An army chaplain has said he will struggle to forget the harrowing image of an Afghan toddler who was killed by a bomb that had been strapped to a motorbike.
Padre Albert Jackson, 53, from Londonderry, said he volunteered for the grim duty of washing the child’s body to spare frontline nurses further trauma.
Padre Jackson, who deployed to Helmand just over seven weeks ago, said: “It wasn’t that somehow I see myself as some great hero in doing that. I felt that at least I was taking away maybe some of the pain or some of the things that could have haunted them in the future. By keeping them free from that, maybe I have actually saved them from something.”
The two-year-old boy had been brought to the field hospital at Camp Bastion with severe injuries caused by one of the thousands of crude, home-made bombs scattered throughout Helmand Province.
Two of his cousins died in the blast.
“The surgeons were exceptional. They did everything that they could but, in the end there was nothing that could be done,” said Padre Jackson, who is the chaplain for 3 Medical Regiment which incorporates a Territorial Army unit from Hydebank in south Belfast.
“Some of the female nursing staff had stepped forward and just needed to wash up the wee boy and take the dirt off before we put him up in the intensive care unit so he could quietly pass away. They were going to wash him but, I said ‘no’ because I could clearly see it was too close to home for them.
“So, something I never thought I would have to do and here I am washing down this two-year-old boy. The thing that stands out about the young boy was that he had beautiful white pearly teeth. And, just like any other wee boy his feet were as black as anything with grub and I had to scrub and scrub and scrub. His hands were the same.
“Then he was all covered up and taken up on to the intensive care unit to pass away which he did in the early hours of the morning. You are used to dealing with adults and that is difficult. But when it is children it is harder.”
Padre Jackson, who led the funeral of Corporal Channing Day, 25, the Co Down medic who was shot dead in Afghanistan last October, previously deployed to Helmand with infantry soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment in 2008.
This time he has been at the heart of things in the operating theatre giving reassurance not only to frightened, wounded soldiers but, also to the medical staff who have to make the difficult decisions.
“I would see my role as two-fold. It is just being there for the patient - especially if somebody has been caught up in an IED and lost limbs or whatever. They may be in a very bad way and the staff may do all that they can to try and keep life but, if that slowly winds away then I will be called forward.
“There is a place where I actually stand in ED (emergency department) so, I can see what is happening and am also just within a voice - saying ‘Padre would you’. If they stand back and say ‘that’s it’ then I will say to the staff ‘let’s just pause one minute and let’s have a simple prayer’.”
In the case of a Muslim patient, Padre Jackson, a Christian minister does not pray but would ask interpreters to speak.
He said he would never leave the patient alone. He said: “The staff will either put the patient into a small private area and I will often just stay in there with a member of staff and either just keep my hand on the forehead or just hold their hand until the person slips away. You can actually feel the life leaving them. I have never experienced anything like that before.”
Padre Jackson has a small chapel next to the field hospital. Inside there are crosses made from polished empty shell casings.
He said while being on call 24/7 was a challenge - there had been a marked decrease in the number of casualties entering the hospital.
He added: “2008, 09, 10 and into 2011 were very bloody tours where the hospital staff were constantly on their feet; where the theatre beds were being constantly used; where staff by the time they got half way through the tour were absolutely exhausted and unsure as to whether or not they could make it to the end of their period - considering again it was only a three-and-a-half-month tour for them.
“It is much quieter and the nature of injuries that we are getting is not as traumatic as they have been in the past. That doesn’t mean there hasn’t been the one or two cases, yes there have been.
“But the skill that the people have out on the ground - the team medics and the skill of the surgeons in the hospital - they definitely are saving lives.
“Certainly, there are at least two cases we have had through the hospital here where the men should have died before they got here but again because of the skills and the drills of the young team medics out on the ground they have actually saved their life. That has got to be good.”