THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
by Wendy Bauder
Maura Patterson sat bolt upright in bed and swallowed back an anguished cry. Her pulse was racing. She had been dreaming about her son, Trent.
It had been a little over a year since Maura and her husband, Glenn stood, numb with mourning, by the flag-draped coffin of their son, killed in combat during the first Gulf War. Well-meaning friends murmured condolences and platitudes about time being the great healer but each sunrise only seemed to resurrect the horror of losing Trent and left Maura with a dull ache that would not be appeased.
Nearly 8 months after Trent’s funeral, Glenn had come home from work one day with a handful of brochures on new condominiums. Maura had protested. She hadn’t wanted to leave house where they raised Trent; where he took his first steps, lost his first tooth, learned to drive. But Glenn insisted. All three of their daughters were married and as empty-nesters they simply didn’t need the room. Besides, the new house would be a fresh start, Glenn pointed out.
“I don’t want a fresh start,” Maura said choking back tears. “I want my son.” She turned and made her way down the hall, slamming the bedroom door behind her. Glenn followed her and gripped the doorknob. He lay his forehead against the cool wood and took a deep breath to steady his voice.
“Maura, I miss Trent every day, but hanging onto this house won’t bring him back. We have three daughters and a grandbaby who are very much alive. They need you. I need you.”
Nine days later a Realtor staked a “For Sale” sign into their front lawn.
Over the next several weeks, Maura threw herself into the task of packing up the house and purging many of the miscellaneous items accumulated over the years. Trent’s bedroom was the most difficult. Maura knew she didn’t need to keep so many of his personal items but everything held a memory. Trent’s military footlocker sat at the foot of his bed. The Army had been good enough to ship it to Glenn and Maura after the news of his death during Operation Desert Storm.
She knelt in front of the locker and raised the lid. A wreath constructed of yellow ribbons rested atop Trent’s camouflage fatigues. With a smile she remembered Operation Yellow Ribbon and the wave of support for the military troops that had swept the nation. Nearly every radio station played Tony Orlando’s popular comeback hit song, Tie A Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree. Maura made the yellow wreath and proudly hung it on their front porch. After Trent was killed she wanted Glenn to throw the wreath away. He hadn’t, of course, and she was grateful for that now.
She dug deeper into the footlocker until she found a small envelope of photos documenting the weeks and months that Trent had been a soldier. She looked at each one, and turned them over to read Trent’s familiar script on the back. Her favorite photo was of Trent and his buddy, Perry Patterson. “The Dynamic Duo,” Trent had written on the flip side. Maura gazed lovingly at her son with left arm casually flopped over the shoulder of another young man. Both males were of roughly the same height, build and coloring. Trent flexed his right arm for the camera while Perry flexed his left. They looked to be mirrored images with dog-tags encircling their necks below closely cropped hair and clean shaven faces.
Maura set the photo on the bed and let a tear roll, unchecked, down her cheek. Unexpectedly, she remembered a letter Trent had written about Perry when they first met. She closed the lid of the footlocker and crossed the bedroom to Trent’s desk. On one corner was a bundle of letters banded together. Maura kept every letter Trent sent home from his time in the Army. Glenn had moved them to Trent’s room after he died. Maura leafed through the envelopes and found the letter she was looking for.
Perry Patton is an orphan, Trent had written. I thought he was pulling my leg but he swears he doesn’t have a relative left in the world. He’s a good guy and the best southpaw pitcher I’ve ever batted against. The guys usually get together for an informal game of softball to relax and keep from stressing out over being so far from home.
Sergeant Nye, our commanding officer, calls us the Dynamic Duo – Patton and Patterson. Perry’s like the brother I never had. It’s pretty cool.
Thanks for making me a wreath. When I told Perry about Operation Yellow Ribbon, he got a funny look on his face. I guess no one will be hanging a yellow wreath for him anywhere. I told him he could share mine. Would it be okay if I brought Perry home for a visit on our next leave?
