Yesterday afternoon I went to our Palace of Pain (a.k.a. local clinic) for a minor procedure under local anesthetic. I collected several bits and pieces of shrapnel, bullet fragments, etc. over the course of several years “up the sharp end” in Africa, and now and then they still work their way to the surface and try to come out. A couple of them needed to be dealt with, so it was hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s off to the scalpel we go.
One of them revealed a few interesting things. First off, the shrapnel had entered perpendicular to the skin and embedded itself fairly deeply, but not so deeply as to threaten internal organs. It was a sharp sliver of metal, about 1/3″ long, shaped like a dagger, a long narrow triangle. It punched through a previous injury’s scar tissue to get into my body, where it was encapsulated over time (the body’s standard self-defense mechanism with foreign objects it can’t expel).
(The nice lady doing the cutting wanted to know – rather indignantly – why the shrapnel hadn’t been dealt with at the aid station, rather than left to fester in my body. I had to explain that the first-line medical station practiced what M*A*S*H called “meatball surgery”, where the worst injured got the most attention. Relatively minor injuries like being peppered with bits of shrapnel got a cursory wipe-down with disinfectant from a corpsman, a quick examination from a harried doctor, and an aspirin or two. “They’ll deal with that at base when you get there.” With that, he turned to take care of the sucking chest wound and the leg that was so badly crushed as to be in danger of amputation if something wasn’t done at once, if not sooner. I could hardly argue with those priorities! Back at base, the medic’s response was, “Well, you haven’t dropped dead over the past week on the way back here, so I guess you’ll live. Here, have another aspirin.”)
Anyway, she made a half-inch incision over the lump in my back, pressed gently, and out popped a perfect little capsule, almost an inch long and filled with dead white blood cells and other “padding”. When she sliced it open, there was the shard of shrapnel, still sharp. She was quite taken aback, having never seen something like that before. She told me that my body had obviously been trying to expel this for a while, but that it had been positioned right below the scar tissue from my earlier injury, which was tougher than uninjured skin and resisted the pressure. Since it couldn’t get out, over time it kept pushing and formed a lump, which she’d just cut open. The resulting hole in my body was only half an inch wide, but more than an inch deep. She warned me it may not close fully, because it’s had that encapsulated shard buried in it for so long, but we’ll hope for the best. If worse comes to worst, it’ll need a more formal medical procedure to close it.
I felt rather strange looking at that fragment of metal. I’ve been carrying the damned thing around in my flesh for over 36 years (and a few other bits and pieces as well). In a sense, it had become part of me – but now it wasn’t any more. I recalled the firefight in which I’d “collected” it, and part of me wanted to find the guy who’d thrown the grenade and tell him that the war was over, there was no need to hate any more, and we could shake hands. Sadly, he didn’t survive the engagement, so that won’t be possible – at least, not in this life.
I remembered, too, sitting on my couch in my apartment in Johannesburg, watching on TV the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November, 1989. In Southern Africa, we’d been part of the “hotter” side of the Cold War. The Soviet Union, communism and totalitarianism had been our enemies and bêtes noir for decades. Watching as East and West Berliners climbed on top of the wall to embrace each other, and the dreaded East German border guards stood back and did nothing while peace broke out all over, was utterly mind-boggling to someone who’d been shooting at their ideological comrades for so long. Slowly, a thought wormed its way into my mind: Maybe, just maybe, I might live to see forty after all… (I’d turned thirty the previous year, and frankly had not expected to live that long.)
All that came back to my mind on seeing that little piece of shrapnel. The Evil Empire had done its best to see that I didn’t survive – but I had. However, I was still carrying around the evidence of their attempts. It felt really weird to look at it, almost sad in a way. I don’t know how to put it into words, except that it felt like a part of me had gone – and I don’t mean the capsule surrounding the shrapnel.
Strange. Very strange. Have any of you who are combat vets ever had such a feeling? Can you explain it better than I can?