Medevacs & Medics, Angels of Mercy
By Ed Marek, editor
March 17, 2012
The case of Staff Sergeant Jessica Clements
A note from one who was there: Sergeant Robert Williamson. Your writing of what Jessica went through is commended. However, there were more soldiers wounded that day unfortunately. The commanding Officer, Major Perrel, was wounded by shrapnel. Sergeant LeMay also received shrapnel wounds. I was in the Humvee just ahead of the truck Sergeant Clements was riding in when the IED was set off. The First Sergeant of the medical unit I was riding with and myself were wounded when the Humvee was “tossed” and we hit the windshield, as well as a hip injury for me as we were flung around. My injury does not even compare to what Jessica went through. She was a squared away soldier from the day I first met her. She was there after our April 11th mission when my convoy was hit hard right outside BIAP to make sure that I and the rest of my convoy soldiers were good and hugged each one of us. It bothers me that I was not able to do the same for her. What happened that day is forever etched in my mind. The horrors of war and combat are always with me. I just would like to let her know if you are still in contact with her that Sergeant Robert Williamson from Hobart, IN, says hello and that I wish that I could of given her a hug that day. As I mentioned before, she went through a lot more than I had. February 17, 2015
Jessica graduated from Green High School, the "Bulldogs," in about 1995. The Army recruiters visited and she joined the Army Reserves. Following graduation, she went to boot camp. After that, she was assigned to the 706th Transportation Company MDM TRK (POL), which translates to medium trucks, fuels.
Jessica wanted to drive trucks. There's a phrase in the military, you know, which goes something like this:
“Nothin' happens till something moves, and it ain't movin' without gas.”
She went to Ft. McCoy, Wisconsin, to learn how to drive these monsters, in late April and May 2000. She was trained on the five-ton cargo truck for week one and line-haul tractors during the second week. Jessica was a sergeant at the time, and commented to the post newspaper staff:
“The training on the tank trails was great to teach us how to control the vehicles off road. I'd never thought I would be able to drive anything as large as the M915A1 and M915A2s. I even conquered backing up in them."
Well, that was April 2003, and the American invasion of Iraq began in March 2003. Her friends and family were worried that she would get the call. Her response was:
“If I go, I go.”
That's a soldier.
Well, she got the call. The 706th was told in November 2003 to prepare for activation in early December and deployment to Iraq in January 2004. The unit was 215 strong.
You know the Army. Forget Christmas!
The 706th was sent to Ft. Campbell, Kentucky on December 10 for intense training to prepare for battle. Ft. Campbell is an ideal place to do that. It's the home of the famed 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). It has 48 live fire ranges, three high impact areas, 51 training areas, five drop zones, 200 artillery firing points, 51 maneuver areas, a special operations training center, and two airfields, all of which combines to give the trainee a real sense of the hustle and bustle they will see in Iraq.
Upon arrival in Iraq, now SSgt. Clements was sent with the company's fuel truck unit to the town of Taji, about 15 miles north of Baghdad. Elements of the 4th Infantry Division had captured Taji about nine months earlier, in April 2003. By the summer of 2004, it had become an area of investment to refurbish schools and construct roads, the latter of which were designed to connect towns and villages with local markets. This area is part of what is known as the “fertile crescent” that begins at the Persian Gulf, bordered by the Tigras and the Euphrates Rivers, and ending in Syria. Agriculture is the main form of commerce in this area, and the roads were needed to get the product to market.
As it turned out, Taji was not Jessica's problem. Driving to Baghdad International Airport was. In short, a real stroke of bad luck.
A group from the 706th was to go to the airport, meet a plane, fly to Kuwait, pick up some new tankers, and bring them back to Iraq. She was a passenger in the truck, and sat in the back with the others. On the way to the airport, and within about three miles of the airport, her truck was struck by a roadside bomb. She was hit, some saying she took the brunt of the explosion, and slumped into the lap of a 57-year old civilian from Texas sitting next to her named Russ Contractor. No one else in the truck was injured.
Jessica was severely wounded along the left side of her body, especially at the hip and shoulder. These injuries alone were serious. But the shrapnel and blast overpressure (detonation waves) damaged both sides of her head and brain. We have seen a report that three large veins were bleeding dangerously in her head. In short, SSgt. Clements was in very bad shape.
Medics rushed to her, intubated her to assure she had an open airway to breathe, and started an intravenous drip to replace some of the fluids she was losing. Then the medics had to control the bleeding.
We're not sure how she got there, but she was taken to the 31st Combat Support Hospital (CSH) in Baghdad, the premier place in country for injuries suffered by explosives. It is the only hospital in Baghdad that has ophthalmology and neurological surgery teams. While you know that her medics out in the field wanted to get Jessica to the hospital as rapidly as they could, doctors at the hospital always quietly worry about how the patient in her kind of shape gets jostled about on the way. There are all kinds of trade-offs that are made along the way.