Maura stopped reading and shivered. Where was Private Patton now? Had Perry been in the same ground conflict that Trent was killed in? She took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. This boy had been important to Trent; this boy without a family. She knew what Trent would have wanted her to do. She had to find Perry.
Nine hundred miles away, Brenda Warren, R.N. entered a small, colorless hospital room. The handwritten nametag on the door read: PFC Patton, P.
“Good morning Perry,” she said cheerfully. Brenda pushed a button on the small bedside remote to raise the head of the bed.
The Army soldier grunted and slowly turned his body. He was a shell of a man. Though still in his early twenties, his body was emaciated like that of a geriatric. The upper right half of his body had taken the brunt of an explosion from a grenade leaving severe burns on his face, neck and chest. His right hand and forearm had also been burned in an attempt to shield his face from the blast. A handful of surgeries had been needed to reduce the aftermath of his visible injuries though the burns required skin grafts which were both painful and slow healing. As yet he did not have use of his vocal chords. The Private was swathed in white gauze bandages from his head to his waist, which left him with limited mobility and sight.
“The speech therapist is going to start working with you today,” Brenda reminded her patient. “You’ll have just enough time for breakfast and morning hygiene before he meets you in the west sunroom for your first session.”
Brenda planted her feet and reached for the boy in the bed. “Ready?” She put her left hand gingerly between the bed and his bandaged back. She extended her right arm and held it still. The soldier grasped her forearm and pulled himself to a sitting position. With Brenda’s assistance, he pivoted his body and draped both legs over the side of the bed. Brenda covered his feet with slippers before helping him to a standing position.
Maura was determined to find Perry. Each day she took a break from unpacking her and Glenn’s possessions into their new condominium. She used this portion of time to search for her son’s friend. At first, Maura poured over Trent’s letters and the photos he had taken both stateside and overseas. She made notes, keeping track of names and dates that Trent had mentioned.
It was no small feat assuring her husband that the search for Perry was not a masochistic effort on her part.
“Glenn, I’m doing this because that’s what Trent would have wanted. This is not just some surrogate obsession.” Her husband looked doubtful. Still, it did not go unnoticed to Glenn that his wife’s moods of debilitating sadness had lessened considerably since she had begun her search.
Weeks of phone calls, starting with Trent’s Army recruiting office, hadn’t amounted to anything beyond phone tag and dead ends. Finally, Maura took her plight to a local Councilman. Macabre though it was, Maura reminded the politician that nearly every family had been effected by the war in some way. A political ally for those hurting families would certainly be remembered in the next election. It was a strategic move and Maura hit pay dirt. She received a phone call from Trent’s former commanding officer a few days later. Maura felt her pulse pound in her head when she heard his voice.
“Mrs. Patterson?” the terse voice asked. “This is Sergeant Darrin Nye calling. And let me say right off, Mrs. Patterson, your son Trent was a fine soldier. I’m deeply sorry for your loss.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” Maura said. She took a deep breath and outlined her desire to honor her son’s memory and find PFC Perry Patton. Moments of silence elapsed before Sergeant Nye answered.
“Private Patton was involved in the same battle that your son was killed in. She detected a lilt of sadness in his voice. “He was honorably discharged and received a Purple Heart.”
Maura felt a tightness squeeze her chest. “So he was…injured?” Her voice sounded small.
“Pretty seriously, I’m afraid, Ma’am. Our records indicate he was medevaced from the M.A.S.H. unit to a veteran’s hospital stateside. There’s a good chance he could have been transferred somewhere else after that though. Your best bet is to contact the hospital directly.”
“I’ll need your help, Sergeant.” Maura felt suddenly emboldened. “I can’t respect my son’s wishes or try to help this other boy without the Army pulling some strings.” Maura waited. She heard Sergeant Nye clear his throat.
“Yes Ma’am. I’ll do what I can.”
Maura put the telephone receiver back in the cradle. Private Patton had been injured. The Dynamic Duo fought side by side. Perry may have been the last person to see her son alive. She put her head in her hands and shed fresh tears.
