Monday, September 28, 2009

All in a day's work

As you look at these photos, I’m sure you wonder what an Air Force nurse practitioner is doing flying around Afghanistan in a Blackhawk helicopter. This is one of the best, yet little known, benefits of my current position. In addition to providing medical support to our driving missions throughout the province, we occasionally put together air-assault missions. When we do, one of us medics generally goes along, “just in case.” Our soldiers are well trained in combat lifesaver skills (see prior post) but when things go wrong, the first thing they usually yell is “Medic!” and they like to know we are there to help.

Our mission last Thursday was to the western region of a province we are in the process of handing off to a new PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Team). To do the handoff appropriately, we needed to perform quality assurance checks on these projects, but driving would take several days, and there was no guarantee we could reach all the destinations. Because of safety concerns, we have started using only MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) trucks and there is some belief that they are too large to navigate the terrain.

I have to admit flying is much better than driving. In addition to the adrenalin rush, we were able to see the three projects in just a few hours. As the mission medic, I carried enough supplies to treat the soldiers, if needed, including intubation equipment and pain medications. I also went fully armed and was responsible for additional security at each objective (not your typical day as an NP!).

Thankfully, the mission ended up being routine and, other than a couple hard landings, we had no incidents. I managed to jump in and out of the helicopter every time, without seriously hurting myself. I did wound my pride—and bruised my ribs—when I jumped out of the Helo, threw myself forward a few steps and landed in a “defensive fighting position.” Apparently, I was supposed to land on my knees, elbows and the butt stock of my rifle rather than my abdomen/chest. Oh, well, lesson learned!

I have a few days to recover while the rest of the team conducts a series of missions. Then, it will be back to work for a few days prior to the start of my leave (two weeks alone with my spouse in Germany!!!). More to come as the adventures continue.


Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Another week down

The last few days have been slow-going, and I can’t really say why. Maybe it’s because I have been chained to my desk rather than going on missions or because, in just 18 days, I will be meeting my husband for a holiday in Germany! You know how time seems to slow just before a vacation, and then flies by while you are on the vacation? That may be what I am experiencing now.

As a nearly exclusively Muslim nation, Afghanistan has been observing Ramadan for the last month. Ramadan is a time of fasting and praying for the purpose of cleansing your spirit and growing closer to Allah. Because of this, work slows down and there are fewer planned meetings. The frustrating part is, we have difficulty completing our mission without interacting with our Afghan partners. Well, yesterday was the beginning of Eid ul-Fitr, or Eid, the three-day holiday marking the end of the fast. We have been lucky enough to receive invitations to participate in several Iftar dinners (a special gathering to break the fast) as a way to celebrate, and we have enjoyed socializing with our Afghan friends.

Today’s Eid celebration was in one of the large tents on the base and all the provincial leadership from Regional Command East was invited to participate. There was yummy Afghan food, traditional music and time to simply relax and learn more about our governor. He is more than 60 years old, has two wives and 20 children. His oldest son accompanied him to the event, and the governor considers this son to be his counterpart and best friend. This is something I could understand, as I consider my mother to be my best friend, as well. We talked of the wedding celebration he hosted for a prior team when one of the sons married, and we asked if any more were planned during our tenure. (It was a shameless hint at an invitation!) This man and his son were commanders in the Mujahedeen fight against the Soviets 30 years ago and are now doing the best they can to rebuild their country.

Do Afghans do things the way we would in America? Definitely not. One of the things we have come to accept is that there are different customs in Afghanistan than in America. A baksheesh (similar to a bribe) is not unusual for getting someone a job or even to pick up your paycheck. Sometimes, the quality of work is not what we would tolerate, either, but with the influence and tutelage of our engineer staff, this is showing considerable improvement. But, we have discovered our Afghan counterparts to be friendly, generally happy people who dislike the violence here as much as we do. Many of them have been affected directly by the violence and look forward to a day when war is once again in the past. For me, even with missing my family terribly, the experience continues to be one of discovering new things about myself and the world and making memories that will last a lifetime.


Saturday, September 12, 2009

Strong food, strong babies

A month ago, we initiated a children's malnourishment program at one of the hospitals in our province. I did a long story on it, but was never able to post due to connectivity issues. The program is called "Strong Food" and is intended to bring severely malnourished children to a point where they regain their appetite and are able to eat regular food again. The food is a paste-like mixture of ground almonds, dried milk, sugar, oil and vitamins. It has a very stable shelf life and actually does taste pretty good.

A month ago, we spent two days training medical staff at one of the two hospitals in the province. It was a great time. We felt a connection with the staff and it appeared that they were really taking in the information and developing a plan to administer the program. We spent the first day teaching about malnourishment, how to mix the food and how to select the children for the program. The second day was spent screening more than 50 children by taking height/weight measurements. Seventeen children were selected. We then left the staff with a month's worth of raw materials, mixing directions and my phone number.

I was pleasantly surprised when we rolled back in there yesterday. In the preceding month, a total of 75 children had been given the supplement, and I had asked if a few could come so I could see them. Ten children were present who had benefited from the program. What's more, there was raw material left over. Corruption is rampant in this nation and I fully expected to find all the supplies gone and no children to evaluate.

I am sure this program is benefiting someone besides the children but it wasn't obvious to us, which was good. Staff members were quite proud of the room they had designated for mixing and storing the food. It was very clean, and all the mixing tools we had brought a month earlier were still present. We left an additional month's worth of raw material and promised to return soon to further evaluate progress. I consider the staff's ability to manage this program so well during the last month a success and look forward to returning.

I head back to home base today—compliments of a helicopter! My postings will again become sporadic, but I will continue to be creative in submitting posts and hope to soon share the experience of my first helicopter ride.

Friday, September 11, 2009

September 11

Yes, I am still here, still struggling with an Internet connection. I am back at our "frontier post" and, even though I didn't get any dinner, I can at least get a great Internet connection. The lack of dinner is because the military cooks get Fridays off, which shocks me. I have yet to get a full day off since arriving more than two months ago! Oh, well, there will be food tomorrow, right?!

Today is September 11th, and it is strange to experience this day here where it all started and where the fighting still continues. To be honest, the day would have passed with little fanfare except our intel sergeant, a Vietnam veteran, really focused on the significance of the day when we got a last minute briefing prior to hitting the road. He is in his 50s, experiencing his second war, and as sentimental as they come. His favorite task is stopping traffic on the main drag on base to allow all of our trucks to pull out in order. To see him standing there, cigar hanging out of his mouth, directing traffic and saluting each truck as it passes, brings tears to my eyes every time.

Many of us have a superstition, that thing we must do prior to departing on a mission. One soldier stands to watch us leave, believing it is bad luck to turn your back on friends as they drive away. Another carries a little toy troll and wants everyone to touch it prior to rolling out. Yet another tucks a toy lizard into the band around the outside of his helmet. And our intel sargeant? Sending us off with a salute is his way of recognizing the mission, the soldiers and the sacrifice we all give just by being here. I support all of it, anything that supplies that feeling of "fairy dust" or protection as we depart can't hurt!

So, on this day, please spend a few minutes to consider those who continue to sacrifice for us all. And know we thank you for the support.