Softening the impact of war with pillows
RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany - With all the high-tech methods the military has for controlling pain, pillows would seem of little significance.
But for Marine Cpl. Anthony Szekely, shot in the neck in Afghanistan, a pillow meant his neck would be supported during the nine-hour flight to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
On his flight Friday, stretchers were stacked tightly in rows of three, and Szekely’s litter was placed on the bottom rung.
“Without a pillow, you can feel pretty helpless,” he said. Having the pillow “lets you see what is going on.”
Injured servicemembers flying back to the United States will find their long flights across the Atlantic slightly more comfortable, thanks in large measure to the efforts of Karolina Wignall, manager for the USO at the 86th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility.
Wignall said the air-filled plastic bags patients normally are transported with, similar to those used in packing material, often “fly out from under their heads” or deflate.
As a remedy, Wignall began to pilfer hospital pillows from the CASF. But with a limited supply there, a shortage soon developed and longtime CASF nurse Maj. Bob Muzzy began an email campaign to replace the inflatable bags with soft pillows.
“I know this may seem like a small or insignificant gesture, but it’s not,” Muzzy wrote in a mass email. “Take it from a nurse working in the trenches; real pillows are a cornerstone to pain management and comfort.”
His emails made their way to Wolfgang Manner, a sales manager for United Airlines in Germany, who arranged for 10 boxes of first-class cabin pillows, which are bigger than economy-class pillows, to be shipped from Chicago.
Maj. Maria-Elena Coppola, flight commander for the 86th CASF, said she expects the 360 pillows to last for about a month. In November, 450 patients were flown home on litters.
In addition to providing comfort, the pillows will be used to stabilize broken limbs, which can become painful during the rattle of a typical military flight, Coppola said. As a result, patients will likely need less pain medication to endure it, she said.
“They can be part of the here and now,” Coppola said, “rather than in a drug haze during transportation.”
Each pillow given to a servicemember is wrapped in a decorative pillowcase donated by Quilts of Valor, a national foundation that provides handmade quilts to servicemembers.
Emblazoned on the pillowcases are patriotic images and colors, as well as insignias from the different branches of service.
On Friday, Szekely’s pillow had the iconic image of the World Trade Center firefighters raising the American flag at ground zero. He was wrapped in a camouflage-patterned blanket with the words “Coming Home,” which Szekely said was a serendipitous turn of events for him.
Szekely, 22, was on a foot patrol in the Nawzad District of Helmand province when he and his unit came under fire. Unable to find cover from the hail of bullets, he shot back until an AK-47 round struck him.
“It was like somebody took a sledgehammer and hit me in the back,” he said.
He ran his hand along the back of his neck and felt the blood rushing down. “Immediately I was drained,” Szekely said. “I thought I was dying.”
The bullet had penetrated the base of the left side of his neck. Somehow it wound around his spinal column, narrowly missing vital arteries, nerves and vertebrae. It lodged in his right shoulder blade.
“I was really lucky because the bullet stayed right underneath the skin and completely missed everything,” he said.
“Everybody was pretty amazed that I could still walk.”
At the CASF, volunteer airmen lifted Szekely’s stretcher to bring it to the waiting bus, which would ferry him and the other patients to the flight line and the C-17 cargo plane.
Once on the plane, Szekely readied himself for his long flight to Fort Hood, Texas, closing his eyes for the first time. He lay adjacent to Spc. Marcus Ortiz, who broke his left leg and tore several tendons when he fell while walking along the rocky terrain of Forward Operating Base Sharana. Though his injuries were less severe than Szekely’s, Ortiz was no less thankful for the pillows.
“I’m trying to be passed out the whole way,” he said.
“And these pillows are going to come in handy.”