That night, as Glenn lay beside her in bed breathing evenly, Maura lay motionless but awake. The bright red numbers on the clock radio cast an eerie illumination on the framed photograph setting on her night stand. It was the last family photo taken before Trent had died. Maura reached out to touch the glass and bring her fingertips back to her lips. Would the pain ever heal she wondered?
The following morning after Glenn left for work, Maura sat on the edge of her bed, with her cordless phone up to her ear waiting for the nurse in charge of PFC Perry Patton’s care to come to the phone.
“Hello? This is nurse Brenda Warren. May I help you?”
“Yes. Thank you for taking my call,” Maura answered. “My name is Maura Patterson. I believe your hospital administrator explained the reason for my call.”
“Yes, Mrs. Patterson. He spoke at length to my ward supervisor who, in turn, relayed the message to me.”
“Please call me Maura,” Maura replied letting out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.
“I’m sure you’re aware that there are privacy policies with regard to our patients,” Brenda began.
“Of course,” Maura said.
“However, in the case of Private Patton, I understand there are extenuating circumstances.”
“I’ve never met the Private in person but my son spoke highly of him. Should Perry’s injuries be such that he is unable to leave the hospital…,” Maura paused. “This boy was important to my son. Now my son is gone and this boy is alone. I want him to know that there are people who care about him even though we’ve never met.”
Brenda smiled to herself and felt the warmth of this woman who was reaching out through her pain. “Maura, let me see what I can do on this end. I’ll gather any information I can and email it to you. Meanwhile, I have a feeling that Perry would enjoy hearing from the family of his best buddy.”
“How is he doing?” Maura questioned, steeling herself for the answer.
Brenda sighed. “Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s still alive. He can’t speak because of the injuries to his neck but we’re hopeful that will turn around as the skin grafts heal. He has difficulty swallowing but his appetite is fair. I help him with basic mobility, feeding and such. He has a ways to go but he’s a trooper.”
“I had no idea,” Maura murmured. “How is he emotionally?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line. “Emotions are always the wild card, especially with people who have seen horrors like war. When Perry first started on his road to recovery he seemed to have some fight left in him. Lately though, he seems more listless. I’m no psychiatrist, Maura, but I think too much dwelling on the past without something to look forward to might send him into depression. I have a feeling you’re going to be a god-send.”
Brenda walked down the hospital corridor with a spring in her step. For months, she had watched the families of other patients in the hospital rally around their loved ones to encourage them through their healing process. And for months there hadn’t been a soul for Private Patton; no letters, no phone calls, no one to care about him. Now, like an unexpected gift, there was someone who had an interest in this broken, young man.
Brenda tapped lightly on Private Patton’s door. Perry was sitting in his wheelchair, staring out the window, with his back to the door.
“Hey you,” she smiled. “How did your speech therapy go?” She picked up the bedside water pitcher and poured a half glass full in Perry’s plastic cup. She positioned a straw and bent the mouth of it down to make it easier to drink. Perry leaned in and automatically reached for the glass with his bandaged hand. The glass flew out of Brenda’s hand and clattered to the floor spewing its contents. Perry groaned and tried to stand up. Brenda laid a hand on his shoulder. “It was an accident. I’ll take care of it.”
Perry sighed and slumped back into his wheelchair. Brenda mopped up the floor with a paper towel from the bathroom and washed her hands. She turned Perry’s wheelchair slightly and stooped down to face him. Only one eye was visible under the many bandages, along with his mouth and nose.
“I had a phone call from the mother of one of your Army buddies this morning. Her name is Maura Patterson. She said you served with her son, Trent.”
Perry’s eye opened wide. He tried to speak but only managed a grunt.
“Apparently he spoke highly of you to his family.” Brenda felt the corners of her smile fade at the look on Perry’s face. His eye had filled with tears and his nose began to run. Perry’s left hand reached for her, trembling. He clutched her upper arm. He began working his jaw but couldn’t speak.
Somewhat taken back, Brenda stood quickly. Perry leaned forward, continuing to reach for Brenda who had stepped out of his reach. Perry began to weep. His long-quiet vocal chords shrilled with an unintelligible wail.
