By Klaus Jakelski
Frank Lambert’s soul had hemorrhaged dry long before he volunteered for his present deployment. He just didn’t know it yet.
The battle-hardened surgeon had seen action in Rwanda, Burundi and Chechnya. Some of the bad memories he had suppressed. Others came to him only in nightmares, which he could never quite remember. His service had been one known for faultless, hard work in the operating room and afterwards, hard drinking to keep the demons out. Most recently he had substantially turned himself around — made himself better — at least that’s what he thought.
But life in the civilized world of Boston operating rooms had not been enough for him. He soon needed to feel the rush of adrenalin which propped up his self-identity.
Volunteering with an NGO that operated a forward relief station under NATO protection, he found himself in the middle of the Yugoslavian Civil war of the 90’s. He thought it was a simple mis-understood conflict in Europe — the civilized world after all — what could be horrible about that?
But as the conflict raged around Sarajevo, Frank and his nurse ally, Gwen Pakin, felt isolated from the main conflict. Until the inevitable arrived. The girls and young women who had been raped. Naturally, the two elected to do the procedures to free the girls from the captivity of unwanted pregnancy.
With each of his five daily cases, Frank became mesmerized by the splashing of the red evacuation bottle. Torn between gladness for the life he had restored and sadness for the life he had taken. Each one eating away at another part of his soul.
A cousin of mine, a battlefield trained ex US Navy anesthetist, recently volunteered to work in the ICU at Columbia Presbyterian hospital in Queens NY. Nothing in her training had prepared her for the month she spent there, looking after COVID-19 patients. Loosing an average of six patients per day is not a normal experience in anybody’s books. She told me she managed to suppress the bad parts of her experience.
Which is exactly what Frank had done all his working life. Especially in combat areas where each reparation of a torn human body whether it was by suturing, exploring a bodily cavity, amputation or some other surgical alchemy, was exactly the sort of thing that would result in a non-surgeon being recommended for a long stay in a psychiatric prison. But Frank, entrusted by regulatory authorities and accustomed to the controlled carnage of surgery as he was, had learned how to cope. At first suppressing the memories in a dark corner of his soul. And when the burden became too great, unlike my cousin, he began to self-medicate. At first with a little, but as the painful psychological provocation became too great, with more and more alcohol.
Such is the plight of many first responders, whether civilian, or in the military. If not alcohol, then another substance.
Even though nurse Pakin recognized that Frank was better than on his last deployment, she quickly saw through him, because she had issues herself. A life rocked by personal loss and service in conflict zones, no matter how altruistic, had left her with emotional scars too.
So Frank wasn’t quite able to compartmentalize his new reality. He wasn’t able to separate the liberation of a woman from her rape, from taking the life of her unborn. He knew just as well that the simple procedure would never return the woman’s soul to its rightful place after the tortuous transgression.
Frank found his trigger in the swirling red evacuation bottle on the wall of his makeshift operating room. The bottle that drew him in at the end of every case, one at a time, and separated him one more degree from his freedom, as he developed a new found affinity for a different bottle of liquor.
This type of scenario plays itself out repeatedly in our every day society. There’s no need to go to a war-torn area to meet an antagonist like the dark genocidal Kamenko Hradich, who has all the surface veneers of a gentle family man, until he reaches his breaking point. We know this all too well.
The people who deal with this type of suffering are right here. These first responders are all around us. Many of them as yet unaware of their trouble. We only need to recognize them.
As for the issue of war rape – It is so easy for us to sit in our comfortable space when bad things happen elsewhere.
Two hundred or so girls are kidnapped in Africa to the service of some African war lord. We see it on the evening news. We turn it off and say to each other, well I’m glad that is over there, as we roll over onto our pillows and go to sleep.
And still we don’t make the connection. The one that #Me Too is making. The one that is circulating in the most genteel corridors of our society, as well as our schools. The notion that a certain treatment of women is alright, as long as it never gets called out.
The systematic rape of thousands of women occurred in a civilized area of Europe, alongside the most monstrous genocide since the holocaust. What does it take for that sort of thing to boil over in another advanced society?
My guess is, as Frank followed his adrenalin rush from case to case, he didn’t have a chance.