08 Mar 2010 @ 3:06 PM 
 

Some Things Don’t Need Embellishment

 

I recently traveled to Germany to train part of the incoming International Joint Command (IJC) staff who will be taking over in Afghanistan this year. The group of British, French and Italian officers and senior NCO staff that I worked with were very good participants, with some very thoughtful discussion going on.

Because of the limited return flights, I had to spend a little over a day waiting before I traveled back to Kabul. I had contacted MaryAnn Phillips, President of Soldiers’ Angels Germany and told her I would be in Germany. I knew that she’d be disappointed with me if I went there and made no effort to say hello. I have too much respect for her to just breeze in and out and not say a word about it. MaryAnn found something for me to do with my bit of extra time; visit Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. When she mentioned it, I was torn. I have put the bodies of friends in bags. I had to go through their pockets for ID so that I could figure out who they were. I have helped MEDEVAC soldiers, some critically wounded. The dead suffered no more and needed only to be shown dignity and respect. The wounded suffered only for a brief time while I was near them and then they were gone. I am trained as a combat lifesaver, but I am an Infantryman and not a Medic. MaryAnn wanted me to go into the den of the great beast of what comes after the bird leaves. That’s what I saw in my head.

There’s a lot more to what I was in for. I got a little of that. I got a lot more than that, though. Like stocking shelves in the basement of barracks that house outpatients.

Landstuhl isn’t just for wounded. It’s where servicemembers from Iraq and Afghanistan go for medical treatment and evacuation for any number of reasons. Many are ill. Some have been diagnosed with serious diseases, such as cancer. It is also the waypoint for seriously and critically wounded warriors on their way to places like Walter Reed, the burn centers and the first big step on what may be a long road of recovery. Those people never see the outpatient barracks. They are stabilized and moved again. Some others are there for lengthier stays. For them, many of whom came in with little or nothing, a change of clothes can mean the world.

Enter Soldiers’ Angels and the force that defies gravity and fatigue; MaryAnn Phillips.

I can’t describe MaryAnn as unassuming, a word often associated with people who share her trait of recoiling physically whenever any kind word is directed at her (by anyone who is not a patient, the family of a patient or a medical professional). MaryAnn is a force of nature, possessing seemingly boundless energy and a benevolently powerful presence that melts barriers. She can appear to be tired, but while some would get a charge out of a Red Bull, all you have to do to give MaryAnn a charge of energy is tell her that a patient needs something. She is suddenly on the go, tracing the long halls of Landstuhl for the millionth time, seemingly tireless.

She starts by stocking shelves. Many probably never realize that she is there, but the staff at Landstuhl know her. She is accorded great respect and deference by the staff. She flows effortlessly between organizations and is greeted warmly by all as a partner, a member of the team. Her first stop is an administrator at the barracks, a woman who helps coordinate so that patients have a smoother stay. These two women belong to different organizations, but share a common purpose. The administrator smooths the path for the injured and sick, making sure that they have their paperwork straight, their vouchers available. MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels share something with her; they love the servicemembers who are in a strange place in difficult circumstances. The administrator shows this by her work. MaryAnn and the Angels fold clothing and stock shelves with sweats, t-shirts, underwear and blankets. Many of the sick and injured never really notice her comings and goings, but there are always blankets on the shelves, many made by volunteers and donated. Servicemembers who have been separated from their belongings find clothing and other materials that bring comfort made freely available.

It isn’t until later, usually, that she moves on to the hospital proper. She stops in at Movement Control, touching base and getting an idea of what the patient flow is like and when planes are arriving. She touches base with the LNO’s from various units, senior NCO’s who track and facilitate for evacuees from their parent units in the theater. As I follow MaryAnn like a puppy, lost in an unfamiliar place, I am stunned by the atmosphere of caring and professionalism that she flies through. These professionals deal with personal tragedies and sacrifice on a daily basis with a calm sense of purpose and a sense of humor. None of the laughs are at the expense of the patients, though. I sense only respect and purpose regarding them.

We stop to see a patient whose parents are relaying messages to via MaryAnn. She is in contact with them, reassuring them with news of their son’s personal reactions. She never shares medical information, leaving that task to doctors, sometimes cajoling a busy practitioner to make that call to fill in the parents or spouse on the medical details. MaryAnn shares only the human side, like the fact that their son is expressing a sense of humor, or that she saw him up and moving around. She tells the young man that his parents have told her that someone keeps getting on his bed at home.

“That’s my dog,” he says, his face brightening.