Brenda was stunned. “Perry!” She reached for the nursing station call button by the bed. Two nurses swept into the room. “Private Patton, calm down,” one nurse soothed as she approached the distraught serviceman. Turning to Brenda she asked, “What happened?”
Brenda shook her head from side to side and backed up as the two nurses grappled the weeping boy back into bed. A third nurse whirled into the room and injected a sedative into Perry’s arm.
Brenda slipped into the hallway outside Perry’s room. She closed her eyes and laid her head against the sterile, white paint. Her heart was pounding in her ears so loudly that she didn’t hear the nurses exit the room and close the door behind them. She jumped when one of them put a hand on her shoulder. “Are you okay, Brenda?” she asked.
Brenda nodded and smiled weakly. “I’m fine,” she assured her co-worker. “It’s just that it never gets any easier,” she said nodding toward the doorway of Perry’s room. “No matter how much time I spend here, it never gets any easier.”
“Don’t try to handle this by yourself, Brenda,” said her friend solemnly. “Go talk to Doc Dunham.”
Maura felt more alive than she had in nearly a year. Her growing, long-distance relationship with Perry’s nurse gave her something to look forward to as she formulated a plan to get to know this friend of Trent’s.
Brenda had secured some background information on Perry and had kept Maura up-to-date on his condition. It had stunned Maura to hear about Perry reacting to her phone call and then having to be sedated. He and Trent must have grown very close in a short time, Maura thought. It also weighed heavily on her mind that Perry did not have a single relative whom the hospital could contact. In the event, then, that Private Patton did not recover fully enough to care for himself, he would become a permanent ward of the government, living out his years at one veteran’s hospital or another.
“What can I do?” Maura had asked Brenda.
“Just knowing someone cares is a wonderful thing, Maura, but only time will tell what lies ahead for Perry.”
Brenda had mixed feelings about her patient’s behavior. Until the day she confronted him with Maura’s phone call, he had been passive and mildly depressed. After his outburst, Perry’s depression seemed to lift and was now replaced with a frustrated determination to communicate. His voice grew stronger though he still struggled with his enunciation. Over and over he tried to say Maura’s name. “Mah.” Perry stuttered, “Mah.”
“That’s right, Perry. Her name is Maura. Mau – ra,” Brenda enunciated for him.
“Nuh,” Perry shook his head. “Mah,” he groaned. Perry sat back in his wheelchair and sighed, a dejected look on his bandaged face.
“Perry?” Brenda began softly, but Perry turned his head away from her toward the wall. “It’s time for me to go anyway, Perry,” Brenda said standing. “Don’t get discouraged. Your speech will come back little by little. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Brenda strode from swiftly toward the other end of the hospital. She stopped and took a deep breath before knocking on the door marked ‘Psychiatry.’
“Yes? Come in,” a male voice said from the other side of the door. Brenda pushed the door open and peered around the door.
“Hi John, do you have a few minutes?”
“Brenda! What brings you to this end of the building?” smiled the resident psychiatrist.
“I’d like a favor.” Brenda replied. The middle-aged doctor cocked his head and waited expectantly. “What can you tell me about a patient of mine: a Private Perry S. Patton?”
“Why? Having trouble with him?” questioned the doctor moving toward his file cabinet.
“No. But he is exhibiting some unusual behavior,” Brenda said. I know you saw him once or twice when he was first admitted. I wanted to get your take on him.
Dr. John Dunham pulled a manila file from the drawer and began leafing through it. “Private Patton. I remember this guy. His injuries were touch and go for a while there. How is he doing now?”
“Miraculously well. He just began speech therapy so I’m hoping to be able to converse with him in a few weeks. There’s something else though. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Sometimes he’s listless and other times he seems agitated. The day I told him about a phone call from the mother of one of his Army buddies I thought he’d be pleased. Instead, he had a meltdown and needed to be sedated.”
Doctor Dunham sighed leaning back in his chair, “In med school they cautioned us about getting too close to our patients. That’s wise advice. I would extend the same caution to you.”
