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.