by Ollie Lynn
My patrol mate drummed a steady rhythm with his fingertips on the dashboard, as we waited for the lumbering, Ural cargo trucks to shake out into their order of march. It was early, yet already my combat shirt was stuck uncomfortably to my back, whilst the clapped-out A/C in our truck fought a losing battle against the heat.
We’d been out here for a week, in the hot, dry season of South Sudan. We had established and worked out of a temporary patrol base that, as always, brought interest from the local community, in particular, with the children. We’d facilitated a civilian-led workshop on the protection of women; small steps in a country rife with frequent, horrific occurrences of sexual violence.
Concurrently, my team and I had conducted localised patrols, as well as our usual Key Leader Engagements with village chiefs and Host Nation security force representatives. My Force Protection for this patrol were Rwandan; a success story of a country that, I hoped, had not been lost on the local community. Rwanda had been through its own ugly, vicious civil war that had torn it apart, which accounted for millions of deaths. Yet here, 25 years later, it was peaceful, prosperous, and contributing to an international peacekeeping mission.
The Force Protection company had brought along a Medical Detachment, which had set up a small clinic on the outskirts of the Patrol Base. During the week, a steady stream of locals had trickled through the clinic for assessment and treatment. Children were the priority, and the doctor and his small team had done an excellent job administering anti-malaria medication, de-worming tablets, and had cleaned and dressed wounds or other ailments from within the community.
I was tired. I never slept well in the hot, sauna-like environment of the tents, and I was looking forward to a shower, a cold drink, and air-conditioning once we returned to base. We had a long drive ahead of us, and I was keen to get going. However, it was as the Urals finally swung into their position, with the Line of Departure about to be crossed, that I saw the kid.
He looked about nine years old, and he was standing under the shade of a tree, supported by one of his mates. Even from this distance, I could see the open sores on his lower leg. A part of me wanted to ignore it and continue as planned; you see a lot of suffering in Africa, and I was conscious that we were already behind on time. It was always a challenge to corral a UN team of civilians and Troop Contributing Countries into one place and, now they were here, I was keen to start, and make up time on the road.
However, the better part of me radioed the Patrol Commander and called a halt to the patrol. I jumped out with my Language Assistant, swung by the Ambulance, and asked the Doctor to accompany me to examine the kid.
As is common in this part of the world, most things spread by word of mouth. The kid lived a few Bomas (villages) away, and had walked over, with the aid of his friend, the day before to have his injury looked at after he heard of our clinic.
The doctor’s manner was excellent. In English, perhaps for my benefit, he ran a steady, reassuring commentary. The Language Assistant, seamlessly, ran a sound translation into Juba Arabic for the child. He commended the little lad on his courage, for walking so far to seek treatment. For his bravery, his strength, and that, one day, he will make a fine man.
I helped the Doc clean, bandage, and dress the wound, and together we left a clean, professional-looking dressing. I fished in my pocket and brought out two lollipops, which I gave to each of the young boys for making the arduous journey.
I asked the Doc, in English, what condition had caused these dreadful-looking wounds to the boy’s leg. The doctor looked at me to reply and, whilst smiling, I saw only one emotion in his expressive, brown eyes: sadness.
“Sir, this boy has an advanced case of osteomyelitis. These sores, which have gone untreated for a long time, have introduced a bacterial infection into his bone marrow. This is treatable, but it needs surgery and a good, six-week programme of intravenous antibiotics. We’re unable to do either right now. In your country or my country, this is very much treatable. Here, I’m not sure what else we can do.”
I looked around at the dry, austere landscape, and the mud-brick village, that clung to this tributary of the White Nile.
“Well, Doc, what’s going to happen, if he doesn’t get treatment?”
“His bone marrow will fight off the infection, eventually, but it will break his bone structure. His leg will heal, but it will be permanently disfigured. He will most likely be crippled for his adult life. There’s nothing more we can do here, but what we’ve done should hopefully prevent any further re-infection.”
I noticed that the Language Assistant has stopped translating, and instead played around, making the boys laugh.
I felt deflated. I asked the Language Assistant to tell the boys once more how courageous they were and to ask the injured boy to visit the nearest NGO clinic, as often as he could, which was a few kilometres from here. I gave the boys a fist bump, then moved back to my truck to mount up.