Brenda opened her mouth to protest. Dunham held up his hand, “But I didn’t say it’s always the right advice. I’m of the opinion that since so much is lost in war, closeness is just what the doctor ordered, so to speak. But this kid has been through severe trauma. He could still be in a state of functional shock. As for his reaction, the mind is inexplicably complex. Something as seemingly insignificant as a name, or a sound, or even a smell can trigger an overwhelming response.
Was he ever able to communicate with you?” Brenda inquired.
“By communicate, you mean…?
“Ink blots. Point to the picture. I don’t know, John.”
Dr. Dunham looked at the file in his hand. “The battle account is sketchy. Private Patton was a point man for his squad. When the conflict began, no one saw much of anything except smoke, dust and sand. Hostile fire and grenades posed the biggest threat and when all was said and done Patton was barely alive. He was evacuated and taken to a M.A.S.H. unit.” Doctor Dunham cleared his throat and looked at Brenda. “We didn’t think Private Patton would make it through the first week here, Brenda. His vitals were hard to stabilize and the injuries to his skin were extensive. His recovery has remained touch-and-go for nearly a year.”
“When you saw him though, John, what did you say?” Brenda asked.
The doctor looked pensive. “I tried to be sympathetic. I encouraged him to use the fight within himself to heal. His injuries prevented him from communicating with me so our meetings were pretty one-sided.”
“That makes two of us,” said Brenda.
A hot shower, a bathrobe and fuzzy slippers made Brenda feel less frustrated after her day at the hospital. Carefully, so as not to spill her tea, Brenda shuffled across the family room carpet in her slipper-clad feet and eased into the chair in front of her computer. She set her tea down at a safe distance from the keyboard and guided the computer mouse to the small icon on the monitor.
In her last few emails, Maura had shared memories about her son, Trent. Brenda clicked the mouse and pulled up Maura’s most recent message: Trent was gentle and fun-loving. He’d often unexpectedly hug me or throw a casual arm across his dad’s shoulder, much the same way as he and Perry posed in their ‘Dynamic Duo’ picture.
The photograph had given Brenda an idea. Pictures were often used as healing aids with patients who battled depression, she had explained Maura. Would she consider having a print framed and send it to Perry? Maura had been happy to comply and promised to send it right away.
Brenda read Maura’s new message and envisioned the scene: Glenn and I babysat our grand daughter over the weekend. It’s all we can do to keep up with her antics and rapidly developing speech. She followed me around the house all day saying, ‘mah mah.’ She sounded like a little lamb. Glenn said she was trying to say ‘Maura,’ but I think she’s probably trying to say ‘grandma’ instead.
Brenda chuckled to herself and continued to read: I think it’s a great idea to try to help lift Perry’s spirits by jogging his memory with past events. I remembered something funny Trent said about Perry being left-handed. He always tried to sit at the end of the table in the mess hall because he kept banging elbows with the right-handed guys. One time he wasn’t able to secure the end seat, so Perry tried to eat his meal with his right hand. He ended up with more food on his fatigues than in his mouth.
Brenda felt a sudden chill come over her. She tipped her cup to her lips and made a face. Her tea was tepid. Cold tea and droopy eyelids were good reasons as any to call it a night. She dashed off a quick thank you to Maura for the information, turned off her computer and headed to bed.
The cries jerked Maura out of a restless sleep, her heart thudding beneath her nightgown. For several seconds, Maura lay rigid on the mattress waiting for her racing pulse to slow. She heard Trent’s voice calling her name but was unable to find its source. It was just a dream, she assured herself. But it had seemed so real. She relaxed her body and stared into the darkness before sleep finally claimed her again.
The next morning Maura drove to the post office. Beside her on the seat was a 5×7 sized reprint of the ‘Dynamic Duo’ snapshot wrapped in packing paper. She asked the clerk to hand stamp the package and mark it ‘Fragile’ before sending off to Perry.
The door to Perry’s room was closed when Brenda arrived at the nurses’ station.
“Morning Brenda,” the shift nurse said. “The doc’s almost finished in there.” She nodded her head in the direction of Perry’s room.
