I knew about Elliot Ackerman before I even met him. We were in different battalions, but our platoons fought across the street from each other down Route Henry in Fallujah 14 years ago. Even then, he had a reputation that preceded him. He was known for his competence and heroism, in addition to being a down to earth, no-nonsense officer with little regard for his rank.
With his latest novel Waiting For Eden, he has written one of the most important books of our Post 9/11 wars, and I’m proud and humbled to be able to share an excerpt with our readers. It’ll punch you in the gut and is as close to a true war story as you can get. —Zach Iscol
I want you to understand Mary and what she did. But I don’t know if you will. You’ve got to wonder if in the end you’d make the same choice, circumstances being similar, or even the same, God help you. Back when I first met her and Eden times were better. They were trying to start a family then. And months later, on that night in the Hamrin Valley, I was sitting next to Eden and luckier than him when our Humvee hit a pressure plate, killing me and everybody else, him barely surviving.
Ever since then I’ve been around too, just on that other side, seeing all there is, and waiting.
Three years have gone by and my friend’s spent every day of it laid out in that burn center in San Antonio. I could give you the catalogue of his injuries, but I won’t. Not because I don’t think you could stomach it, but because I don’t think it’d really tell you much about what type of a way he’s in. So I’ll tell you this: he used to weigh 220 pounds, and some mornings, when we’d work out together, he’d press well over 150 above his head, sweat pouring from beneath his black hair. Before we deployed, he and I both went to SERE school, that’s the one up in Maine where they teach you what to do in case you become a prisoner. For a couple of weeks the instructors starved us and roughed us up pretty bad. Then the course ended and those same instructors had a graduation party with us. That night at the party, I watched him pound five pints of Guinness in almost as many minutes. He held it all down, too. But I’ll also tell you that if you ever went to his house for dinner he wouldn’t serve Guinness, he’d likely do all the cooking and serve you a bottle of wine he’d chosen specially for your visit. He could tell you all about the wine: the viticulture considerations in the soil of the vineyard, the seasonal high and low temperatures of the year it was bottled, and when you were done with that and the main course, he’d serve chocolate with hot pepper or sea salt, or some other fancy thing mixed in. He said that stuff brought out the flavor. I still don’t know if that’s true, but I liked that he said it. I’ll tell you that every guy in the platoon had a nickname. One pervy guy was called Hand Job because he had all sorts of weird porn on his computer. And another guy, a kind of dumb guy, was called Wedge because a wedge is the world’s simplest tool. But Eden’s nickname was BASE Jump. One time during a hurricane party at the barracks he’d gotten drunk and with a poncho spread over his head he leaped from the third deck. When the wind carried him a bit and he landed on both feet, the name was his. That’s how he treated the whole world, too, like it was a series of cliffs that existed for no other reason than for him to jump off. At least before the pressure plate. But now I don’t know what to call him. The 70 pounds that’s left of him in the bed—he’s had a lot of infections, and they’ve cut all of him off up to the torso—isn’t BASE Jump and it isn’t the name he was born with. I don’t think anyone really knows what to call him, except for Mary. She calls him her husband.
Mary was pregnant the day he touched down at the airbase in San Antonio and she’s been there every day since. After the pressure plate, they almost didn’t fly him out of Balad. The docs there were sure he was about to go, and they were doubly sure the trip would kill him. Still they were obligated to at least try and get him home.
On the C-17 back two nurses stayed within arm’s length of him the whole ride. Also on the flight was a kid from the 82nd Airborne, a private first class. The kid had been shot in the ass. Had the bullet gone half an inch higher, it would’ve nicked off some of his spine, instead it nicked off some of his lower intestine, a bit of good luck. Another bit of good luck for the kid was Eden. My friend’s emergency flight to San Antonio got the kid a direct flight to his hometown, otherwise he would’ve been sent back on the biweekly rotator through Bethesda.
The kid spent the whole flight laid out on a gurney just across from Eden’s. He was strapped down on his stomach, a big and humiliating piece of gauze stuck into his wound. My friend was burnt up so bad that the kid couldn’t tell which way they’d strapped him to his gurney, on his front or on his back.
The kid was in pain but doing all right. He was on a solid morphine drip. What bothered him more than his wounds were the pair of nurses who talked too loud and the bright lights in the cabin. The lights were kept bright so open wounds could be seen clearly by the nurses. Still the lights kept the kid awake. My friend kept the kid awake too, trying to sleep next to someone as burnt up as him was like trying to sleep next to a box of poisonous snakes.
But knowing what type of a way Eden was in made the kid feel a bit better about the type of a way he was in. All along the docs had told the kid he wasn’t too bad off. They’d even said once he got sewed up and put back together he’d be in no worse shape than someone who’d had a real bad hernia. The kid didn’t buy that line, but on the plane, headed home and looking at my friend, he did start to feel a bit better.
During the flight, a male nurse came to check on the kid every couple of hours. The nurse made sure he was comfortable and looked over his bandages and vitals. About halfway home, the C-17 landed at Ramstein Air Base to refuel. That’s when the male nurse, the one who’d been looking after the kid, got off the plane. Once they got back in the air a different nurse, a young one who was also watching Eden, came by to check on the kid.
“You’re looking all right,” she said.
“You know it,” replied the kid, and he gave her a flirty smile. She had good dark skin and her black hair was pulled tightly into a bun.
“Your ass is seeping a bit,” said the young nurse. “Get some sleep. I’ll change you before we land.” She covered him with a blanket.
The kid didn’t say anything. He pushed the button on his clicker for another shot from his morphine drip. He didn’t want to look at her anymore so he turned his head back to the bulkhead, trying to sleep.
