On my return flight from Chicago this weekend, I read a touching story in Ladies Home Journal about an Air Force nurse who later reconnects with the family of an Army sergeant who she nursed as he was dying. There I was sitting at my gate, with waterfall tears not because of my cancelled flight, but because of this bittersweet story. As a mother of three young children, I cannot even imagine the grief our military families must endure upon the news of such tragedies. Although this story involves the loss of an innocent young man's life, it also illustrates, as his mother Jennifer states, "It's good to know that there are still such caring people in the world." I wanted to share this inspirational story...
"I Finally Met the Woman Who Held My Dying Son"
When Jennifer Robinson's son was killed in Afghanistan, she thought she'd never know the details of his last moments -- until a phone call from Air Force nurse Christine Collins changed everything.
As told to Jessica Brown
A Day that Changed Everything
On January 17, 2009, a roadside bomb hit an Army vehicle near the U.S. military base in Kabul, Afghanistan. This tragic event changed -- and ultimately united -- the lives of two women: Captain Christine Collins, an Air Force nurse on duty at a hospital near Kabul, and Jennifer Robinson, whose son was an Army staff sergeant stationed nearby. This is the amazing story of how their paths intersected, and how two mothers helped each other heal.
Christine Collins: When we learned that six of the soldiers wounded in the blast were on the way to our ICU, the staff put together a plan in a matter of seconds. I was assigned to be the medication nurse for the second patient who arrived, a 33-year-old male. In an emergency you learn little about your patient beyond the most basic facts. I didn't even know the soldier's name. I did know, however, that he was a father. When I saw him, my eyes went immediately to the faces of two children tattooed on his left arm. I thought of my three daughters back home in the States, whom I missed desperately. We have to save this man, I thought. His children need him. He was in bad shape, though. He'd lost a lot of blood, and his heart was barely beating. We gave him round after round of epinephrine and took turns doing chest compressions to try to get his heart pumping again. When that didn't work, the surgeon opened the soldier's chest and pumped his heart with his hands while we began transfusions of red blood cells and plasma. We worked for at least an hour. No one wanted to give up, but we couldn't save him. I took a moment to hold the soldier's hand, stroke his face, and tell him that everything would be okay. It was my duty as a mother to love him and comfort him in the last seconds of his life. By the time the doctor called the code, all of us were in tears. It wasn't just that we lost someone on our side. We'd lost a father, a son, an American hero. I composed myself and gently washed his body so his fellow soldiers could come into the ICU to say good-bye. They would be the ones to tell me the man's name: Carlo Robinson.
Jennifer Robinson: Two men in uniform came to my doorstep in Hope, Arkansas, to inform me that Carlo had been killed. I couldn't believe it. We'd just spoken on the phone the day before! He was scheduled to go on leave in just a few weeks, and he was going to spend that time with me and his children, Carneshia and Dakaria. They were living with me while Carlo was serving overseas. All I'd been thinking was, I just want him to come home so I can see him. That's what I kept screaming when the soldiers gave me the news. I never thought Carlo would grow up to be a soldier. Some parents see it in their kids right away -- all the children talk about are their G.I. Joe toys. But Carlo wasn't like that. So when he told me 14 years ago that he was joining the Army, I hadn't seen it coming. His decision to enlist didn't worry me -- 9/11 hadn't happened yet. We weren't at war. But in 2008, when Carlo was sent to Afghanistan, I got nervous. It was his first deployment, and he could have avoided it. He'd left the Army several months earlier, but he had trouble finding a job he liked so he decided to reenlist. I think the military was part of him at that point. As scared as I was, I also felt proud of him for not settling for a job he wasn't meant to do and choosing to fight for freedom instead. The soldiers had few details about how Carlo died, just that a bomb had detonated near his vehicle. I was left with so many questions. Did he make it to a hospital? If so, did the doctors do everything they could to save him? I prayed that the answers would come.
Five months after Carlo was killed, Collins's deployment ended, and she returned to the States. The transition to the life she'd had to leave behind was difficult, as it is for so many service members. Though Collins had been able to video-chat with her family while she was overseas, her youngest daughter, Reagan, 2, wasn't sure who Collins was at first. The family would gradually heal, but Collins felt like her work in Afghanistan wasn't done.
Christine Collins: I thought about Carlo a lot. When I looked back on that day, the images of him were so vivid. I could see the tattoos of his children on his arm. And I wondered: What was his family going through? Did they worry about how he died, if he was alone or in pain? I'd remember the promise I made to my family before I went to Afghanistan: that I would give 110 percent of myself to everyone cared for there. If I was going to be away from them for a year, I had to make that time as meaningful as possible. It was, but there was more I needed to do. I had to find some sense of closure. I had to find Carlo's family. I found the name of the town he lived in online, so I did a little more digging and came up with the phone number for a Jennifer Robinson. Was she his wife? Maybe a sister? I had no idea. When Jennifer answered the phone, I froze. I didn't know how to say who I was and why I was calling. Finally I found my voice. "I'm Captain Christine Collins, and I was in the Air Force stationed in Kabul," I said. "I'm calling about Carlo Robinson. Do you know him?" Jennifer began to cry, and soon I was crying, too. All the emotions of that day when I'd tried so desperately to save Carlo came tumbling out. "I was one of the nurses who took care of Carlo," I explained. "I wanted to let your family know that we did everything we could to save his life. I wanted his children to know that he was a brave man, and that he did not die alone. I was with him the whole time. I held his hand and stroked his face. I told him it was going to be okay." I took a breath and then asked, "Who are you to Carlo?"
Jennifer Robinson: "I'm his mother," I said. I almost couldn't believe what was happening. When Carlo was flown back to the U.S., there was a mix-up at the airport, and the wrong body was sent to the funeral home. It was a painful experience that made me question what's true and what isn't. But when Christine described Carlo's tattoo I knew this was real. God had answered my prayers. I couldn't be with Carlo when he died, so God chose Christine to comfort him. Her team did everything they could to keep him alive.
Christine Collins: We talked for a long time that day. We're both mothers, in different stages of our lives, but we are mothers who love our children. We formed a bond in the most unlikely situation. I told Jennifer that I would always be there for her no matter what. I wasn't physically close to her (I'm in Virginia), but I assured her I was only a phone call away. And one day, I said, I would meet her and Carlo's children.
A Special Meeting
When Ladies' Home Journal learned about all that Collins had done for Carlo's family, we knew we had to arrange for them to meet in person. Last May -- on Memorial Day weekend, appropriately -- LHJ flew Collins to Robinson?s home in Arkansas.
Jennifer Robinson: When Christine arrived we hugged so hard and started crying immediately. I was holding the person who had held my son! I couldn't believe she'd gone so far beyond her duty to meet Carneshia and Dakaria and me. Christine told me that in her dreams she'd envisioned herself meeting the children and telling them how brave Carlo was. That day I watched her do it. Her visit was bittersweet, though. Bitter because it opened up old wounds; sweet because I was able to embrace the woman who was with Carlo when he died. You don't meet people like Christine every day. It's good to know that there are still such caring people in the world.
Christine Collins: I learned so much about Carlo that day. Jennifer told me that the kids in Afghanistan always looked for him because he gave them candy when he was out on patrol. People nicknamed him "The Dentist" because he could make anyone smile. As we looked at photos of Carlo, I saw why it fit. His own smile was beautiful. I'm not sure why I feel such a strong connection to Carlo. But it's there, and I know I need to be of service to Carlo's kids, who will grow up without a dad, and to his mother, who lost her son. And I need to do it for Carlo, who's looking down on me, knowing I will do right by him even though we only met briefly. Wherever I go, he'll always be with me.