Brenda busied herself with charts until she heard voices behind her. She turned to see a doctor exit Perry’s room followed by two nurses flanking a stainless steel cart. The cart held several scissors, scalpels and a large disposal bag. Brenda set the stack of charts down on the counter and started toward Perry’s room.
“Wait a sec, Brenda. This came for your boy.” The shift nurse handed her a parcel wrapped in brown paper. It was from Maura. Brenda hoped it was the photo of Trent and Perry that Maura promised to send. She felt sure the photograph would be a welcomed sight.
Perry was sitting in a chair by the window. His brown hair was unwashed and badly in need of a comb. Parts of his head had been shaved and stitched and the new hair growth looked like a toddler had given himself a haircut.
“Morning,” said Brenda cheerfully, bracing herself for what she might see when Perry turned his head. Perry’s shoulders stiffened, then relaxed slightly. As he swiveled his body in the direction of her voice, he pushed himself up with his left hand, beginning to lift his torso into a standing position. Halfway up, his eyes locked with hers and he allowed himself to sink back into his chair. The bandages that had long concealed Perry’s face, torso and left hand had been removed. The bandage on his right hand was replaced with fresh gauze. His skin was bright red and shiny from salve used to help his skin heal.
“Well look at you,” Brenda smiled broadly. Perry was neither the disfigured monster she feared he might be nor the baby-faced boy in the military identification photo stapled to his medical file. He looked as if he had aged ten years and the lack of resemblance to his I.D. might always be the case given his injuries. She stared, seeing his entire face for the first time.
Relief washed over Perry’s face. Brenda heard the squeak of rubber soles on tile behind her seconds before a nurse’s aide rustled in with Perry’s breakfast tray.
“I had instructions to bring this tray in late today,” she said.
Brenda set Maura’s package on the bed and turned to take the tray from her. “Thanks Ellen,” she answered. She set the tray on Perry’s rolling bedside table. “We’re a bit behind schedule today. Perry’s bandages were removed this morning.”
Ellen looked past Brenda to where Perry was seated. “Why so they were,” she said. “Now everyone can see how handsome you are Private Patton!”
The corners of Perry’s mouth twitched. He lowered his gaze. Brenda the bedside table over to Perry’s chair as Ellen’s shoes squeaked back out into the hallway.
“Wah,” Perry moved his lips and pointed to the package on the bed.
“First things first,” Brenda countered, centering his plate in front of him. “Besides, I may need to use that as leverage if you get stubborn.” Perry raised his eyebrows in mock surprise. “Yes, I’m talking about you,” Brenda pretended to be stern. “Now let’s give that left hand a work out with these utensils.”
Brenda handed Perry a fork for his pancakes. Perry stabbed awkwardly at his plate. Brenda appeared nonplussed by his bungling and frustrated sighing. She hummed softly while straightening his bed linens and emptying his water pitcher into the bathroom sink. “I’m going to get fresh ice for your pitcher, Perry,” Brenda said striding past him across the room.
Once out into the hall, Brenda allowed her pleasant expression to fade. Something wasn’t right. She knew patients lost quite a bit of muscle tone due to inactivity but Perry fed himself with the skill and impatience of a toddler. If he’s left-handed, why did he act as if he’d never held a fork before? Brenda scolded herself. The kid has been to hell and back. Cut him some slack.
“Did you get enough to eat?” she inquired reentering Perry’s room with a pitcher of ice. Perry nodded and let his fork drop onto his tray with a clatter.
“Great,” Brenda chirped. She feigned nonchalance at the food particles in Perry’s lap and on the floor around him. “Oh, you’ve got some crumbs on your hand,” she said reaching for his napkin. Perry grunted and lifted his right hand. “No, the other hand; your left one,” she corrected.
Perry cleared his throat. Brenda shook the thoughts from her mind and looked to where Perry was pointing at the package on his bed.
“It’s from Trent’s mom,” she said in answer to his quizzical look. Perry seemed immobile in his wheelchair for an instant, then reached for the package. Brenda stooped down and held the package on Perry’s knees while he groped at the package.
