The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies




Six White Horses

John Bechtold, Duke University

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Tim and I met for the first time at a Whole Foods just north of Raleigh, North Carolina, where I had offered to take him to lunch. He wanted to eat there, saying he prefers to eat healthy, likes the salad bar, and it’s convenient to home. After showing up early on this unseasonably cold and cloudless late fall morning, I sat down in the eating area near the main entrance and waited. I was there to talk about this project. My idea was to use still photography to document how wounded veterans are reclaiming their lives after being injured in combat. I was nervous; partly because I knew that I would meet a traumatically injured veteran and I felt somewhat guilty for not being injured in combat myself, not physically at least. When I make that claim to people who love me, they usually throw cocked heads and raised eyebrows at me, wondering about my definition of injured. I suppose – knowing what I do about bombs, blasts, the rip of machine guns and thump of RPG rounds shot by teenagers—I was worried about invading Tim’s healing space. This place is precious and unfriendly to strangers.


As I sat there with the sun banging through the plate glass windows, my cell phone vibrated and a quick text appeared in a green cartoon bubble saying Tim was on his way. He surprised me be by coming through a side entrance. I didn’t see him at first. When I happened to look in his direction, I saw an attractive and broad-shouldered young man in a ball cap and hooded sweater, smiling and speeding toward my table in a wheel chair without handles. He slowed down just enough to grab the push ring with his left hand and pivot in front of me. He thrust his right hand in my direction and said, “Hey man, I’m Tim.” And then he began to tell me his story, in bits and fragments over many visits. 

I learned that he was blown up inthe Korengal Valley of Afghanistan when he stepped on a fifteen-pound IED. I later learned about the dangerous fungal infections caused by the dirt and debris blown into his wounds on that day; he would endure additional amputations on each leg because of those infections. Each time we met, I learned a little more: about the eight tourniquets that had been placed on his body when he was evacuated, the Taliban fighter he shot and killed two days before the attack that injured him, the visit he received from President Barack Obama at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center as he recovered. He showed me pictures of his shirtless, hulking two-hundred-and-forty-five pound body months before the accident. He showed me a picture of a nasty little interosseous device used to puncture his sternum during evacuation. He told me about the day in the hospital when he told his mother he wanted to die and the time he dropped the ceremonial puck at a Carolina Hurricane’s hockey game. He told me these things, seemingly unrelated, with a surprising candor. I wasn’t there on that day, July 3, 2011 in the Korengal Valley when he made a third pass over that hidden IED that blew parts of his body in the tree behind him, but I’ve put it together. He didn’t have to tell me everything. Some things, I knew.   

* * * * *

As the medevac chopper—a UH-60 Blackhawk to be exact—lifted off from the makeshift landing zone in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, Tim was on board, strapped to a litter, concussed, medicated with morphine, receiving life saving blood through a intraosseous infusion and singing “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain.” Singing this simple child’s song was a way to keep his mind active, to keep him conscious, to prevent further brain injury. Fewer than forty-five minutes earlier, he had stepped on an explosive device. The blast threw him in the air, backward, severed both of his legs (traumatic bilateral amputation) and most of his left forearm. He was loosing blood fast. And this is the danger here—not to be over dramatic, but if his buddies could not control the bleeding Tim would die. But, they knew what to do. This is the first life saving step that all soldiers are taught—control the bleeding. We carry tourniquets and field dressings infused with coagulates derived from shellfish to control the bleeding. We carry oversized bandages and gauze to pack into open wounds with our hands. We’re trained to look for bright red blood, signaling arterial bleeding. This type of bleeding must be stopped; otherwise the casualty will—as soldiers say—bleed out. Tim’s buddies were able to control his bleeding on that day because the medic found and clamped Tim’s severed femoral artery, an action that probably saved his life. As he lay on ground with the whup-whup-whup of the chopper’s blades growing closer, one of his team leaders told him to sing. This is another life saving step; not singing necessarily, rather treating the casualty for shock. The singing was this team leader’s clever solution to prevent Tim from panicking. He sang the first song the came to mind…“she’ll be driving six white horses when she comes….”

