In an effort to save my sanity, I took a long walk around the base every day. One day a stack of shiny caskets appeared, the glare from their metal surface blinding in the hot sun. Their appearance was a stark reminder of the reality of the situation I was in, kind of like the refrigerated trucks that appeared at a Queens, New York hospital a couple of weeks ago, both designed to hold the bodies of the dead.
It was a month before the official start of the war, December 1990. I was in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, deployed in the first Gulf war. I was a flight nurse in aeromedical evacuation in the Air National Guard. I had left my job as an ER nurse 4 months ago. Since then we had all been waiting for the war to start, kind of like the thousands of nurses across the country waiting for the influx of coronavirus patients.
My tentmate (we lived in tent cities) woke me up in the middle of the night the day the war started. We all went outside, gathering in nervous groups in the pitch darkness. The base had instituted blackout conditions at night a couple of months prior.
I will never forget the feeling I had when the war started, a sense of helplessness and powerlessness, kind of like what healthcare workers are feeling right now. My life was now out of my control. So is theirs.
When the war started, we had to bring our chemical masks with us everywhere we went, ready for a chemical attack. Can you imagine the military telling soldiers: sorry, we don't have enough, but you can fashion your own, good luck. That is how nurses feel now.
I Was On A Flight The Next Day After The War Started
I carried my gun for the first time. We were told to sit on our flack jackets in case the plane was shot at from below, kind of the nurses in protective gear all day every day at work even if they are receiving few coronavirus patients right now. The patients could come at any time. Some places they are already in the midst of it.
We Weren't Ready To Do What We Were Tasked With
We had never flown live patients. We had practiced on each other, simulating real conditions, kind of like the disaster preparedness exercises hospitals hold. We realized early on, we didn't have the supplies we needed, kind of like the lack of PPE in hospitals right now, the concern about the number of ventilators. We quickly figured out that we would need 3 things when the war started: IV bags, dressings and pain medicine. We scrambled to get them, kind of like the scramble for PPE, ventilators, right now.
We Did Our Jobs
We didn't have a choice, just like the healthcare workers right now. We flew up near the combat zone to pick up soldiers and around all the countries in the region. We adjusted to our new reality, just like healthcare workers are doing and will do, putting themselves in danger to do their jobs. Ready for anything.
Our War Was Short
We were blessed. This war won't be short. It may go on for months. Unlike healthcare workers now, we had help. More and more aerovac units were deployed. The military had pre-positioned supplies, already in place before we even went. They had a well-organized supply system ready to go. Unfortunately, we know that isn't the case right now.
The War Ended
We came back changed people, feeling like aliens in a foreign land, just like healthcare workers will feel when this ends. Readjustment will be difficult, to say the least. Most will be okay, storing away memories in a vault in their minds. Some will struggle terribly. Believe it or not, as years go on, the memories will be easier. They will be grateful to have lived because many did not. They did their jobs. They had no choice.