Friday, 31 May 2013

I went to do a round of hospital visits at the U.S. Theater Hospital this morning. When I checked in at the ICU I was told there was one patient who was awake. I approached his bed and the nurse introduced me to the wounded marine and his escort. The young marine was covered with a blanket but it was clear that his injuries were in his legs, apparent by the sickening angles made by the thin poles of the devices and tourniquets keeping his legs attached.

As I started chatting with the young marine he was clearly alert and cognizant of the magnitude of his injuries and how he came to be in the hospital. I quickly glanced up at the sheet of paper hanging off of the vitals machine. The piece of paper indicates the cause of a patient's injuries and a detailed list of what those injuries are. In this young marines case, he walked over a dismounted IED.

After the marine and I chatted for a few minutes, I turned to his escort and asked, "So are you guys in the same unit?" I was taken aback to hear, "No ma'ma, I'm his older brother.  This is my first deployment, I've only been here 10 days". Turns out they were both stationed at the same base out here in Afghanistan and when the word came in that his little brother had been hit by an IED, the command gave permission for the older brother to accompany him first to Bagram, then on to Germany and finally to Walter Reed. I could hardly hold back my emotion when he showed me his bed of pillows and towels and blankets, next to his brother gurney so he could stay as close as possible.

But what squeezed my heart even more than the older brother's obvious love for his younger, was the way they both talked about the future. How there was a really good chance the marine would keep his legs and that he would walk again some day. And well, if he had to lose one leg than at least it would just be below the knee and if he had to lose them both, well he knew other guys that were worse off, but really, he was going to walk again because there was a really good chance they could save his legs.

My God, to hear both this marine and his brother so positive about the future, about how the marine was going to try and stay in the military, even if they did take his legs, and how they joined the marines because they loved the idea it was the most physically difficult branch, I couldn't help but think to myself how lucky and honored I was to even meet these two incredible brothers. They are representative of all that is honorable and brave and noble in the U.S. military and what makes every second of this job worthwhile.

I hope this post in some small way serves to salute them.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Hi everyone, our Red Cross team in Bagram is safe and well after the attack in Jalalabad. Our thoughts are with the International Committee of the Red Cross team

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Well it's official... as the night shifter I'm down to one meal a day.

Effective June 1, midnight chow will be closing base-wide and all 24 hour sandwich bar operations will shut down.

From 9pm to 5:30am the military will be offering no meal to the thousands upon thousands of us who work throughout the night for the mission and the well-being of those deployed to Afghanistan.

Monday, 27 May 2013

There cannot possibly be a more fitting way to celebrate Memorial Day than with the troops in Afghanistan.

Our Red Cross team worked very hard to put an event together so that those living on Bagram could celebrate the day much as they might have in the States. I took the lead on the event which was from 5:30 to 7:30 this evening and truly, the event could not have been a greater success. We had over 300 people in attendance and the greatest possible compliment was from those who said they felt like they were back at home with their friends and family.

The day began for me in true deployment fashion...because I work the night shift I literally had to get up for the event in the middle of my night - 3pm. I walked to the shower latrines only to find that every shower latrine on the camp was closed. Soooo it was a deployment shower for me - washing in the latrine sink :-/

Once I arrived for set up at 4pm, they time started flying by. Dozens of tables and chairs set up, the band arrived, the grills were fired up. We hung Memorial flags signed by schools and previous deployed soldiers. The tables were covered in miniature American flags. Major Eden, the combat stress dog arrived and spent much of the time trying to mangle plastic water bottles. We had tons of food: burgers, hot dogs, chicken, sausages, steak, bread, pastries, fruit salad and then the coup de gras homemade Oreo truffles, fudge and Flavor- Ice pops. I also organized a raffle with some fantastic prizes. To top everything off, the Fire station brought over a fire engine to help us block off the road. I had obtained permission to close off the road in front of our office building so the whole event had the feel of a traditional American block-party.

The event was a smashing success. With over 300 attendees, the line for food was almost 50 people deep for the first hour. The Armed Forces Network film crew showed up and both my team leader and I got to do a radio interview during the event!