That’s something extra. That’s something special that the doctor or nurse, busy with medical details and other patients, doesn’t have to do. There is MaryAnn, flitting in and giving the young man a smile and a specially made blanket along with a Soldiers’ Angels coin. He is busy… he has finally been allowed to get to a laptop and all he can think of is getting on Facebook. MaryAnn laughs repeatedly throughout the rest of the day that this young man, high on pain meds and walking unsteadily for the first time since being injured, the first thing he wants to do is get on Facebook. He’s behaving normally and contacting his world. It’s a good sign. He won’t remember her, she asserts. She may be right… but she was there, and she bridged that gap of thousands of miles to bring news of his parents and his dog.

And then she moved on.

It seemed like an afterthought. The CCU. “I should show you the CCU.” I am seized with dread, yet interested. I can’t say no to MaryAnn. She introduces me to some of the staff. She inquires as to the status of their supply of blankets and coins for the patients. A man lies seriously injured in a nearby room. A moth to flame. Suddenly I am alone. MaryAnn is holding his hand, talking with him, joking with him, listening to him. She sends me to get a blanket for him, and she gives him a coin. He is fixated on her. It’s as if she’s the only person in the world. In that moment, for him, she was.

I bring the blanket and hand it to MaryAnn. She shows it to him, and immediately it is the answer to all of his problems. He tells her exactly how he wants the blanket placed. She feeds him crackers and water while he struggles with the effects of powerful painkillers. We are there for well over an hour, and all he can see is her. MaryAnn later tells me that he will not remember it. He may not remember Landstuhl at all. But in that moment, she was the only one in the world for him. The next morning, as he is readied, or “packaged” for transport, there are only two things he is concerned with; his iPod and that blanket.

It was an incredible act of love, but to MaryAnn, it is just what she does. She puts the same love into organizing the stock room or folding sweatshirts. She is not the only Angel. She is not the only one who cares.

A number of patients are being moved stateside. The aircraft is on the ground, readied. The ambulatory patients are loaded and waiting. The final touches are being put on “packaging” the patients from the CCU. Every bit of equipment they need is specially affixed to their stretchers, each a mini-CCU tailored to suit their requirements. The Air Force flight medical personnel are there, getting the hand-off. An Air Force Captain notices that one patient is not completely covered. He gets a Soldiers’ Angels blanket, made by a volunteer in the States. A card is pinned to it. He puts the blanket on the wounded man and reads him the card.

He actually took the time to read the card to the recipient of the blanket.

It was an incredible day and a half watching the behind-the-scenes work of the Angels in action. This is amazing work, often with large doses of what most would call, “drudgery.” It’s not exciting. It’s mostly work. Work done with love and persistence. Many, perhaps most, will not remember their encounters with MaryAnn and the rest of the Angels of Landstuhl, but they are there. They bring comfort, they bridge the gap that sometimes opens between professional medical care and people back home. They never share details, medical information or personal information. They are exposed to tragedy and yet they persevere. They do not tell tales of the wounded except in general terms. They see dignity in sacrifice. They care for the soldiers of Coalition nations just as they care for Americans. As awed by MaryAnn as the man in the CCU was, I think that she was just as awed. All of this is done with an overdose of humility. I’ve never seen anyone refuse a compliment as vehemently.

She may actually kill me for writing this.

Personally, I am awed. MaryAnn and the Angels of Landstuhl do things that I could never do on an ongoing basis. To me, they are legend. Truly amazing. Volunteers all. You do not need to embellish their amazing work. But recently a journalist credited MaryAnn with coordinating medical care for a wounded British soldier. While I’m sure it sounded like a great story, it’s not true. The story has been corrected, but in the meantime it made it look like the very professional organizations involved weren’t doing the best they could until they were coordinated by this volunteer. This simply isn’t so. Soldiers’ Angels are truly heroes to me without having to give them superhuman multinational medical powers. They do many wonderful things, but international medical coordination isn’t one of them. Soldiers’ Angels supports soldiers and their families.

I bet at least one of them did hold his hand.

Greyhawk tells the story really well here.

Tags Tags: , ,
Categories: General Military
Posted By: Old Blue
Last Edit: 08 Mar 2010 @ 03 06 PM

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Responses to this post » (21 Total)

 
  1. elf says:

    Really? Yon got it wrong?

    Well it’s still a great story. So is yours. And hers.

    Stay safe.

  2. Jean says:

    What a gift you received, being able to spend time with the Angels.

    Take good care, Blue.

  3. Mrs G says:

    She is soooo going to kill you for this but hey it’s all true. I’ve seen first hand when I worked side by side with her when we were stationed in Germany. I’m waiting for these wars to be over so she can write her book about our military heroes, the phenomenal Landsthul staff, and how the hell she manages to do what she does. I’m buying the first copy.