Then the young nurse went to check on Eden. When she stood over him, he was shuddering on his gurney. She read his temperature. It was high, dangerously so. His skin, already see-through with burns, didn’t sweat, it couldn’t. Instead it shone, the fever trapped inside. The second, older nurse came over. As she did, his body seized and then did a sort of whip-crack, struggling for breath even as he gasped. Without speaking, the older nurse ran to the refrigerator at the front of the plane. That’s where they kept the blood.
The two nurses worked together searching for a place to transfuse the blood into my friend. Their movements were mechanical and silent. Their hands raced unfamiliarly over his body, not recognizing the places where they could usually find enough vein for a needle. Soon the young nurse found a soft patch of skin on his side. She flicked the skin with her finger. Slowly it turned red as a sunburn. Then, beneath the red, she found a dark and lurking vein. She angled the needle to the vein and lanced it in, hooking up the tubing. Blood barely trickled through. It met great resistance and didn’t flow as it should. Instead it percolated like the last drips of coffee from a machine. His body was shutting down, rejecting what was offered it. Still the nurses kept up their work, massaging the bag of blood, fighting off the collapse of his veins as if the transfused red and white cells were a squad of workmen desperately jointing the rafters of a house ready to fall in on itself. Then slowly the bag began to empty into his body. And through hydraulics my friend stayed alive.
Over Eden, the two nurses took up a vigil. The older nurse stood at the head of his bed. She massaged the bag of blood. The younger nurse stood at his side. She kept the thick needle in place, pressing it to his skin. Inside him, the needle’s beveled point held to the single and narrow vein like a climber with too few fingers on a ledge.
For three hours, the nurses hardly spoke.
Then the C-17’s engine ground against the air, slowing. Both nurses yawned, their ears popping in the descent. Eden groaned, feeling the pain in his ears, despite every other thing he could’ve felt. The kid lay across from them, facing the bulkhead, soundless and peacefully unaware of the quiet struggle occurring next to him.
The C-17 banked as they flew their final approach. The two nurses watched as Eden’s temperature crept safely downward, the fresh blood saving him. His fever dropped, his progress mirroring the flight’s descent. When the C-17 touched down, its tires smoking the runway, the young nurse recorded his final temperature: a low-grade fever, exactly as it’d been on takeoff sixteen hours before.
They taxied down the runway, the flightless wings of the C-17 sagging heavily toward the ground. The young nurse and the old nurse stood on either side of my friend’s gurney, poised like a couple of bobsledders, ready to get him off the C-17 and on his way to the burn center. An unspoken satisfaction passed between the two nurses. This flight had been historic in a way. My friend was, they’d been told, the most wounded man from both the wars. As advanced as medicine had become, that likely made him the most wounded man in the history of war, and they’d just kept him alive from one side of the world to the other.
Over the C-17’s engine there was a distinct thumping in the air. The young nurse leaned into one of the plane’s portholes. A white helicopter with a red cross idled on the tarmac. All of this for just one patient, she thought. Her mind wandered and she recalled something she’d read or heard once, in a place she couldn’t quite remember, about how the suffering of the world is in the suffering of the individual and that in the individual is all the world, or something like that. Even though she couldn’t remember the whole idea she liked what it said about her and her work, and as the C-17 taxied toward the helicopter, she mulled over these thoughts and what it meant that they’d saved Eden.
Red and green taillights and runway lights pulsed in the early morning fog. The back ramp of the C-17 gaped open. The nurses ran my friend down the ramp. They passed his gurney over to a handful of paramedics, who took it with all the frenzy of a pit crew. Then the older nurse ran back into the C-17. She’d forgotten to give the paramedics his chart. She returned down the ramp and scrambled onto the tarmac, clasping the chart to her chest as its papers threatened to blow away in the downwash of the many engines. Already the white helicopter pitched and whined, beginning to take off. She ran toward it. Lucky for her, one of the paramedics looked up at that moment. He saw her coming and she managed to hand him the chart. The older nurse then walked back over to the C-17. On its ramp sat the young nurse. She untied her black hair, ran her fingers through it, and then with several twists of her wrist pulled it once again into a bun. The two sat together, looking off.
The young nurse stared down the runway, in the direction the white helicopter had left, toward the distant lights of San Antonio. “Who’s meeting him at the hospital?” she asked the old nurse.
“A burn triage team.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said the young nurse.
The old nurse looked back at her. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to ask.”
The two stood and walked back up the ramp.
In the C-17, the kid still lay on his side, facing the bulkhead. The young nurse rested her palm on his shoulder. He didn’t move. Quickly she touched his forehead with the back of her hand. It was cold. She planted her index and middle fingers on his neck. Nothing. She put her cheek inches from his mouth. She felt no breath and his face was the same as in sleep.
The old nurse pulled the blanket away.
Around the kid’s legs and hips the flesh was tight and swollen. The old nurse put her hands on him there. He was still warm and there was a fullness that sloshed like a hot water bottle.
Footsteps came up the C-17’s ramp, a lone paramedic. Parked behind him was a regular ambulance.
“Hell of a job, you two,” he said. Then he pulled a Motorola off his belt and wagged it at them. “They’re five minutes out and he’s still stable. You wanna get your other guy loaded up?”
The old nurse leaned heavily against the kid’s gurney. She reached up, handing over his chart. “Bled into himself,” she said. “We missed it.”
The paramedic glanced down at the kid. “Looks like he went quick.”
Then the three of them rolled his gurney out to the parked ambulance, taking their time with it.
This excerpt from Waiting for Eden was reprinted with permission from the author.