News: The Patriot Files: Under the knife
LANGLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Va. - She winced a little when the IV needle punctured her hand, causing the vein to spurt a small amount of blood.
"I don't like needles very much," U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Angela Biggs, 633rd Surgical Operations Squadron women's health NCO in charge of women's health, said with a grin.
Biggs' spirits remained high as she waited for a surgical procedure to hopefully alleviate the pain in her right elbow, which began during a yearlong deployment to one of the most hostile regions of the world - Afghanistan.
"We were all testing our weapons, preparing to go on patrol," she said, referring to her time as a medical technician with the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team. "I scraped my arm on the ground. The doctors think some bacteria got in it, and caused the pain and swelling."
As Biggs lightly rubbed her elbow, she said the pain didn't really bother her until Aug. 28, 2011. She remembered it was a sunny Sunday as she walked through the forward operating base, which rested in the shadow of Alexander the Great's Castle. These were the days she felt the most relaxed, because there were no missions on Sundays and she could wear physical training gear, instead of her uniform and 70-pounds of body armor.
"What a great day," she remembered thinking. It was the last thought she had before her entire life changed.
"I saw the ground lift up in slow-motion, coming toward me like a tidal wave," Biggs said. "Then, everything around me started shattering and blowing up."
With the IV secured tightly, she pulled her hands close to her chest and continued her story.
"The blast went right through me," she said. "It felt like I had ruptured my eardrum. I couldn't hear anything. I knocked me to the ground. I couldn't see. There was smoke and dust everywhere. All I could remember thinking was: 'are we under attack?'"
As Biggs would later learn, her FOB had been hit by a 400-pound vehicle-borne improvised explosive device, less than 60-meters from where she had been standing. Disoriented and nauseous from the blast, Biggs said one thought kept racing through her mind, drowning out the ringing in her ears.
"I have to get up. I have to get up."
Still in shock, Biggs forced herself to her feet - her years of training taking over. She grabbed her medical bag and weapon before rushing to the aid of two guards, who had been blown off the tower during the initial attack. By this time, small-arms fire had begun to pummel the walls of the FOB, followed shortly by two explosions from suicide bombers.
"Even though it all happened so fast, it felt like an eternity went by," she said, drifting back to the day that changed her life. "I kept telling myself: 'you've got to work, you've got to do what you've been practicing.'"
While Biggs tended to the injured guards, U.S. Army Spc. Chris Fox, 182nd Infantry Regiment infantryman, was at a different part of the FOB dealing with problems of his own.
"I saw someone in a daze walking out of the FOB through the blast hole," he said. "My instincts took over and I ran after them. I didn't realize until later that I stepped on blown-off body parts, trying to get him back inside the FOB."
While he was outside the wire, Fox said he saw another sight which caused him to run back into the city after rescuing his fellow Service member.
"There was this woman," he began. "She was just walking around - her arm hanging by a string. I thought the immediate threat was over so I ran to her and took her to the nearby Afghan hospital."
Once at the hospital, Fox realized the medical personnel there were ill-equipped to handle an injury of this magnitude. So he ran back to the FOB, grabbed a litter and another Service member, and took the woman to Biggs - who, by this time, had started tending to the wounded at the FOB's casualty collection point.
"She was struggling with us, even with only one arm, because she didn't want us to undress her," Biggs said. "Even after everything that had happened there was still a cultural barrier. All I could was put more combat gauze on and call for an air evacuation, so we could get her out of there."
Biggs said the woman ended up losing her arm, but not her life. She is still living near the FOB, in Qalat City. Fox said Biggs' life-saving actions throughout her deployment were nothing short of amazing.
"She saved more than a dozen lives, including some Afghan soldiers," he said. "She had our backs. And if someone has your back, you build a good friendship. And that builds a really strong core."
Fox, who flew from Boston to support Biggs during her surgery and recovery, said any service-based or gender barriers were broken the instant everyone arrived at the FOB.
"She stopped being a female, stopped being an Airman. She was just Sergeant Biggs," he said. "Deployment is made better by your brothers and sisters in arms. You all love each other and watch out for one another."
It was that camaraderie which kept Biggs from requesting a medical evacuation for the injuries sustained during the attack.
"I still had a job to do," she said. "You get this feeling - this sense of contributing and making a difference. It pushed me to my physical limits. Things I never thought I could do, I did - because I didn't have any other choice."
However, Biggs didn't realize she had sustained other injuries in addition to her elbow - injuries which couldn't be seen on the surface. Currently, she is undergoing treatment for a traumatic brain injury she sustained as a result of the attack on the FOB.
"It's such a hard thing to know you have because you don't see it," she said. "To this day I still have memory loss from it. You know what's normal for you. It's not normal to forget conversations that just happened."
Biggs said it's important for any Service member to take TBI seriously. Documenting the occurrence can help people get the care they need. Regardless, Biggs said living with TBI can be a frustrating ordeal.
"It's embarrassing," she said. "It makes you feel stupid and slow. And it makes you angry because you can't put a band-aid on it. I don't like being forgetful. I don't like feeling as though I have short-term amnesia."
Despite the injuries and harrowing experiences, Biggs said she would have stayed at the FOB longer.
"I felt I wasn't done with my mission," she said. "I wanted to go back with my team. Even now, it's very difficult getting back into a routine. At the FOB there were so many things you had to be aware of - be on guard for. That doesn't exist when you're stateside."
Biggs said she noticed a marked changed between how she felt at the FOB and how she felt when she came home.
"I felt a little lost," she recalled. "I felt a little overwhelmed. I was coming back to this job, to people who hadn't deployed to where I'd been. It's been hard because they expect you to be the same person you were before you deployed."
Despite the difficulties adjusting to life at home, Biggs said she has returned to America with a fresh and positive outlook on life. And as she prepares to go under the knife during a procedure which will mend one of the injuries she sustained downrange, she said she is eager to take her new philosophy for a test drive.
"The way I see life now is to keep things simple," she said. "Love your life. Afghanistan taught me to appreciate everything in my life, because you never know when it might be taken away."
Biggs smiled one more time, reflecting on everything she had experienced during her year in Afghanistan as her bed was wheeled into the operating room for surgery.
(Editor's Note: This story is part of an ongoing series highlighting service members with exceptional experiences throughout their military careers.)