The Bleakest Cake

by Harry Sanna

A War Correspondent Remembers His 24th Adventure Around the Sun
It was about 40 minutes to midnight as we watched helicopter footage of a tsunami swallow the Japanese city of Sendai. Little cardboard bowls of ice-cream lay melting beside plastic plates of cold, hard french fries. The landscape around us was melting too. The snow-covered mountains that encircled Afghanistan’s Logar Province were giving way to springtime, and with it, the infamous ‘fighting season’ that plunges the country into renewed violence for another year.

As the wave continued to roll over cars and airports alike, someone piped up in the room.

“Harry, it’s your birthday in half an hour.”

“Yep,” I said.

“Fucking bet we get a call before then,” another person chimed. Everyone laughed.

And then the call came in.

“Medevac, medevac, medevac.”

The radio call came through loudly enough for everyone to hear from the T.O.C. (tactical operations center) in the neighboring room. But if that wasn’t enough, the following call scratched loudly from the small receivers everyone holstered in their belts. The room was empty in less than 30 seconds.

The run out to the Blackhawks is a good few hundred meters from the living quarters and the flight crew waste no time in making that distance. You can catch your breath as you throw on your flak jacket and ear protection while the pilots fire up the aircraft. The whole process, from first call to being airborne, is startlingly fast. I guess that’s the point of an Army medevac unit operating on the front lines of an active war zone, but it still never ceases to wow me thinking back on it now.

It’s pitch black in the helicopter, save for the pilot controls and a soft green light that only barely illuminates the cramped hindquarters. The medics, clad in helmets and body armor festooned with gauze, surgical scissors and a handgun, struggle in the light to find their fingers into blue surgeons’ gloves. Co-ordinates for the pick-up location and a sketchy report of patients’ conditions crackle their way into everyone’s headsets. A patrol of American and Afghan forces on their way to a midnight shura (Afghan meeting of elders) had triggered an IED and were subsequently ambushed.

The scream of the helicopter is an all-encompassing kind of sound. Outside the windows is black. Most of the more regional areas of Afghanistan, cut off from the terminus of power in the major cities, are utterly devoid of light come nighttime. I feel the helicopter begin to drop. It’s an asshole-puckering experience, strapped there in the back of this whirling, shrieking contraption about to descend into some kind of semi-imagined chaos and ultra-violence.

The soft thud of the skids landing on soil is the only indication I have that we’ve made landfall. The medic, rifle in hand disappears into the dark and dust. I can make out a few glow-sticks sitting out in the abyss. I hastily set up my flimsy tripod on the reverberating floor of the aircraft and hit record on my camera. It’s a shit of a thing to pull focus on shallow aperture during the day, and next to impossible at night. But I have that to focus on, and trying to frame carnage through a lens is a stellar way of separating yourself from it in some small way.

Bloody, bedraggled soldiers run low and hard towards the bird bearing two stretchers amongst them. The medic is up and in and motioning for the patients to be thrown on beside each other. It’s so fucking dark. I can only make out bits and pieces. There’s blood and there’s skin and there’s torn camouflage uniforms.

I throw my tripod under my legs and lift my camera above my head as the weight of the second stretcher comes down hard on my feet. I try desperately to keep the camera in focus while trying shrink my 6’3” frame as far back into the wall as possible to give everyone enough room to work. The heavy roller door of the Blackhawk is barely slammed shut before I feel the machine lurch upwards and forwards and back into the night sky.

It’s so fucking cramped. I can feel something warm sinking into my shoes and at some point during the pickup my ear protectors had fallen out, making the experience in the helicopter a mess of light flashes, deafening drones, and uncomfortable weightlessness. It was like a deprivation tank running on nightmare fuel. I could see the flight crew administering CPR to one patient while the other was being thoroughly examined for penetrating shrapnel wounds. The bodies looked limp, and the stretcher atop my boots felt heavy and lifeless.

The skids once more hit solid ground and light streamed in from the Army base’s FST (Forward Surgical Team—think M*A*S*H). The door slid open and US personnel in Army surgical outfits rushed the litters off the aircraft to the waiting surgery room. I clambered out after them, camera still recording, and followed them. My feet squelched in my boots.

The light in the operating room was almost blinding at first. I held my camera up and tried to steady it, realizing then how much I was trembling with adrenaline. One of the soldiers was pronounced dead on arrival and the surgeons were busy maintaining vitals on the second. A man walked up to me, his face wrapped in a camouflage surgery mask.

“Hey there sir, may I ask who you are?”

“I’m Harry. I’m an Australian journalist following the Medevac unit for a few weeks,” I said, glancing down at my watch. It was 12:15 am. “It’s my birthday.”

I still don’t know why I felt that last part of information was anything anyone, including me, really needed to know at that time.

“No shit.” he said with eyebrows raising between his mask and cap. “Hey everyone!” he said to the room. A few people looked up, “This is Harry. He’s from Australia filming what we do here for a few weeks. He’s just turned…”

He turned back to me. “How old are you, son?”

“24.” I said.

“24.” he said back to the room.

A few people gave muffled “Happy Birthdays” from beneath their masks and got back to saving lives.

I don’t remember how much longer I was in that surgery room for, but I eventually left and walked the mile-odd distance back to my room in the Medevac barracks, monkey-fucking cigarettes and trying in vain to call my mom. I think I just wanted to hear a happy birthday from someone back home before I spent the couple of hours of washing blood out of my boots.

I ended up spending a few weeks with that unit and even more time with them in the last couple of years since they’ve returned home. A lot of them have left the army now. They have new jobs, new families, new cities they call home. But there is no forgetting some missions. And I make sure every time my birthday comes round that I sit somewhere and remember that one.

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Harry Sanna's debut documentary Trauma follows a US Medevac Unit from Eastern Afghanistan back to their homes in the United States. It will be released later this year.