“Can I help?” Brenda asked. She freed the framed photo from its wrapper and handed it to Perry. “Maura thought you might like to have this. She said it’s one of her favorite pictures of you and her son.” Brenda circled around Perry and looked over his shoulder. “I can see why.”
She heard Perry sniff and saw him wipe his nose. She had expected this and handed him a Kleenex from her pocket. Perry set the frame gently on his night stand and blew his nose with his left hand. “Mah” he struggled.
“Yes. Maura sent it to you,” Brenda interrupted.
Perry shook his head. “Mah” Perry let out a sigh. Brenda waited. Perry’s head snapped up and looked at Brenda. He gestured to the closet in the corner.
“Do you want something in the closet, Perry?” He nodded and watched her open the door. Inside were three empty hangers. Brenda was confused until she spotted a small box on the bottom of the closet. She stooped down to pick it up. Brenda lifted it up and set it on the rolling bedside table. Perry leaned forward in his chair. He trembled as he fumbled the lid off of the box. Brenda hardly dared to breathe as she watched him.
Perry picked up a small baggie. Perry pawed at the plastic and looked at Brenda expectantly. She carefully opened the small baggie and dumped a broken chain and a set of metal dog tags out into his hand. Perry studied them keenly then closed his fist. His head rolled forward. He closed his eyes and brought his fist up, gently pounding his forehead over and over. Tears slid out from the sides of his tightly closed eyes. Brenda’s heart ached. She steeled herself to sit quietly.
Perry sniffed and batted the tears on his face with his bandaged hand. He shook his head and pushed the box away. Brenda stood and put the lid back on the box. Perry looked dejected.
“Let’s look at this stuff later, Perry. It’s a beautiful day. Let’s get some fresh air.”
PFC Perry Patton tossed and turned uncomfortably in his bed. Though ‘lights out’ on the hospital ward had been more than four hours ago, sleep would not come. His healing skin was tender and his atrophied body ached from lack of exercise. He yearned for the ability to communicate effectively, but his tongue felt like a foreign object in his mouth and couldn’t seem to form the words his brain wanted it to. He closed his eyes and tried to remember what had happened before he ended up in this place.
It was the middle of the night in southern Iraq. Sergeant Nye was barking orders. The barracks were swarming with soldiers grabbing their gear and moving into position. It wasn’t a drill; they were at war. Trent and his buddy, Perry, clamored out of their bunks and pulled on their gear. Trent felt his stomach lurch. It was February 24, 1991.
Trent could hear artillery rounds in the distance. Every so often the ground would tremor from an explosion. He grabbed his weapon and turned to Perry. “Stay close, buddy,” he said as they ran to the waiting jeep. Soldiers piled in to the dusty jeep and fell silent. It was 4:00am but everyone was wide awake and in the scarce illumination, Trent could see the fearful expressions on the faces of the soldiers around him.
“Point men, move out,” yelled Sergeant Nye about ten minutes later. His voice was barely audible above the noise. There were flashes of light all over and it seemed to Trent that shots were suddenly coming from every direction. He and Perry crouched behind a small rise in the sand. The smell of gunpowder seared Trent’s nostrils and burned his eyes. Sergeant Nye motioned for them to take a position about 15 yards ahead in a sandy gully. Trent locked eyes with Perry and nodded. With weapons tucked firmly under their arms, they scurried toward the gully. Unexpectedly the sand began exploding around them. Trent was all but blinded by the flashes of light as he began closing in on the goal; eight yards, six. An explosion just behind his right shoulder knocked him off his feet at the same time he heard Perry yell.
Trent thought this must be what hell was like. “Perry!” Oh no. Perry lay in a mangled mass like a grotesque rag doll. Trent snaked over to Perry on his belly. The dust and the smoke were almost too thick to see through in the dark, but Trent could make out enough to know that his buddy was dead. Perry had taken a terrible hit to the upper part of his body. The chain holding his dogs tags had been split apart and the metal tags lay in a growing puddle of blood and gray matter. Trent feared he might pass out.
