HURT - Coco Tang

HURT - Coco Tang

I met Pete Reed in Iraq sometime in 2017. Or maybe it was already 2018. The exact circumstances are muddied now, but it involved war, fighting the Islamic State, crack medicine, and a lot of chaos. Whether it was Mosul or Erbil, all I remember about our initial encounter was Pete’s gargantuan personality. A former Marine turned Emergency Medical Technician, Pete more or less spontaneously self deployed to Iraq to partake in the anti-ISIS operations in Mosul, fully intending on using his EMT skills with total disregard for whether or not he’d return. That was not my first time in a warzone, but it was my first time meeting someone who raised an international medical NGO from the ground up in the middle of one - between bombs and airstrikes and falling buildings Global Response Medicine was born. A rag-tag group of healthcare providers flocked to its operations on the frontlines: medics, nurses, PAs, doctors; GRM wasn’t the only NGO that operated there, but as far as I was concerned it was among the OG, and one of the NGOs that stayed there the longest. 

Pete was quick to pull me into GRM’s folds, and once operations in Iraq came to a close, focus was diverted to expanding the organization in other meaningful ways in the following years: Yemen, Mexico, Guatemala, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Ukraine. By then I was a member of the GRM Board, having worked up and down the Middle East, Africa, Ukraine, and Southeast Asia. Pete and I had shared whiskey and hookah in Kurdistan, whiskey and cake in Scotland, whiskey and card games in Colorado, and many more encounters, virtual and otherwise. It was the stuff good friendships are supposed to be made of: mutual trust, respect, low maintenance from a distance but when together it was like picking up where we left off. We saw eye to eye on the direction and the future of GRM, we spoke the same language of triage and trauma and humanitarian response, and we fantasized about the missions we’d partake together with the organization. The fallout in Afghanistan in 2021 came and went, and before we knew it the war in Ukraine was in full swing. At that point Pete had married Alex Potter - a nurse and girlfriend since Mosul; another close friend and colleague who shared our passion for medicine and our addiction to the chaos and ambiguity of war. I think in some sense, at some point, having survived what we had and come out the other side unscathed, all of us felt invulnerable. 

News of Pete’s death came to me at 4am on a Thursday in early February 2023. I was asleep and was both annoyed and confused as to why my phone kept buzzing incessantly an hour before my alarm was supposed to ring. I unlocked it to see an explosion of messages from both friends in the US as well as medical colleagues in Ukraine asking me if I’d heard any news about Pete. Reflexively, without thinking, I sent Pete a message on Whatsapp and Signal, “Hey bro you good?” thinking he’d respond with the usual understatement, “yeah lol got dicey for a min.” Pete was larger than life, he was one of us, and stuff like getting killed in a war doesn’t happen to us…Those texts went undelivered, and I sat there for a few stupid moments staring at my phone, waiting for the read receipt check marks to turn blue. They didn’t. 

Then more messages. “Pete’s team got hit. What’s the word?” Disturbed and wide awake now, I called Alex. Pete’s medical team was struck by a Russian missile in eastern Ukraine, they said. Pete was KIA, they said. No no, Pete was actually taken by an ambulance from another NGO, they said. No no, Pete was in critical condition and being transported to Lviv, they said. No no, someone literally saw his body, they said. They said, they said, they said. I drove to work in a stupor, my phone lighting up every other second, and when I arrived I sat in my car catatonically, trying to decide if I should cry and have a mental breakdown before or after I go into the office. But the feeling that finally sent me over the edge wasn’t the confusion or sadness or fear. It was FOMO. 

When I used to hear the word FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), it was always in one of those millennial contexts where people didn’t want to miss out on parties or events; they didn’t want to be left out or forgotten, or worse, unable to attend. Well, in that moment, sitting in my car in front of my workplace in the dark with the rain drizzling, I felt the worst, grossest, most nonsensical wave of FOMO consume every atom, fiber, and neural synapse in my body. I should be there. I should have been there. I need to go there right now. If I book the next flight out to Poland I could take the train into Kiev and call my friend who is a fixer to drive me and be back on the frontlines by tomorrow evening. The cerebral part of my brain was quick to object: what would I even do there? Ukraine is a meat grinder. With my current job, I’d be breaking an obscene amount of rules just to be useless in a different country. 

And that was the crux. Useless.  

I’d lost friends and colleagues in war before, but they were in an era of my life where I could pick up and go to the other side of the world on my terms, at a time of my choosing, delivering impact in a way where my decisions had weight. Now, the most I could do was sit in my car and play telephone. It’s a strange feeling - the devastation of missing out on a close friend’s death, wishing desperately you were there for it, wishing maybe if you were that perhaps you’d be lucky enough to also die, wishing there was something you could do, even if it was just to bear witness for their last few seconds. Some of you may have a sense of what it’s like to crave being there, with them. Those who don’t are the few lucky ones who probably never will. It feels almost selfish. 

In the hours that passed, the ambiguity began to clear, replaced by confirmations and graphic videos that went viral online. Pete was KIA, and in fact, his body was still on the ground, right next to the ambulance he and his team were using to transport a patient. A medical team. A deliberate target. A collateral damage in a meat grinder of a war. A legend in the international medical community lying in the middle of a cratered street next to smoldering vehicles in the cold, dead winter. Fittingly, Alex and I knew that was how Pete would choose to go: doing what he loved, in a place he chose to be, with his last act being a good and pure deed. That thought dampened the sadness a little, but the FOMO would stay. Even now, seven months later, the FOMO and the selfish disdain of being left behind continues to gnaw away at me. 

There is no climax or closure to this story. There is no lesson, no redemption, no conclusion - because, truthfully, the feeling never goes away. It twists itself into my thoughts every time I come across a meme Pete would enjoy or see news of a disaster somewhere in the world I know he would jump at the opportunity to respond to. There is no light at the end of the bottomless grief pit, there are just some days you stare into it less, and the desire to share the hurt and the emptiness of losing a close friend and being utterly, completely, and inconsolably helpless in the face of it and hoping that maybe some of you can relate. If you’ve read this far in the blog, let me tell you: everyone deserves to have known Pete - or someone like Pete - in their lives. 

Coco Tang,
Vice President of the Board, Global Response Medicine