    Sorry MaryAnn, luv ya. ;P

  4. OldSoldier54 says:

    Man, that was awesome! Thanks for the great story!

    Stay frosty, brother and God bless.

  5. Roz says:

    Thank you for telling this story – ordinary people doing extraordinary things. That despite all the broken bodies, there are so many hearts full of compassion, love and hope.

  6. MaryAnn says:

    Blue, I seriously considered killing you.

    But then I realized this says as much about you as it does about me. I mean, how many guys have a couple of days off in Germany in the middle of a tour and spend them volunteering at Landstuhl? Wow. And I think only very, very few people can appreciate the “into the den of the great beast” aspect of what you did.

    You have also done an extraordinary job is capturing the atmosphere and spirit of Landstuhl. More people should know about the work of the entire staff here. They can never, ever be given enough credit for what they do on both a professional and human level. Reliving the story about how the CCATT Doc read the note to the patient he was transporting brought tears to my eyes.

    I of course hope you never have to come here under “other” circumstances. But should the unthinkable happen, you know I would be honored to hold your hand and feed you crackers…

    Mrs G, not at day at Landstuhl goes by that I don’t think of the many experiences we shared here. I still miss you and your family terribly.

    Love you both. Thank you for all that you do.

  7. Patvann says:

    Many have heard the question: “Where do we get such men?”

    -We need to add: “Where do we get such women?” as well.

    My Marine will be in Afghanistan next month. I pray he won’t ever have to meet an “Angel” named MaryAnn…

    But as he said when he first heard of her: “She’s another reason why we aren’t afraid to fight”. Within the Corps, she is legend.

    May God continue to give her, the medical staff, and our warriors strength.

  8. membrain says:

    Wow. Awesome post Blue. Thanks so much. I knew Soldier’s Angels work was important, but this really shines a light on just what they do.

  9. Greta says:

    Thanks for this post. Yep – you are in trouble.

  10. Lisa-in-DC says:

    Blue: Thanks for sharing your visit – it means a lot to get a window on your and MaryAnn’s worlds

    MP: You’re stuck – you inspire people and we love you, so we’re going to keep talking about you :-) Thanks, as always, for taking point on that particular front line.

  11. guest says:

    Thank you to all who care for and serve our troops. Here is air force times article about saving the British Soldier:

    http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123161711

  12. TracieH says:

    Great post. Thank you all for serving, no matter in what capacity.

  13. Pamela Thompson says:

    My son is in AFg. now. I hope that he never has to go to Landsthul but if he does I know that MaryAnn will take care of him just like I would have. IT’s wonderful to here how she’s making such a difference~ THANKS and GOD Bless our Soldiers~

  14. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by BrothersAtWar: Just like @bouhammer, we are humbled by this blog post http://afghanquest.com/?p=438 #militarymon…

  15. dennis says:

    Blue!! you back home safe an sound.???

  16. Chuck Z says:

    I remember MaryAnn.

    Thanks for sharing this Blue.

    Few can comprehend how much work she does. This “day in the life” has been MaryAnn’s life for the last 6 years (at least.) And people wonder why I get pissed off by claims of “PTSD by Proxy” when they’ve heard stories in the barracks about war.

    MaryAnn and Mrs. G, I remember you.

    –Chuck

  17. Mindy1 says:

    Aww what a wonderful story, I wish her and our service people well

  18. Sapper says:

    I don’t know if I was lucky enough to meet MaryAnn during my short stay at Landsthul. I know I met some amazing people while I was there. One volunteer woman was bound and determined to buy me clothes so I wasn’t shipped off to Walter Reed with nothing but my hospital gown. When I finally caved and told her my sizes you would think she just won the lottery with how excited she was…Poof she was gone…off to get me some clothes and damn happy to be shopping for some guy she didn’t know and in a few days would never see again. I met a nurse on her third tour and she was trying to get extended … on purpose. I have to say the writeup was well done and I have no doubt MaryAnn deserves her legendary status within the USMC. The story told above made me smile and brought a few tears. I was remembering a time, just a few years back, one that was one of the worst in my life, but still made me smile. Because of people like MaryAnn that give so much …. I was damn lucky to have people like that taking care of me.

  19. Rob Muth says:

    I think you pegged MaryAnn perfectly…I always enjoyed seeing her come onto the ward bringing backpacks and clothing when I worked on 13D. She always made my shift go just a little better…

  20. Jack Burton says:

    Blue, came across you from Blackfive and spend many hours tracking the RYP bullshit. Keep safe from a fellow Buckeye buddy. I applaud your service and apologize that you have to sort of answer to pukes like RYP and Max the women’s studies professor.

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