It was ninety degrees in the shade, but Grace Connor was not sweating.
This was not good.
Dehydration came swiftly in the Afghanistan desert. She needed to find something to drink—and fast.
She rolled out of her cot, pushed open the door of her plywood B‑hut, and stared out at the heat waves shimmering off the packed earth of Bagram Air Base. It was going to be a long walk to the dining hall.
A jet roared in for a landing as another blasted off—the rumble of engines reverberating through her skull. The noise of jets and the thup-thup-thup of military helicopters were a constant in her life, along with the fumes of the medevac choppers each time she flew a rescue mission.
Sometimes rocket fire punctuated the sounds. Sometimes she heard gunshots in the distance—never knowing if it was the firing range or terrorists trying to make another pointless point. Sometimes she heard the rattle of bomb-proof bulldozers nosing around the perimeter, deliberately setting off homemade Taliban mines.
Bagram Air Base was decidedly not a restful place. In addition to the noise, there always seemed to be some ragtag band of terrorists determined to penetrate security. The Taliban had not had a lot of luck yet, but every day the gates opened to the civilian Afghans who risked their lives, by NATO agreement, to work alongside the soldiers and civilian support staff who constituted the biggest military base in Afghanistan. The possibility of an attack inside the gates was a threat of which every soldier was constantly aware.
It was not the safest environment in the world, but safety wasn’t what she had signed up for when she volunteered to become part of the elite Dustoff medical team.
As she trudged through the heat in search of something cool to drink, her parched throat choked on the dust kicked up by all the MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) and other vehicles. The weird-looking desert ants, longlegged to keep their bellies off the hot sand, scurried out of her way.
In the direct sunlight it was a brain-baking 100 degrees. Come July, the temperature would climb higher than 130 degrees in some areas of Afghanistan. How the soldiers on patrol endured it, she did not know.
She scanned her CAC (Common Access Card) at the entrance and practically fell into the coolness of the dining hall. Bins of Gatorade were iced and ready. The military had learned to take the need for electrolytes seriously. She dug out a bottle of the orange, life-giving nectar, utterly annoyed with herself. She had served in Afghanistan for four years, and she knew better than to allow herself to become dehydrated. She guzzled the whole bottle of Gatorade before catching her breath.
The problem was, she had been so exhausted after last night’s struggle to rescue three wounded soldiers pinned down by enemy fire that, once they were safe, she had fallen fully clothed into a sleep so deep it had felt a like a coma.
Grabbing a second bottle, she sat down at a table and pulled a paper out of her pants pocket. She took another mouthful of Gatorade—lemon-flavored—and read the paper for the umpteenth time.
One signature, and she would be committed. That’s all it would take. One signature and she would reenlist for another two years.
Her decision should be a no‑brainer. She hated it here. She hated the heat, the danger, the sand, the dirt, and the cobra that she had found tangled up in the glue strips she had placed beneath her cot to catch mice. With her nurse practitioner’s license, she could make a heck of a lot more money back in the States at a top-notch hospital—and relax in a Jacuzzi in some air-conditioned apartment complex at the end of each day.
It should be a no‑brainer. Except that she was an excellent nurse. She was fast and smart, and had a hair-trigger ability to make solid medical decisions while under fire. Her training had helped save many soldiers’ lives.
There were only a few other people in the mess hall, all of them busy with their own conversations or watching a dayold baseball game on the Armed Forces Network. The noise of voices and jets and the clatter of kitchen staff preparing supper faded into the background as she closed her eyes and prayed for wisdom, for guidance, for a clear-cut answer.
She opened her eyes, wishing she was one of those people to whom God seemed to give a personal directive for every decision they made, but her experience had been quite different. It always felt as though whenever she asked for wisdom, God sat back, folded His arms, and said, “I gave you a good brain and a great instruction manual—use it.”
She had always made the best Bible-based decisions she could and hoped for the best, but this time, she was truly torn. The soldiers needed her. Perhaps she should give them another two years of her life.
She took a pen out of her pocket and clicked it. Her hand hovered over the paper. She hesitated. Drummed the pen on the table. Clicked it. Put it back in her pocket.
Come on, God, just tell me what to do. This is important. Can’t you send me a letter or an e‑mail? I’ll do whatever you say if you’ll give me a definite sign. Just this once, Lord, please?
She smiled at her audacity. Who did she think she was—asking God to send her an e‑mail?
Like that would ever happen!
And yet . . .
She left the dining hall and walked over to the MWR (Morale, Welfare, and Recreation) facility, which had a bank of computers where soldiers could check their e‑mails. She wasn’t surprised when she found over a dozen in her in‑box, but the one that screamed out to her was a message from her younger sister. The subject heading was a disturbing “Come home!”
Grace clicked on it. Something must be terribly wrong. Becky was only seventeen and had been living with their grandmother for the past eight years—ever since their parents had died in the boating accident. Becky usually filled her e‑mails with high school chatter about grades and ball games and clothes, but this e‑mail looked different from what she usually sent. The body of it wasn’t punctuated with Becky’s usual smiley face icon after every other sentence.
Grandma was taken by ambulance to the hospital last night. It’s her heart. They’ve done surgery, but the doctor says she’s going to need a lot of care for a while. I can be with her at night, but I have school during the day. If there’s any way you could come home for a couple of months until I can graduate, it would make things a whole lot easier around here.
Her grandmother was ill? Elizabeth Connor had been the spiritual rock of their family as long as Grace could remember. Her farm in Ohio had been the sanctuary to which Grace and her sister had fled after their parents died. The last time she was home, her grandmother had seemed tireless and ageless—but now it hit her that Elizabeth might not be around as long as she had hoped.
How bad was the heart attack? How much damage had been done? Her medically trained mind wanted answers. She wanted to meet face-to-face with the doctors and hear Elizabeth’s prognosis firsthand. The first few weeks after heart surgery could be critical. There was no way a seventeen-year-old should be handling that alone.
Grace wrote a quick, affirmative answer and logged out, not bothering to open any of the other e‑mails. They could wait. For the first time in her life, she had received a very personal answer from God, and it was loud and clear.
There were other competent nurses who could take her place in the Dustoff unit, but no one could take her place at her grandmother’s side. There was no one else. For a moment, she closed her eyes, blocking out the noises and heat of Bagram, and remembered the soothing clip-clop sound of Amish horses and buggies and the cool greenness of her grandma’s Holmes County farm.
She grabbed an extra Gatorade and headed back to her B‑hut.
It was time to pack.