I radioed the Patrol Commander, and we rolled out of our old Patrol Base. I saw the two boys, standing under the shade of the tree, and saw them wave, lollipops firmly in hand. I waved back, and before I knew it, everything behind was clouded in our impenetrable dust trail.
I got back to camp and, I’ll be honest, I forgot all about the last part of the patrol. I had reports to write, equipment to clean; new patrols to prepare for. It had been a long patrol, one of many, where I wrote a report, submitted it, filed it, then moved on to the next.
It wasn’t until a couple of months later, whilst chatting with an Australian mate of mine, that the effects of that encounter surfaced. I was with a large group of friends, and we were socialising; having a laugh, and destressing. It was then that my mate Chris, a staff officer but who, in a former life, was an enlisted Infantryman and Afghanistan veteran, asked me the open question, “So, what’s it like out on your patrols?”
I talked about the adventure, the freedoms, and the challenges. I drifted to the hand-to-mouth life of the local people. The rawness of the experience. The highs, and tragedies that tug at you. And for some reason, my mind drifted back to this experience with this young lad and his friend, months before, and I began to recount.
I got some way through, then I felt the tightness in my chest, my throat. I struggled to articulate words; then, all of a sudden, I simply couldn’t. Ashamedly, I felt hot tears on my cheeks and a deep sense of embarrassment. ‘Why has this happened?’ I asked myself.
I tried to compose, and continue with the yarn, but I struggled. Chris, in one of the most wonderful acts of kindness I’ve experienced, grabbed my hand. “Hey man, don’t worry about it, it’s all good. I understand.” And that was that. I recovered, I moved on, and no one mentioned the episode for the remainder of my tour. I was grateful.
Months later, I’m home, and I’m recounting the same story, this time with a professional, and I get the same, physiological result. One image re-played over in my mind, that of the young lad, looking happy as Larry, fresh bandage on and lollipop in hand, waving to us, as we disappeared into the dust. In his mind, he’s been fixed. He’s seen a doctor, and he’s going to heal. He’ll protect the cattle herd, tend to the goats, till the field. Be the man for his family.
In my mind, at best, I know he’s in for a lifetime of suffering. At worst, he may end up as one of the broken, disfigured beggars on the road, who survive on the charity of others. I found it hard to reconcile the optimism of this young lad, as he waved to us from under the tree, to my private knowledge of his condition – that it’s probably going to get worse for him before he gets better, and that he’s likely in for a lifetime of suffering.
I’ve thought a lot about this since. I’ve had some great support, and I know that I did the best I could with what the situated allowed. I stopped an 18-vehicle convoy, so that we could examine, and treat, this lad to the best of our ability. The locals saw, hopefully, that the UN, and by extension the world, did care about their plight.
The psychologist, Laura Herschel, speaks to the Box and Ball analogy, which I found useful. All of us, throughout the story of our lives, carry experiences that live within our subconscious.
We collect experiences, both positive and hurtful, which rest within us. Sometimes, these experiences, particularly our hurtful or emotional ones, are large and bounce against the ‘pain’ button within our cognitive box, which brings a response.
Over time, this ball will shrink as we process the event, and fill the space with positive experiences. Occasionally, it may touch the ‘pain’ button which brings a response but, hopefully, it’s not as frequent as it once was. Eventually, the event may become minuscule, and rarely, if ever, touch the ‘pain’ button in consciousness, although it will remain within us. My experience with ‘The Kid’ is just one of many experiences from that mission. These add to other events from my personal, and professional life, which live within my consciousness and subconsciousness, and add to the tapestry of my life.
On balance, the growth, or painful episodes, are overwhelmingly balanced with positive experiences. The privilege of being a father, partner, son, friend, and military leader. The joy of watching a sunrise, and the beautiful, physicality of nature. ‘The Kid’ will always be with me, and when I discuss the event now, it no longer brings the pain response. Nonetheless, it’s an experience that will forever remain a small ball within me, and a coordinate on the map of time.
Ollie Lynn is a currently serving New Zealand Army officer with a background in Fires. He has deployed on several operations across the conflict spectrum. In addition to Regimental appointments, he has served as an instructor, and in a number of staff appointments.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.