I can see these events unfolding as if I were there. I can see those soldiers lifting themselves up from the valley floor, orienting themselves after the blast with their ears still ringing as they ran to Tim. They immediately began talking to him, reassuring him, “you’ll be okay, we’ll get you out of here, stay with us,” as they called for the platoon medic, shoved their gauze-filled hands into his pelvis to stop the bleeding, placed eight tourniquets on his body (two on each limb), gave him a shot of morphine, and called in the nine line medevac request: “one casualty, urgent, ambulatory, enemy in the area,” squelched over the radio waves to the waiting medevac team. “Sing, Tim; sing.”

Tim would not be the only one injured that day. Those guys who picked up his severed legs, packed his wounds, tightened the tourniquets, and marched back to their patrol base stunned, angry, afraid, while doing everything they could to deny those feelings, if only temporarily until they were safe, they were also hurt—it’s sometimes called a moral wound, possibly contributing to post-traumatic stress later. They experienced this traumatic event too. It’s not normal to pick up a severed leg, the boot still on, fine black leg hairs visible on the exposed skin, and put it into a black plastic bag. After Tim was evacuated, it was not possible for them to sit on the ground, exhausted, and begin to process this traumatic event while watching the chopper lift from the valley and disappear over the ridgeline. The enemy—Taliban fighters in this case—were watching. There could be another 30-pound explosive device that did not explode. There could be an ambush up ahead. The explosion that threw Tim into the air and sent him on a dizzying course marked by hospitals, surgeries, rest, recovery, and more surgery could have been a prelude to a larger attack. Those soldiers had to remain vigilant. These guys secured their gear, checked their weapons (round chambered, weapon on safe), conducted a quick patrol brief, and began moving away from the area in a tactical formation, alert and scanning their sectors as Tim sped to a combat surgical hospital in Kandahar.

In trying to bring Tim’s story into focus, I do not want to gloss over the sometimes grotesque details of war because I think that, to empathize with Tim, to see him in a light without patriotic hues, to begin to understand how he had to change after his injury in order to live now, we must hover over that battlefield scene with him to experience, as much as we can, his trauma. This means fighting the rotor wash and boarding the chopper with him to watch the medic plunge that multi-pronged, spring-loaded intraosseous device into his sternum to begin pumping blood into his body. Those details are important, not just because they help us understand the origins of his mental trauma; if anything can begin to wash out the red, white, and blue color spectrum that filters our generalized perception of Tim (and other injured veterans for that matter), it’s the stark reality of a man bleeding out in the Korengal valley after he was almost fatally blown up while camouflaging the firing wire on a M18 Claymore anti-personnel mine to protect his left flank at the same location where two days earlier he had shot and killed a Taliban fighter. 

I worry that if we insist on refracting Tim’s wartime experience through a patriotic lens, which I think happens in our public discourse, then we may see a soldier who was injured fighting for his country and by extension—to borrow from our ubiquitous nationalist narrative—freedom. What is more, precisely because of Tim’s horrific injury, we may see him as a soldier who has also sacrificed part of himself for his country. The expected public response vis-à-vis this patriotic frame is to be thankful for Tim’s sacrifice because we are indebted to him. This is especially problematic, perhaps even perverse, because Tim did not choose to be injured for us in the Korengal Valley while setting up an over-watch position. He was injured while trying to protect himself and his tactical position. Gratitude from a “thankful nation” is tricky here because it seems we’re essentially affirming the correctness of Tim’s injury. That is to say, he did something that he should have done: suffer injury for us. As important as the philosophical currents of this argument are, my point here is not necessarily to critique a patriotic narrative that seeks to valorize Tim, but rather to question its utility as a framework to inform our understanding of his dilemma because it is not helpful to him now. This is not about the platitudes of political violence or institutional culpability for Tim’s injury. This is about Tim.

