FFG 58: The Wounded

Chief Alex Perez, who was trapped in the engineroom by the mine blast. He survived serious burns after being transported from the Persian Gulf to Texas.

Chief Alex Perez, who was trapped in the engineroom by the mine blast. He survived serious burns after being transported from the Persian Gulf to Texas.

Many of the Roberts crew were injured by the mine blast. Ten were evacuated by helicopter within a day of the explosion, and several were eventually flown to U.S. hospitals to recover.

Excerpt from “No Higher Honor“:

A tall, lean man, Hospitalman 1st Class James Lambert. was the closest thing the ship had to a physician. Inevitably, everyone called him Doc.

When the mine went off, Doc Lambert picked himself off the sickbay floor and considered his options. The frigate had two spaces intended as emergency treatment wards: one was far aft under the flight deck; the other was farther forward but surrounded by racks of DC gear. Neither was usable in the current circumstance, thanks to passageways full of smoke and hoses and equipment. So Lambert consulted with Rinn and Eckelberry about setting up a triage area atop the deckhouse, just behind the signal bridge.

It was hardly an ideal location for a makeshift infirmary — two levels up from the main deck and only a few dozen yards from the hose teams that were pouring water on the smoke-belching exhaust fire. But at least it wasn’t inside the ship, which looked as if it might sink at any moment. It was also close to the whaleboat. If Matthews and his mechanics couldn’t get their helo running, the Roberts might have to send its most severely wounded out by motorboat.

So the exec got on the 1MC and told anyone with an injury to make his way to top of the deckhouse. Privately, he thought, We’re going to lose some of these guys.

Lambert had already begun treating several of the hurt men belowdecks. In engineering’s Central Control, he applied burn salve to Wayne Smith and Dave Burbine, who was shivering uncontrollably despite the blanket wrapped around him.

He sent others up to the triage area behind the signal bridge. They were met by Lambert’s phone talker, Master-at-Arms 1st Class Stanley Bauman, and Ens. Steven Giannone, a disbursing officer who had arrived aboard during the deployment and become Lambert’s medical assistant. Giannone and Bauman took in the new arrivals and tried to make them comfortable.

Forty minutes after the blast, Lambert joined them. He checked on Bobby Gibson, who had been tied to a stretcher and carried up to the aid station. The boatswain’s mate had tried to join a repair party after the mine blast had flipped him from his lookout’s chair, but the pain had soon debilitated him. The corpsman bent over Gibson, sweat dripping from his brow.

Chewing ice chips to keep himself hydrated, Lambert moved from patient to patient, applying Silvadine antibacterial cream, pushing IV needles into their arms, starting drips of Ringer’s lactate to replenish their fluids. As his supply of bandages dwindled, the corpsman sent a junior personnelman, Charles Morin, and a seaman named Richard Klemme down to his sick bay for more.

“Just cut the lock off the medical supplies,” he told them.

Several of the burned engineers eventually arrived. Lambert worked to stabilize them. Severely burned patients are at great risk of shock. The corpsmen knew that their chances for survival depended on better care than he could provide on the frigate.

But Lambert took hope in the news that the ship’s Seahawk might become available for an evacuation flight. Leaving Lt. (j.g.) Robert Chambers, the ship’s electronic readiness officer, in charge of the IVs, he headed down to the hangar to establish a medevac station.

The supply officer, Lt. Bradley Gutcher, had beaten him to it. Anticipating the need, Gutcher had raided the aft battle-dressing station, gathered up all the first-aid supplies he could carry, and hauled them in a blanket to the hangar.

Eckelberry passed the word over the 1MC, and injured men began to show up at the hangar. Several dozen had wrenched their backs and limbs, either in the initial blast or by slipping on the various liquids that were being tracked around the ship: water, fuel, AFFF. Some had gotten oil and smoke particles in their eyes, yet had been unable to bear to use the ship’s eyewashes to clear the gunk out. Lambert slit open saline bags and gently cleansed their faces.

Presently, the sailors began to make their way down from the deckhouse aid station. Bill Dodson, an electrician’s mate 3rd class, was working in the midships passageway when one badly burned shipmate hobbled past.

Everyone was yelling and we were moving ammo around or something. Lots of heavy things. And I looked up to see two people escorting GSM Welch aft to the helo deck. He was naked, and completely burned and bloody. He had a gray blanket draped around him. It was a bad scene, and everyone hushed as he walked slowly by. I couldn’t believe he could walk. After he went by, I think our efforts took on a new sense of urgency.