as "one of the lads."
And to me he was indeed a lad, a boy-man of 19 who was now under my care.
Two days earlier he was in his vehicle, on a patrol, when an IED (improvised explosive device) exploded almost directly under his vehicle. He was ejected from the turret, where he had been positioned as the turret gunner, for his three-man crew.
Not surprisingly, he was knocked unconscious and was temporarily admitted to our combat-support hospital, to ensure that nothing more serious than a concussion had occurred.
I saw him two days after his admission for follow-up in our Traumatic Brain Injury outpatient clinic.
He was a strapping young man, a good six foot three or four inches, though thin. He still had the blush of youth on his checks. Some of my Scottish nurses in their wonderful brogue said he was a "hottie."
His demeanor was very military in the most correct "Brit" type of way. For someone who had been catapulted from his vehicle and exposed to a considerable pressure blast, he looked remarkably good.
With characteristic British understatement, he minimized the injury and offered virtually no complaints, outside of a mild headache and a vague sense of dizziness.
I did ask, as I have learned to do, about what happened to the other two crew members, as these blasts typically injure all in the vehicle.
Sadly, one of his crew members had been killed on the spot. He described him as a "mate" and in fact he was his "best mate," his best friend.
I did not press for the details, as to what happened to his mate, but I know from prior experience that it is often a gruesome event and those killed in blast injuries are too often macerated and dismembered.
His grief was evident but very quiet and almost muted. I suspect this is the essence of the "stiff upper lip" that the British and their military in particular are famous for.
I released him to return to his unit and saw him for follow-up in another three days. At that time, he was back to his norm and we spent more time in a social type context than anything.
Over this interval, he and his unit had been practicing for the ceremony in which the deceased "mate" would be sent home.
This is called a ramp ceremony, referring to the ramp of the transport plane that the coffin is carried up, into the belly of the plane. I have attended a number of these sad and somber events since I have been here, for both U.S. forces as well as for the NATO forces stationed in and around here.
These are solemn, respectful and our way of not only saying farewell but also recognizing, with a military posture, those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
My lad was to be one of the coffin bearers and I felt compelled to attend the ceremony. Somehow I felt a link to the mate going home. As the coffin passed, my lad was on the side of the coffin away from me so I could not see his facial expression.
As the formation broke up, he and the other pallbearers were standing off to the side and he and I were able to finally make eye contact. Then his composure began to crack, and I could see the anguish on his face.
As I turned away to give him time to recover, I began to cry, something I don't often do.
The "lad and his mate" were in a way surrogate sons for me, at the very least in an elusive and fleeting way. At my age (almost 60), this lad of 19 was certainly of an age to be not only my son but a grandson. I suspect many other senior officers feel this same emotion, especially those of us who are parents of grown children.
The lad has the resilience of youth and will quickly recover, emotionally as well as physically. But the traumatic events of that day will never leave him nor should they; we must honor and remember our fallen comrades.
Will this memory stay with me? I hope so. For if I can't recall and maintain these ever-so-poignant times, then I will have lost some of my soul and much of my humanity.
I wish every policy-maker had to go through what I and "my lad" went through last evening. It would give pause to send our young into harm's way. I must, and will, avoid specific comment about this particular war. But I can say as a physician that war extracts a permanent cost from all involved and we must ask of all wars: Are they worth the price?
Army Reserve Lt. Col. Ralph D. Caldroney is a Lexington physician. He has returned home.