John Harter had been in his office at the USAID building when he heard the shouting from the lobby. As he passed one of the offices, he instructed the woman sitting at that desk to call the embassy to have the medical team sent over immediately. The scene in the lobby was chaotic — the night guard and another Afghani man were standing over the body shouting at each other yet accomplishing nothing, while a woman lay on the floor, unattended, her dress covered in blood, and a towel thrown carelessly over her head. John moved quickly to her, kneeling beside her motionless body. He pulled at the towel covering her, casting it aside to his left while he leaned forward to try to feel for a pulse or signs of life.
“Fran!” he shouted as he saw her face. “It’s Fran Rupert. Get the medical team here fast! She’s been shot!” He leaned closer to her. “Hold on, Fran. I’m here now. I’m not going to let you die. You’ve got to stay strong now. I’m going to stay right here with you.”
When the embassy doctors arrived, John moved away and quickly returned to his office. He sent out an urgent message asking for any available medical evacuation. A U.S. Navy Medical evacuation aircraft had just departed Islamabad, Pakistan. It was re-directed to Kabul at the highest priority. They would fly Fran to Muharraq Air Field in Bahrain. It was the closest U.S. facility with a hospital and the flight would take less than three hours.
John received permission from the office of the Secretary of the Navy allowing him to accompany her on the flight. This was something officially forbidden by the Navy. A letter, displayed on the inside of the cabin door of every Navy Medevac plane, made it official. Only patients and attending medical staff were allowed to fly on the plane. The rule was about as clear and concise as any rule ever issued by the Navy.
Medics loaded Fran onto the jet as soon as it landed in Kabul. When they were ready to leave, the flight nurse in charge, Lieutenant Jacobsen, approached John Harter. She informed him of the policy forbidding non-patient passengers on the plane.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I must ask you to leave the aircraft now. We are about ready to leave.”
“I’m going to need to stay on the airplane. I understand it is against regulations under normal circumstances.”
“No, sir, it is against regulations under all circumstances.” She emphasized the word all.
John handed the authorization message to the Flight Nurse without comment.
“I need to show this to the pilot,” she said as she walked toward the cockpit.
“Sir, we have a non-patient passenger with us today,” she said to the pilot as she handed him the document.
“Who the hell says? You know we can’t allow that. Throw the guy off now. We have to get going.”
“Sir, he has that letter from the Secretary of the Navy saying he can fly with us.”
“What? Have him report to the flight deck.”
As John entered the crew area, the pilot turned in his seat. “John Harter? I’m Commander Ray Nansconi, United States Navy. For all practical purposes, this is my airplane, at least for today. We’ve got rules on this aircraft, for good reason. Now, young Lieutenant Jacobsen tells me she has to break one of those rules. So, in just a few words, please tell me just who the hell you are, and what gives you the idea you can get a free ride to Bahrain?”
“Well, Commander, I’m John Harter. I work with the United States Agency for International Development, from time to time. But more importantly, in the terms you are suggesting, I’m nobody.” He paused, mostly for effect, but also to allow the Commander to understand what he had just said. Then he continued. “But as a nobody, you’ll notice that I do have a letter from your boss saying I can ride with you.”
“Well, if you’re nobody, then who the hell is she?” the pilot’s voice rose in frustration.
The tone of John’s voice also changed from pleasant to something bordering on angry. “That’s a bit more difficult to answer. What she is, or who she is, doesn’t matter, either. What matters is that she arrives at the hospital in Bahrain alive, Commander.” Once again, he paused, allowing his comment to be fully understood. “If that happens, it will be the reason you are allowed to continue flying jet planes for the Navy! If you screw around any longer, she might not survive the flight and then, I’m quite certain, the same fate will happen to your career.” John retrieved the message from the SECNAV and waited for any response. The pilot had turned in his seat and begun his preparation for takeoff. “And if this thing has anything close to what a passing gear does in a car, then I suggest you use it,” he added.
John returned to the main cabin. “Lieutenant Jacobsen, please do everything possible to keep her alive until we get to the hospital.” He moved to the side of the plane and slumped into one of the jump seats.
The flight nurse had seen many people worried about patients brought to this airplane. In all her years of nursing, she had never seen anyone so distraught as the man sitting on the side of the plane.