LOGAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan – A machine is only as good as the sum of its parts. To keep the insurgent-fighting machine running smoothly in Task Force Patriot’s area of operations, having medical personnel who can save lives positioned in the right place makes the difference between life and death.
U.S. Army Reserve soldiers of the 1982nd Forward Surgical Team, activated from Niagara Falls, N.Y., have been up to the task of operating at Forward Operating Base Shank since arriving in country late last year. Their readiness comes from months of preparation at various pre-deployment venues such as Fort McCoy, Wis., Fort Dix, N.J., Fort Lewis, Wash., and the Miami Trauma Training Center in Florida.
“There [MTTC in Miami], they actually put you through the role in a hospital of what you would do here, which got everybody back into that high rate of speed thought process,” said U.S. Army Sgt. Ashley Richards, operating room specialist for the 1982nd FST. “We, as the 1982nd, are fortunate because about 90 percent of the personnel actually work in their fields in a civilian hospital at the same job they have in the Army.”
Once the FST settled in and went to work, they began conducting non-stop operations. These combat medical personnel are on call 24 hours a day because patients come in at all times.
“It’s pretty much all hands on deck. We could get called in at 3:00 in the morning and not leave until noon the next day working on the same patient,” said Richards. “Some cases are worse than others. [With some] gunshot wounds ... it gets really bad really quick.”
It’s not just medical personnel who help save lives on FOB Shank.
“Honestly, I have to say that everyone on the base deserves great kudos, because it could be 2:00 in the morning and you will still get 30 or 40 soldiers showing up trying to give their blood to help out whoever is on the table,” said Richards. “They don’t know if it’s a U.S. soldier, a Jordanian soldier, Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, a local national. They don’t discriminate; people still show up.”
U.S. Army Lt. Col. Kulvinder Bajwa is a general surgeon and Sugarland, Texas, native attached to the 1982nd FST for 90 days from the 75th Mission Command Training Division at Ellington Joint Reservist Base in Houston. He said not only are the FST soldiers on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but also they treat patients regardless of their nationality or allegiance who come to them through casualty evacuation, medical evacuation or just drive up.
“If they bring them to us, we will treat them for life, limb or eye sight types of injuries,” said Bajwa. “This particular unit has the mission to do what we call damage-control surgery to make sure that damage that has happened from an injury is not going to continue happening, it is stopped here; and then, we stabilize them to make sure that they are in a good enough condition to be transported to the next level of care.”
Being on call all day and night can make work very stressful, especially when lives are on the line. Soldiers from the FST said they found ways to keep up their morale through tough times.
“It sucks sometimes, but with the crew we have here it’s not really a big deal, because we are each others’ support group,” said Richards. “If West [U.S. Army Reserve Sgt. Joseph West, a 1982nd FST operating room specialist from Lockport, N.Y.,] is here in the middle of the night, I am here in the middle of the night. If I am having a bad day, he will usually pick me up and vice versa.”
U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Adella Kirchmeyer, a 1982nd FST intensive care unit nurse from Buffalo, N.Y., said she enjoys her job and puts everything she has into her work.
“I love being a nurse, it’s the most rewarding job I have ever had and being a nurse on an FST, it really makes you appreciate the value of human life,” said Kirchmeyer. “I try to give as much compassion for each patient [as I can] because it’s a human life we are dealing with ... [so] we have to give our all.”
One thing that makes the FST on FOB Shank so important is its location in connection with the fighting taking place and higher levels of medical care. The FST gives soldiers the upper hand before going into potential conflicts.
“We have the highest number of patients rolling through here to make it to Bagram or Germany or the next level higher,” said Richards, referring to the importance of the FST’s geographical location on FOB Shank. “Half these guys, they come in here already not doing so hot. If we don’t do the interventions when we do, things wouldn’t always be that great ... we wouldn’t have as many soldiers returning to duty for sure.”
Bajwa said he might be biased because he is a medical professional and not a battlefield fighter, but he views the 1982nd FST personnel as force multipliers. After all, that is the mission they were meant to accomplish, he said.
“If a soldier is down, then it takes two more - at least one if not two - soldiers to get them EVACed back. We can get them back in the fight if they have minor injuries ...” said Bajwa. “If we can identify and evaluate and also categorize the soldiers who need to be evacuated verses a soldier who can recover here in theater for a week or two, then they can go back into it ....
“[If] they can return to duty, that’s ... much more valuable than having a replacement called up come into to a new unit they may or may not be used to,” continued Bajwa. “I think that is a great asset to the Army, as far as mission capability goes.”
With limited personnel, being co-located with Company C, 94th Brigade Support Battalion, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division’s Task Force Strength and having Jordanian medics on call helps ease the burden.
“The good thing is Charlie Med. (Company C, 94th BSB) is next door, and ... being an FST, we have 20 personnel and we’re kind of short as it is to provide care,” said Kirchmeyer. “The Jordanians do help because they will take our Afghan soldiers and local nationals, they will come in and help with those cases.”
Kirchmeyer said the deployment with 1982nd FST has been a tremendous learning experience for her. She said she learns something new every day, especially working with trauma cases, and her career and unit are astonishing.
“The people here, the people at the FST, they are amazing,” said Kirchmeyer. “To watch surgeons save someone’s life - just the actions they take - and the compassion that the medics show and the knowledge that the nurses have is just amazing. It truly is amazing.”