News: Compassionate care - the tale of two combat medics
Story by Sgt. Marc Loi
FORWARD OPERATING BASE PASAB, Afghanistan – Come to the tiny, crowded first-aid station here and you will see soldiers from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, get treated for the scrapes and bruises they sustained. You will also see them get greeted with a smile courtesy of a small team of Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldiers deployed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom
In the infantry, where injuries are sometimes hidden and concealed based on bravado and a desire to continue the fight, two medics are making it easier for the injured and wounded to seek the care they need, partly because of their friendly nature as well as their commitment to the job.
On her first deployment as a combat medic, Spc. Heidi Olson is one of two junior enlisted soldiers currently working to help her fellow soldiers get better. Although her days are a mixture of long hours and, at times, tedium, Olson said being a medic in a combat zone is one of her dreams – something she embraces with gusto because of what the job means.
“It’s been a thrill,” said Olson. “It’s my lifeblood.”
She’d always loved the human body – the anatomy, how each body part works and how to heal the body, Olson said. In college, she majored in history and minored in political science at George Fox University, in Newberg, Ore., where academia helped her develop a love and interest for the military. Coupled with her already-growing interest in the human anatomy and the limited selection for combat roles available to women, becoming a combat medic made sense, she said.
“I would have joined the infantry if I could,” said Olson, who ultimately chose to be a combat medic over being a military policewoman. “As a combat medic, I get to return fire and when anyone gets injured, I also get to treat them.”
For Spc. Charles Dean, Olson’s fellow medic and mentor, being a medic holds an especially important meaning in a combat zone because he gets a chance to help his fellow soldiers get back to being healthy.
“My personal love for this job is dealing with the soldiers, helping them when they’re sick or injured – just knowing that I can help them so they can go home and be safe and normal and go back to their families,” said Dean, currently on his fourth deployment.
Despite this love for taking care of fellow soldiers and treating the wounded, the soldiers said they mostly cherish “downtime” because it means soldiers aren’t getting hurt and no one needs to be treated for injuries.
“Chilling at the aid station with nothing to do – that’s my idea of a perfect day,” Olson said in between answering phone calls and sending out mission-essential emails. “It’s not that I don’t want to do my job – it’s just that we’re proficient in a skill we hope to God we never have to use.”
This especially hit home for Olson when she was on a combat mission with infantry soldiers. Although she lives for those types of missions, Olson said, during the entire ordeal, she hoped that there did not come a time when she had to treat the injured.
“When we go on missions, you just hope you don’t hear a ‘boom,’ because it means someone just stepped on an IED,” Olson said. “You hear gunfire and wonder if you’re needed.”
Dean shares the same sentiments, citing that although quiet days tend to drag out, they are often the best days, as he knows none of the soldiers he lives and works with are injured.
“I hate boredom, yet at the same time, I also love it,” he said. “I learned very quickly [from my previous deployments] that slow days are good – I am fine with slow days because it means everyone is coming home safe.”
Everyone coming home safely not only depends on how slow the day goes, but also the competence of the medics. Understanding that fully, the soldiers not only depend on each other for technical support – constantly training and re-training for real-world situations, but also rely on each other for emotional support when they need it, they said.
“Being a medic, you’ve got to have mental toughness,” Dean said. “As a medic, you sometimes get attached to the guys you treat – but when something happens and you need to treat them, you’ve also got to be able to disassociate yourself from the person or you’re not going to be able to do your job.”
To help with the mental resilience, especially after the day is finished, the medics say they rely on each other – often having “family dinners” at the dining facility here. Physical fitness training is also a time in which to decompress and catch up with one another, checking to make sure each is able to cope with the harsh reality of the job, Olson said.
“We spend a lot of spare time with each other and know we’ve got each other’s back,” she said. “It’s a very understanding situation that we’re there for each other, and luckily, Dean has a lot more experience than I do, so he walks me through it.
“Just like the other day, he had to treat a casualty, and afterward, it was me checking to so see how he’s doing, if he’s doing okay,” she added.
The reason for this, Olson said, is that a medic’s job is often not understood, and it often takes a fellow medic to understand the challenges a medic soldier is going through.
“Only a medic understands other medics,” she said. “You feel a sense of responsibility – I am a baby medic, so I haven’t been through a lot, but I know that when I lose my first [patient], it’s going to be tough – I am going to nitpick and go over what I did right and what I did wrong. It’s going to be a hard pill to swallow.”
More seasoned and with more combat deployments under his belt, Dean said while he understands the attachment medics feel for their patients, he’s also found ways to cope with the possibility of losing a patient – or worse, treating a soldier back to health only to see that soldier get injured or killed the next day in combat.
“You just got to hope that you do the best job and patch them up and send them out -- do the best you can at every moment, and really hope that you can take care of them so they don’t have to come back again,” he said.