The initial assessments at the hospital were reportedly grim. She was comatose when she arrived and doctors seemed most worried about the extent of damage that might have been done by the shrapnel and blast to her brain. The doctors went to work.
The idea of deploying neurosurgical teams to the area of combat was comparatively new. Traditionally they have remained behind, at fixed facilities. But in today's warfare environment, they are critical additions to combat support hospitals. Many soldiers needing this kind of care would not make it to the states or even Germany unless they had first been handled by these kinds of professionals in Iraq.
During the month previous to Jessica's injury, in April 2004, Dr. Poffenbarger said the neurosurgeons had opened more skulls (craniotomy) to relieve the pressure of brain swelling in the previous eight weeks than they had done in eight months, a sign that the explosive devices were working well for the enemy.
A central Ohio newspaper reported that as of May 12, Jessica was still in Baghdad. If accurate, this means she was with the 31st for about a week. On May 13, she left for Landstuhl Army Hospital in Germany, but stayed only about 18 hours, and then went on to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, arriving there on May 15. Reports we have seen say she was given little chance of surviving when she arrived at the 31st CSH, and the same applied for when she arrived at Walter Reed.
We have seen one report that said she showed some modest signs of pulling out of her coma on May 11, while still in Baghdad, but other reports say she arrived at Walter Reed still in a coma and that her total time in a coma was three weeks. Whatever the case, she was in very bad shape when she arrived in the states. One is reminded that often the doctors in the field just hope they can get the patient home alive, so the family can hold their soldier's hand for at least a little while.
Well, Jessica's family most certainly held her hands. After about a week Jessica started rubbing her mother's hand a bit. The doctors remained skeptical. But then a few days later Jessica could blink her eyes on command, then two days later write with a pen, and two more days later uttered the words “thank you” when the intubation tube was removed. The miracle every one up and down the line had prayed for had happened
Her recovery continued and on June 21 she was flown to the Minneapolis Veterans Medical Center, a center that specializes in brain injury rehabilitation. You can see the right side of her skull that is missing.
So Jessica had moved from death to rehabilitation in less than two months.
In late July, she returned to Walter Reed to await reassembly of her skull. She walked out of the Minneapolis hospital on her own. On August 18, doctors at the nearby Bethesda National Naval Medical Center put her skull back in.
The skull was in perfect shape having rested in Jessica's abdomen, and still a perfect fit. Following that, she faced untold hours and days of therapy and rehab.
She still had shrapnel in her brain, but apparently it posed no risks.
Before we conclude, and the conclusion is worth reading, we ask you to stop for a moment and think about all those people up and down the line who stood by Jessica. Russ Contractor, on whose lap Jessica's body slumped. The medics that came to her aid, the ones who took her to the hospital, Dr. Poffenbarger and his entire crew who removed her skull, patched her up, and the nurses and techs who watched over her, the people who moved her to Germany and on to the USA, those who received her there to administer to her, her family throughout, holding her hands, loving her, praying for her, weeping for her, the rehabilitation people, the people who fitted her with a helmet to protect her during rehab, those who replaced her skull and brought her back, everyone, up and down the line. If you need something to be proud of, be proud of all that, and of course, be proud of SSgt. Clements who hung in there, and still has a lot more to do.
Now to conclude. While at the Minneapolis hospital, Jessica was visited by Russ Contractor. Jessica could not remember much if anything from the day of the explosion, so Russ walked her through it, and the talk was video-taped. He started by explaining there was an explosion; the initial consensus was no one was hurt; and then Jessica slumped onto Russ:
Jessica: “I fell on you? Did I hurt you?”
Russ: “No, honey,” but he commented she was bleeding badly and that he held her in his lap until the medics came.
Russ: “I don't know what happened, Jessica. We were eight or nine of us in the truck. You were the only one who got hurt, and you were the most cheerful.”
Jessica: “It's OK. I would do it all over again.”
Russ: “I understand, hon.”
Jessica: “It's my job.”
“It's my job.” I am one of those who sees remarkable beauty in the attitude conveyed by those words, and I tear a bit every time I read those words, even now. These are the words uttered by countless young Americans who have gone off to battle in Iraq. "It's just my job."
Don't forget what our mom said in an earlier section:
"We won't let you walk this journey alone! God Bless”
That's our charge as American citizens. Do not let these wounded soldiers walk their journey alone.
This is a photo of SSgt Jessica Clements at a United Way function in 2010. Her message at the gathering was:
“Don’t give up. Give back.”
By this time, she had earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and was pursuing her Master’s degree.
Addendum November 19, 2013: Russ Contractor was with SSgt Jessica Clements in the truck when she was injured. He said in a note to us, “She shielded me from the blast because I was in the middle.” Contractor is currently in Afghanistan and would like to get in touch with her again. The photo above is Contractor with her at the VA hospital in St. Paul, Minnesota, taken back in 2004 when he was on R&R.
Compassion on the battlefield, “a most meaningful embodiment of emotional maturity”