How I learned to live

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Emerald Ralston
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
I thought I was ready for war.

I had gone through Army combat skills training at Fort Lewis, Wash. I had squared away all my financial and legal documents. I even found a new confidence and a love for the military.

My brother, Army Sgt. Ian Ralston, a combat medic, and I spoke on the phone while I was at Baltimore International Airport, just hours before I boarded my first flight overseas.

He offered me advice, motivation and insight into the Army way of doing things, as I was deploying with the 10th Mountain Division.

Like I said, I thought I was ready.

I arrived in Afghanistan and was sent to Camp Spann, about 200 miles north of Kabul.

After a couple of weeks, I was preparing to convoy to an even more remote area for the next five months.

Before we left, I made the usual call home. I'd ask my parents to pray for me before I went on convoys so they knew what I was up to and, God forbid, in case anything happened, they would be prepared.

This particular time, I didn't get the "Okay, honey -- be safe," I was used to.

Instead I heard my mother's muffled sobs, and through the tears and gasps I put together what I could: the part of the war I wasn't ready for:

"Ian got hit," were the only words I heard before I let out that guttural groan of grief you never want to have to release.

"It's bad ... real bad," were the next words I heard.

My big brother was deployed to Iraq at the time with the 2/23 Infantry Regiment, 4th Stryker Battalion Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division. He had been on a convoy earlier that day.

The hours that followed felt like years. My unit at Camp Spann acted more quickly than I thought possible. They understood the gravity of the situation and scheduled convoys, flights and liaisons for me at each stop to get me to my brother.

I spent the next 24 hours running from flight to flight from Afghanistan to Germany, fearing and expecting the worst, trying to find a way to prepare myself for what was to come. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep. I had nothing but the love for my brother to keep me going. I needed to see him, and I knew he needed me there.

When I finally arrived at Landstuhl Army Medical Center, Germany, my brother was being stabilized and prepared for a medevac to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.

I met with Sgt. Jake Flores, a close friend of Ian's from their first tour in Iraq. He specifically requested to be Ian's nurse so Ian would always have someone he knew and trusted by his side. He pulled me aside before I entered Ian's room and explained Ian's injury to me.

Sergeant Flores offered me a shoulder to cry on. He reminded me to breathe, and reassured me that if I needed to break down, I could take a moment to do just that before I entered Ian's room.

And I did.

My brother -- the reason I joined the military, the reason I wanted to deploy, the person I wanted to make proud more than anyone in the world with my military service -- was now a quadriplegic. Shrapnel from an improvised explosive device had penetrated his C2 vertebra. The shrapnel, the doctors told me, would kill him if they tried to remove it.

When I finally pulled myself together, I knew from that point on I had to be strong, I had to take everything the military had taught me about strength and bearing and put it all to the test.

When I walked in, I looked at everything except him. I looked at the machine that was breathing for him, at the monitors all around his bed. I focused on the sound of the ventilator breathing in and out, the beeping of his vitals. Finally, my eyes rested on my brother.

Honestly, he looked fine, as if nothing had happened. But then he looked up at me and tried to smile, and I noticed the tubes in his mouth.

From that moment, I spent every second by his side. I flew with him to Walter Reed and was greeted by hoards of military leaders. Chaplains asked if I was okay. Senior officers thanked us for our service. Then nurses loaded him onto another litter, taking his tubes, wires and monitors, and rushed him to the fourth floor, the intensive care unit, an area I became very familiar with over the next three weeks.

Later that night, after my parents arrived, a nurse frantically came into his ward and told us we had to look at something.

We did, and I knew what I had to do.

After all, my parents shouldn't have to ask their son if he wants to be taken off life support.

It was the single hardest thing I've ever done.

After we took him off his medication and asked him, he blinked twice. No.

He wanted to be kept alive.

From that moment on, I realized the fragility, preciousness and importance of life. I realized the difference between the war they prepare us for and the side of war that exists in hospitals.

I spent 19 days in Afghanistan and 19 days at Walter Reed. The part of war I saw at Walter Reed was one I didn't see in Afghanistan. It's a side that isn't glamorized in the media like the heroic photos of troops with their weapons at the ready or passing out candy to children in remote villages.

Not many people see those in limbo -- the ones who live after sustaining serious injuries in defense of our country. They are certainly not forgotten, and they don't go unnoticed. As I saw amputees walking or wheeling themselves around in the halls, or the young troops who keep the ICUs full at all times, I realized these heroes are all versions of my brother, my hero, the young Soldier who wanted to serve his country and ended up with a ball bearing in his spine. They all have families who care, units who pulled together to see them through, lives they've impacted, and a country that thanks them for their sacrifices.

Ian was a Soldier to the core, even when we were kids. Every Halloween, he wanted to wear camouflage. He "bled green" from the day he was born at the U.S. Army Hospital at Wurzburg, Germany, while our father served in the 123rd Signal Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division in 1985.

He "bled green" until the day he took shrapnel to the back of the neck and rolled out of the back of his Stryker.

Then he just bled.

Ian currently sits in the Veterans Affairs Spinal Cord Injury Center in Minneapolis, Minn., constantly surrounded by friends and family. His positivity is a reminder to everyone who knows him that life is worth living; life is bigger than the problems we face at the moment.

He smiles and laughs every day. He says "please" and "thank you" when asking for medication. He knows he is blessed to be alive, and the nurses and doctors are consistently blown away by his progress.

The doctors say he will never walk again. Ian feels differently. His faith and stubbornness have already taken him past what the doctors told him he would be capable of.

People like Ian are reasons to make life worth living, to live a life worth the sacrifices of those who serve.

There are little things we do every day that my brother can't do: scratching his face, clearing his throat, speaking out loud. My brother is one of thousands of men and women who protected our freedoms. He spent his career saving the lives of others. Now he is on the other end of the spectrum.

I urge servicemembers to keep in mind what it means to wear our uniform, the uniform so many Soldiers and Airmen may never be able to put back on because of their sacrifices.

Make them and our nation proud by the way we conduct ourselves in uniform and remember what an honor it is to put it on every morning.

And remember, when you step foot in the war zone, anything can happen. You may never be prepared for what you may face, but if you ever have to see the horrors of war, face them with honor.

I thought I was ready for war. Now I have to prepare for a fight of a different kind: the fight to help my brother live his life.

He has certainly taught me how to live mine.