How Do You Do That?
by Gerry Goldshine
My Dad called me one day, years ago and told me about a very bad traffic accident he saw while on his way home from work. It had apparently occurred moments before he came upon it and the driver was seriously injured. I gathered it must have been rather bloody because my Dad told me that the car was so badly wrecked that there was nothing he or any of the other people who stopped to help could do except direct traffic and wait for the emergency responders to arrive. Knowing that I had been investigating traffic accidents for several years, he asked me, “How do you do it?” He was not the first to have asked me that question and as I considered how to answer him, I thought back to the very first traffic accident to which I responded.
It was late 1978. I was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Lewis, Washington which at the time was spread over roughly 40 square miles. I was about to take command of the Military Police Traffic Section. The lieutenant I was replacing was driving me around the post, showing me some of the areas for which I would have responsibility. He was monitoring the radio when we heard units being dispatched to a major injury traffic accident on a nearby tank trail. Tank trails are essentially dirt roads that usually parallel a paved roadway and are designed to keep tracked vehicles, such as tanks, from damaging the pavement. Though civilian vehicle traffic was not permitted to drive on them, many soldiers did so anyway. What I saw when we arrived wasn’t so much a damaged car as a twisted, tangled amalgam of steel, glass and plastic crumpled up against the left front of a big two and a half ton Army 6 X 6 truck.
It had been payday and as soldiers are wont to do when flush with cash, this group of four had spent the afternoon drinking at one of the enlisted clubs on base. Witnesses told us the soldiers were speeding in their compact car along on the tank trail, at about 60 miles per hour, when they came upon a slower moving pick-up kicking up a lot of dust. Though his view of any on-coming traffic was obscured by the dust cloud, the driver decided to pass. He drove head-on into the military truck, which sustained about as much damage to it as if it had been hit by a bug.
Lt. Chet, who I was replacing, took charge of the scene and began requesting additional help, including his on-duty traffic accident investigation team. Even before we got out of our car, I could hear one of the passengers in the wreck screaming in the way you only hear in war movies. Lt. Chet went to check on the one who was crying out while I went to the driver. I saw that he was still; blood and glass covering his face, his gaze fixed and vacant. Looking inside the car, I could see each of his shin bones protruding though his blood stained uniform pants, just below his knees. Both of his arms were positioned at very unnatural angles, clearly broken in several places. The steering wheel was jammed tightly against his compressed chest. I felt for a carotid pulse but there was nothing. It occurred to me that this was probably not the way this soldier ever imagined dying for his country. I checked on the passenger behind him and though unconscious, he was alive. By that time, the first ambulance had arrived and I briefed paramedics on what I had found. Once he was satisfied everything was being handled properly, Lt. Chet and I left to brief the Provost Marshall, the full colonel in command of the Military Police, so that he, in turn, could notify the Commanding General.
Later that evening, Lt. Chet asked me what I thought about the accident. I realized then what every cop learns; I had been so busy doing things, gathering information and focusing on learning what I needed to know for the new job I was about to start that I didn’t have time to dwell on the “blood and gore”. Back then, there was no talk of Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder (PTSD) for first responders. Any after-action briefings focused on the procedure; what we did right, what we did wrong and what needed to be changed. Lt. Chet’s advice to me was to try and keep busy for the next week or so. Since I was going to be expected to know how to do his job from the start, I had more than enough work to keep my mind occupied. I had also recently gotten engaged. Not dwelling on the accident wouldn’t be a problem.
What I told my Dad, in answer to his question, was that I usually get so preoccupied with making sure I do the best job I can, that I gather all the important evidence, ask the right questions and draw the right conclusions, I don’t have the time to focus on the horror that often surrounds me. I draw a curtain around it in my mind, compartmentalize it, lock it away and get on with my work.
What I didn’t tell him was about those nights that I wake up seeing the stark, white bones protruding through the olive drab uniform pants and hear the agonized screams of that soldier whose shattered legs were pinned under the remains of a dashboard. It’s become a memory, along with many others, that I’ve learned to treat as occasional visitors, not here to hurt me but to remind me of where I’ve been.
Gerry was born in Providence, Rhode Island but raised in Southern California.
Upon graduating from California State University, Los Angeles, Gerry enlisted in
the Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. After leaving active duty
in 1979, he worked for Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office. From 1980 until his retirement
in 1996, he was a patrol officer, traffic officer, and a trainer at Petaluma Police Department.
Gerry is married, has a daughter and lives in Sonoma County, California.