Grenades, gunshots and grit: An Army flight medic’s story
Out in the field at Fort Campbell, Ky., someone has lost a hand grenade.
The commander orders the soldiers into the field, searching the grounds for the small explosive. And find it they do – when one of them kicks the grenade, knocking the pin out.
The men have approximately 10 seconds to react. For 22 of them, this is not enough time to survive.
In the room where combat medic Sabrina Blake is stationed, a young soldier from Pennsylvania is fighting for his young life. Doctors quickly cut his skin and use spreaders to crack his chest open. Nurses scramble to keep the soldier alive, massaging the shrapnel out of his heart and sticking their fingers in his carotid arteries.
But it isn’t enough. The soldier’s wife of just six months is left a widow.
These are the memories that do not leave Sabrina Blake. Her strong shoulders slump a bit when she speaks of them. Her voice, oftentimes just on the verge of laughter after delivering a good joke, sinks to a grave tone. After almost 20 years in the military, serving as an E-6 Staff Sgt. and flight medic, she has collected many memories. But they aren’t all bad – not by a long shot.
She remembers being a young girl, traveling all around the country as her parents married and divorced multiple times, living in more places by the ninth grade than most people will in their entire lives.
“When I was 10, I told my mom I was going to grow up to be, in this order: a pig farmer, a soldier, a stockbroker, and an attorney,” she says. “I’ve done three of the four.” She did all of them except go to law school.
Most of Sabrina’s female playmates preferred Barbies, and though she enjoyed them as well, playing Army with the neighborhood boys was most thrilling for her. Although enlisted women were only allowed to be nurses at the time, her love for the military had found its roots.
During a horrible recession in the early ‘80s, Sabrina was working three jobs and attending night school, just trying to get by. Wrecking her brain and body just to make minimum wage, she decided that enough was enough.
Wanting to commit herself fully to an education, she went to a bank in search of a student loan. The male banker took one look and told her to “get pregnant and go on welfare, honey”—surely this would solve all of her financial woes.
“Well, honey, that’s a problem that would last for the rest of my life, wouldn’t it?” Sabrina said. “I don’t want to bring a child into this world just so I can go to school.”
“Well, you could go into the military,” said the banker.
“You know what? You’re right,” she said. “I can go into the military.” And so she did. Sabrina was sure about her decision, but not everyone in her life shared the same sentiments. While filling out paperwork at the military processing station in downtown Cincinnati, she had to call her mom to ask a question about the forms.
“Where are you?” her mother asked.
“Cincinnati,” Sabrina said.
“What are you doing?”
“Filling out paperwork.”
There was dead silence on the other end. Her mother said, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life.”
Twenty-year-old Sabrina had just moved back in with her mother, and she met her at the door. “I am not cooking for you. I am not cleaning for you. I am not talking to you,” said her mother, whose experience as a young adult during the Vietnam War had left her with an unfavorable opinion of the military.
Luckily for Sabrina, a delayed processing gave her five months to let her mother cool. A year later, her mother called to say that joining the military was the best thing she could have ever done.
The year was 1985, and women weren’t allowed to be in combat, although they still trained for it. As a female, Sabrina was not formally assigned to an infantry unit, but nevertheless spent a lot of time among the 400 infantrymen. Most of the time, she was the only woman around.
There were no restrooms or port-a-potties out in the field, and although the men didn’t think twice about relieving themselves whenever nature called, Sabrina usually waited until nighttime to dig her hole in the ground. The potential threat of wandering eyes was ever-present.
When they retired to their “itty-bitty” tent, in which Sabrina was the only female, she and the ranking sergeant got creative to give her a little privacy. The cots were stackable, so that you could put one on top of another, like bunk beds. The ranking sergeant kept his cot above Sabrina’s, and threw a blanket over the side so that she wasn’t visible to anyone else.
“I always felt safe with them,” she says. “And if anyone gets their rocks off by looking at me in the dark, you know what? So much for you… you’re a pervert!”
Sabrina spent a few years as a combat medic, learning as she went along. Then, after just eight weeks of training, she was put in active duty as a flight medic.
“It was kind of scary,” she says. “All of a sudden, I’m in a flight unit. People’s lives are in your hands. And I’m not a nurse. I’m not even a paramedic! You do a lot of on-the-job training.”
There was much to be learned, as Sabrina found herself up against a wide range of trauma situations with each new day. There were car wrecks, gunshots, weapon mischarges, heat stroke victims, and plenty of pregnant women in the throes of labor. The worst run came when two Black Hawk helicopters collided. The bodies of 17 dead soldiers littered the surrounding trees, their limbs torn from their torsos.
“We had to climb up the trees to retrieve the bodies,” says Sabrina, looking at the floor. “That stuff doesn’t leave you. It’s a smell that you’ll never forget. You just have to deal with it.”
As a woman among a sea of men, there were many things that Sabrina just had to deal with. “I loved men who didn’t think I belonged in the Army, especially when I was a PLDC (Primary Leadership Development Course) instructor,” she says. “I could pick them out in a heartbeat.”
They could think whatever they wanted about a woman in a leadership position. But when Sabrina got them out in the woods and blew the whistle — “Come on, come on, come on!” — the men had to run up and down the hills at her command.
“I had to be a better soldier than the men,” she says, “because I felt like we women were held at a higher degree than they were, to prove that we could do the job.”
The majority of Sabrina’s peers and colleagues accepted her as an equal. Still, sexual harassment was always a looming concern, so her fellow soldiers tried to look out for her. She experienced some issues herself — mostly comments from older male non-commissioned officers – and she says that this is not uncommon.
“I earned the respect. It isn’t given to you,” she says. “It’s something I really don’t like to talk about, but the military is still attributed with sexual harassment. Most women, at least when I was in, experienced that.
Sounds like it hasn’t changed much.”
Still, Sabrina continued her service, because she loved it — and sometimes hated it. Certain aspects of the military just didn’t make sense to her.
She didn’t like having her personal life invaded; in fact, it basically ceased to exist. There was no freedom of speech. She couldn’t wear what she wanted to. “Really, you don’t understand the freedoms we have until you’re in,” she says. “When it’s taken away from you, you learn to respect them.”
Sabrina served close to 20 years, but did not retire from the military due to another restriction of freedom. “’Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ played a part in my life, and I decided that I wasn’t going to ask and I wasn’t going to tell — I just got out.”
She left knowing the flaws of the military, but she took a lot of other things with her, too: respect “of what I had as a citizen;” compassion “because we truly are one great big melting pot;” persistence “to keep on plowing through, no matter how tired I am;” and courage, “although I have more courage than brains some days.”
Sabrina Blake says that things aren’t so bad when you think you’ve got it bad. And she means it — she has seen bad, the worst of which will never leave her memory. From the sergeant with the missing limbs, to the decapitated car passenger, to the solider covered in shrapnel, they have all taught Sabrina the true meaning of a bad situation.
But above all, they taught her to be thankful for each new day she wakes up in this country; a place you don’t know is the best until you’ve seen the worst.
Dakota Wright is a student in UC's Journalism Department.