* * * * *

Tim lives alone in a home specially constructed for his disability. The extra wide doorways and level flooring without doorstops allows him to move freely through the house in his wheelchair. He invited me there for coffee not long after our first meeting at Whole Foods. Our plan was to meet and chat before we headed to a local indoor pool for his swim workout. Tim swims regularly to keep fit, saying he has a tendency to gain weight if he’s not active, making it harder for him to move in and out of his wheel chair. When he tells me such things with his matter-of-fact practical tone, I’m reminded of how much his life has changed. Then I begin noticing other things. As he escorted me around his home, I saw pictures and framed memorabilia resting on the floor waiting patiently to be hung. He told me he hasn’t had time to hire someone to hang them on the wall for him. This simple task is no longer as easy as retrieving a hammer, nails, and maybe a level from the garage to do the work. He must hire someone now. He is living a new ordinary. 

Tim was ready to leave when I arrived. He had packed his swim container earlier, containing goggles, a water-safe MP3 player, and Garmin watch to track his distance and time in the pool. A brown towel was poking out the knapsack permanently attached to the back of his wheel chair between the absent push handles. I think those push handles were purposely removed and stuffed in box for permanent storage somewhere in his house. I didn’t ask about this, though I sensed he wanted to take care of himself. He values his independence, perhaps needs his independence. Those absent push handles signal to everyone, not angrily, if I want your help, I’ll ask.  

We’re at the pool for his daily workout, I watched him slip from his wheelchair into the water and swim for 56 minutes without stopping—nearly two miles. I took a picture of him, mid-stroke, as his right arm lifted from the water and his left arm began to push through the water, moving his body backward, his torso rocking side to side in rhythm with the windmill-like stroke. When I look at the picture now, it’s his face that pulls me in. He’s concentrated, focused, breathing deliberately, determined. I wonder if he feels powerful in the pool. I wonder whether there’s more to that routine workout for him than controlling his body weight. I wonder about the rhythm of rocking side to side, the gentle splash of the water, the taste of saline on his lips, the motion, the strength of his arms pulling him through the water—steadily, all of it was taking him somewhere else. 

* * * * *

During the months after I took these photographs of Tim, he has driven across the country in his van, visiting friends in Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida. He flew to Jordan on a religious retreat, telling me it was a life-changing experience. He participated in the 2016 Invictus Games in Orlando, Florida, where he won a gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle swimming event. Before that race was broadcast to a live national audience, the television station ran a short video documentary featuring Tim and his story. We see pictures of Tim in Afghanistan, posing underneath a tree in battle uniform as the narrator tells the same story that I wrote about in the preceding paragraphs. We see Tim sitting in his wheelchair with the sun setting behind him, wearing his sleeveless red, white, and blue “I AM” Invictus shirt as he relates being blown up and backward in the Korengal valley. There’s a shot of him in a graveyard visiting the remains of a friend and soldier who was killed in action. There’s also a shot of Tim talking with the man who had stuffed his gauze-filled hands into Tim’s pelvis to clamp his femoral artery. As I noted above, that guy stayed in the valley and watched the chopper evacuate his concussed and bleeding friend before continuing on the patrol. The documentary ends with the sun setting behind Tim as he stares serenely away from the camera, and we’re taken to the pool to watch him win gold. 

* * * * *

I’m not sure where Tim’s story will end. Leaving him on the podium in Florida with a gold medal has a tidy narrative arc: severely wounded soldier who sacrificed for our country has overcome obstacles and persevered through tragedy. He is an example for us to emulate. This narrative situates well in the shadow of our patriotic inclinations. But that is the veneer—the shiny shell that glistens in bright light. It’s the shadows that worry me. We’re not in Tim’s bedroom in the early morning hours when he wakes, sweaty and alone, from an agitated sleep. We’re not with him at the Whole Foods counter when he boldly asks the cashier for a phone number that she doesn’t give. We’re not with him during those passing moments of lucid awareness when the grief of his bodily loss washes over him. I don’t know where this story ends, but I do know that as long as Tim can drop the side ramp on his minivan, swiftly roll inside, and with a quick pull and hop move to the driver’s seat, that he will have a chance to reclaim his life with his hands on the wheel.


Copyright © 2016 by Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs