If you were to attend a reunion with my old platoon you would hear all kinds of stories. Stories that range from sad, inspiring, funny, awkwardly terrible, and so terrible that they are awkward. When I’m brought up you’ll hear things like:
“Doc, remember when that kid fell apart?”
“Doc, do you remember when you tried to bag that referee”
“Remember when we saw Doc walking around with a human spine in his hand?”
The one about the spine is one of those stories that I don’t talk about unless someone from security platoon brings it up. It’s one of those things that must be kept in context. The context being that we were again escorting EOD on a blast analysis mission to gather evidence to be exploited and used to figure out who made the VBIED and who was part of the bomb making network. The area south of Khowst City is a pretty vast and flat expanse with several different types of land. After the terraced farmland you’ll find a series of muddy wadi’s which often flood when it rains north and west of Khowst.
Across one particular Wadi was a small Afghan Army outpost. On our many trips out toward the Narizah district they would often stop and warn us of any traps set out along our route. These ranged from IED’s to 107mm rockets set in the tall grass and aimed into the road. Every time they were correct and we always thanked them by bringing them snacks and fuel.
The Haqqani didn’t really like this set up and one day rammed a truck packed with explosives into the side of the outpost which was very close to the road. We were to take EOD and collect things like shrapnel, any leftover materials, and the fingerprints of the driver. When we dismounted we saw that the blast, though very big, didn’t do too much damage to the outpost but it did kill one Afghani Soldier and a dog.
There wasn’t much left of the truck besides the rear axle. I didn’t plan on doing much until I was called up by my platoon Sergeant. He told me that they couldn’t find the body, and if they did they had no idea what exactly to do. I also had no idea what to do but I figured that I might as well do my best to play CSI.
Directly across the street they had already found a surprisingly intact right foot. That seemed the best place to start. We began with a sweep to the south along the road. Because of the effect of the HME the blast acted as a catapault for everything that hit the wall. we found little chunks of meat but not much else. We continued back toward the northwest using the wadi as a limit of advance. I found a knee cap, and a bloody femur. When we got to the wadi we were pretty far from the road and it seemed impossible that the driver had been blasted any further than a few hundred meters. We even joked that he may have survived and dragged himself away.
On a long shot me and Ryan walked back to the road and tried walking into the large wadi. it was pretty muddy from the floods that had happened days before. On our right, the north, there was a small village there. The children often came to play soccer and talk to with us and would later on that year when one tried to covert me to Islam (but that’s another story).
We continued to walk along a stream. To our left was the (I’d say about) 40 ft. wall of the wadi on which the rest of the platoon watched our progress. We had walked pretty far when Ryan stopped me and said “Doc, is that what I think it is?”
I couldn’t believe my eyes, it was the thoracic and lumbar sections of a human spine with stubs of the ribs as well as muscle and fat still attached. Ryan bent over to pick it up and hand it to me. I looked closely at it as this was the only time in my life that I would ever get the chance to look at a cross section of a spinal cord. We figured that if we walked further we might eventually find a hand and get a fingerprint for biometrics. Continuing on we noticed that the streams of water were getting a darker color of red.
We were both pretty shocked when we finally found the rest of the driver. It was nothing of what we expected. What remained of the driver reminded me of a half-filled black garbage bag. We approached the body assuming the head had been lost in the blast. I realized that, because he lost his spine, his torso was extremely flexibly. His shoulders were twisted around what used to be his chest. His head was completely under him. I can’t find the exact words to describe the scene… I can only tell you to imagine taking a pillow out of the pillow case using the crumpled pillowcase to illustrate the driver.
I had to kind of unfold the body to find the hand that was left. It was barely hanging on and the finger tips were badly scorched. We still tried to get a finger print by using coloring his finger prints with one of my sharpie markers and pressing it to a piece of paper. At one point our LT even suggested cutting his hand off. All I had available to me was my trauma shears and I wasn’t sure if that would be ethically feasible. We decided to just count this one as a loss and got ready to make a return trip back toward Mutun.
The locals in the adjacent village waved us goodbye and Afghan soldiers told us what they planned to do with the body of the driver. They planned on guarding the remains all night and detaining and questioning anyone who came to retrieve them. This would deny the VBIED driver a proper Muslim burial. They wanted to leave him an example. They wanted him to rot.
Yet again I had to burn another set of gloves, an ACU top, and scrub the pouches on my vest. I still have my boots though. It seemed everything significant that happened in my almost 6 year Active duty Army career happened while I was wearing them. I will keep them until I die even if I never wear them again.