Continued shelling rattled Trent into motion. With trembling fingers, he scooped up Perry’s dog tags and shoved them into the pocket of his fatigues. He grabbed his weapon and pushed on toward the gulley. A grenade hit the sand just inches from Trent. Instinctively he raised his right hand to cover his face. There was a final flash of light before he lost consciousness.
The M.A.S.H. unit was comprised of military medical personnel who had never seen war. “It’s going to take a while to get all this shrapnel out of him,” said a young doctor standing above the burned and bleeding body of PFC Trent Patterson. “I can’t believe they tagged him for the morgue. Thank God someone checked his pupils before zipping the body bag.”
“No kidding. Look at this,” said the assisting surgeon. “It looks like a mass of metal melted to something around his neck. Dog tags maybe.”
“Can you make out any writing?” inquired the first physician.
“No. Hey Connie, did you remove any I.D. from this guy before cutting his clothes off?”
A young nurse lifted the clipboard setting on a tray at the end of the gurney. She scanned the pages. “We couldn’t make out the name on his jacket but dog tags were found in his pants’ pocket. It says here that his name is PFC Perry S. Patton.”
Perry was agitated again. Again and again he tried to speak but no one could understand him. He stared out the window. A ladybug was crawling on the outside of the glass. Perry leaned forward to trace the trail with his finger. The heat from his hand left a small print of moisture on the window. Perry started. He pushed himself away from the window and scooted his chair toward the bedside table. He had to make someone understand. His chair banged into the bed frame making a clatter in the quiet room. He reached for the plastic pitcher and flung the water out onto the floor. Wedging the empty pitcher between his right arm and torso, he held the pitcher still and felt along the edge with his left hand. There, a rough spot where the plastic was sharp. He pushed his thumb against the spot in the plastic, dragging his skin over it repeatedly. He felt a prick as the plastic cut his finger.
Brenda came into Perry’s room and stopped short. She looked at the water on the floor and back to Perry. “What in the world?”
Perry dropped the pitcher onto the floor and pressed his thumb onto the bedside table leaving a bloody print. “Mah!” he pointed to the thumbprint.
“What are you doing?” Brenda rushed toward Perry. “You’re bleeding.”
Perry held his bandaged arm to keep Brenda at bay. He pressed his thumb onto the bedside table again. He pointed wildly to the thumbprints.
“I don’t understand,” Brenda said.
“Uh!” Perry pounded the table with his fist. Suddenly he was quiet. He paused for a second and began again. He pressed his bloody thumb down a third time and pointed to the prints and then to himself.
“Fingerprints?” Brenda asked. Perry smiled and nodded. “Your fingerprints?” Perry nodded again.
“I still don’t get it.”
Perry looked around wildly until he saw the framed photograph. He moved to get it. Brenda rushed to pick it up. She held it in front of him. Perry pointed to the picture of Trent and then to himself. He pointed to the bloody fingerprints.
“That’s not you, Perry. It’s Trent,” Brenda began.
Perry shook his head fiercely back and forth. He pointed to the photo of Trent again. He thumped his chest.
Brenda felt the blood drain from her face. Could it be?
Brenda leveled her gaze at Perry. “Perry, speak slowly. Tell me who sent this picture to you.”
Perry’s lips quivered. He took a breath and let it go slowly. “Mom,” he said.
Glenn stood with his arm around Maura in the temperate, fall climate of Washington D.C. They had been planning this special vacation for some time now.
The past two years had seen remarkable progress for their son, Trent. Though the healing process was painful and the therapy frustrating, Trent had emerged a striking young man in both body and spirit.
“Hey mom!” Trent called to Maura, “Come take our picture!”
Glenn and Maura moved closer to the Korean War Memorial where Trent and his nurse, Brenda Warren, stood side by side. Trent flopped his arm over Brenda’s shoulder and stared thoughtfully into the camera lens. “Make sure you get the inscription, mom.”
Maura looked at the low cement wall. Freedom Is Never Free, it read. She looked at her son and then at her friend. Brenda saw her look and smiled knowingly.