Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt: ‘The Warbird’

This is from The Warbird, a new book by Tara Copp, the Pentagon correspondent for “Stars & Stripes.” It is about her grandfather and her grand-uncle during World War II, and also her own experience of war in Iraq.

warbird
warbird

This is from The Warbird, a new book by Tara Copp, the Pentagon correspondent for Stars & Stripes. It is about her grandfather and her grand-uncle during World War II, and also her own experience of war in Iraq.

Cortez still had his hands on Kolfage’s wounds when the medics finally separated them. It gave Cortez a moment of reality. He looked at the ground. He saw things. Bloody things. He pushed away from them and jumped beside Kolfage in the ambulance. When the medical team charged the gurney through Balad’s field hospital Cortez was left outside. He stood by the hospital's tent flaps, wondering why he was wearing his buddy’s bloody hat.

The base issued a call for blood. Within minutes a line of airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers formed around the hospital’s sandbags and canvas. Some came on bikes, some just came running as soon as they heard the call.

This is from The Warbird, a new book by Tara Copp, the Pentagon correspondent for Stars & Stripes. It is about her grandfather and her grand-uncle during World War II, and also her own experience of war in Iraq.

Cortez still had his hands on Kolfage’s wounds when the medics finally separated them. It gave Cortez a moment of reality. He looked at the ground. He saw things. Bloody things. He pushed away from them and jumped beside Kolfage in the ambulance. When the medical team charged the gurney through Balad’s field hospital Cortez was left outside. He stood by the hospital’s tent flaps, wondering why he was wearing his buddy’s bloody hat.

The base issued a call for blood. Within minutes a line of airmen, Marines, sailors and soldiers formed around the hospital’s sandbags and canvas. Some came on bikes, some just came running as soon as they heard the call.

It was barely 3 p.m.

Cortez waited out the news.

Kolfage survived the first surgery.

We had to amputate, the doctors said.

He stood watch through the night. Cortez endured as people gave more support than he could stand. His team gathered. The chaplain hovered. A bunch of other people were just … there.

Some minutes he’d crouch. Some minutes he’d stand, or walk in the sliver of light seeping from the hospital tent. Cortez waited. And overnight, Balad’s medical team saved Kolfage’s life. He was stabilized to fly. Word went out: Kolfage would be evacuated immediately on a massive C-5 Galaxy. The men and women of Balad Air Base who had lined up to give blood shifted into a line to salute Kolfage’s path to the plane. They stood, some silent, some cheering support as the ambulance slowly drove an unconscious Kolfage to the flight line.

Cortez had 1,000 thoughts running through his head as the ambulance approached the plane.

You can say goodbye, he’d been told. Cortez was given special permission to approach the gurney before it was lifted into the C-5’s hold.

Cortez walked up to his friend. Kolfage was intubated, his neck was in a brace. His face was barely visible through gauze and bruises and wiring.

Cortez thought of all they had shared, serving in these dangerous lands. Cortez knew this was the last time he would see his friend for a long time. He remembered what they used to shout to stay motivated during long night watches and when they pushed each other at the gym.

Cortez leaned in close to Kolfage’s face and repeated the words.

We live together. We fight together. We die together. We Band of Brothers.

* * *

Two weeks later, compassionate doctors eased Kolfage into news he vaguely grasped as he drifted in and out of morphine-infused consciousness at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Oh that really did happen. My legs are gone.

I visited Kolfage at Walter Reed shortly after, because Wurm had reached out.

The room was dim, with blinds halfway drawn across the lone window. Kolfage was propped on pillows, a blanket covered him from his waist down. It went flat after his hips, except for small ridges of fabric caused by a dozen lines of tubing that connected him to fluids and medicine.

His arm was now a white bandaged nub that seeped yellow puss.

This room was the exact opposite of the Baghdad I’d last seen. It was the real price and real life of war. As we said our first “hellos” in a year, I looked into the hollow and drugged eyes of my friend and wondered if he knew he was smiling.

Excerpted with the permission of the author.

Image credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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