Once it started getting dark and people had eaten their fill, they settled down at tables and along the T-walls (cement barriers to protect from shrapnel)  to listen and sing and dance to the band. The night only ended when the band's First Sergeant apologized profusely and said it was time for the band to leave.

It is so easy to forget the significance of Memorial from the comfort of the U.S. when you are untouched by the tragedies of war ... but out here, when you hold the hand of a soldier dying from IED wounds and the next day they are gone, you cannot escape the significance of Memorial Day and the sacrifice of those who die for their country.


Sunday, 26 May 2013

Delightful start to my Afghan morning (which is actually the evening hours because I work the night shift)...

An IDF (indirect fire - rockets, mortars, grenades) struck while I was in shower. I just spent the last 45 mins in a bunker in only my towel and PJs :-/

Friday, 24 May 2013

Two of my teammates and I at our table at the Bagram Health Fair yesterday. 

My new best friend Major Eden, the Combat Stress Dog

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

This morning was such a great experience. After I got off shift, I went to the gym and then went to the hospital to make the rounds and drop off invitations to our Memorial Day event.

I went first to the ICU and visited with the patients in the American bay. There was a positively horrific ambush within the last few weeks and several of the wounded went through the Craig hospital at Bagram. Only one is still here, injured from a dismounted IED. Everyday I've visited him I've held his hand and encouraged him to fight and be strong. He is in a drug induced coma with full body paralysis, but I can't help but believe that maybe he knows we are there visiting him. And I fully believe that someone suffering from his injuries would not want to be alone in the ICU.

After the ICU, I made my way to the Ward which contain patients who are not as serious as the ICU. The guys in the Ward are usually awake and eager for conversation and today was no exception. A lot of the guys in the Ward want to talk about why they are in the hospital and their stories and injuries just make you shake your head. One guy was trying to make sense of his experience being hit by an IED and the ground shaking underneath him. All I can hope to do is provide them with a willing listener, because I certainly will never be able to relate to anything they have been through.

Next it was on to the Warrior Restoration Clinic, where the Combat Stress dog lives. I invited all the staff to our event (the Combat Stress dog being the guest of honor after all!) and then I spent the next 30 mins on the floor playing with the pup, a gorgeous Red lab named Maj Eden.

And finally, it was off to the Vet clinic to play with some more puppies... except the Vet clinic primarily see the working dogs - bomb sniffers, narcotics dogs and attack dogs. Today they had Tessa in the clinic, a narcotics and attack dog, who in a nervous frenzy had basically chewed her tail off. She is a German Shepherd and because of her injuries the vets were forced to take the majority of her tail off. Because of her training however, she was also muzzled and sedated for her check up, trained to attack anyone who is not her handler.

The vets allowed to me to sit in on the visits and pet the sedated Tessa (not quite as enjoyable as the blind adoration of the combat stress dog, but it's Afghanistan after all, I will take what I can get! ;-) 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Photo of a Women's Health Education day at the Korean Hospital


Saturday, 18 May 2013

Myself and the amazing ladies at the Korean Hospital working on Health Education with the Afghan women


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

I wanted share a really interesting cultural clash that occurred today at the Korean Hospital. An Afghan woman was schedule for surgery with the American OBGYN that I often sit in with during consultations. The woman was to have checked in for her surgery on Tuesday night and then it was to take place at 9am today, Wednesday.

I had some responsibilities at the US Hospital this morning and as such didn't make it over to the Egyptian Hospital until after 11am. When I arrived, I didn't really have any specific plans because normally on Wednesdays I sit with the OBGYN but today she was supposed to be in surgery. However, when the Korean staff saw me they asked if I wanted to join the American OBBYN. Confused I went to the OBGYN clinic and it turns out the woman never reported for her surgery the night before and they lost the Operating Room to other surgeries after 9am.

What was so interesting however, was that the woman showed up around 11:30am without excuse or cause for concern saying she has arrived for her surgery. When the hospital staff attempted to explain to her that she had not checked in for surgery the night before and they had lost the operating room because she arrived 3 hours late, she failed to understand why she could not still have the surgery. She remained confused and frustrated, continuing to explain that she was here now for her surgery and why could we not proceed?

This story is representative of the incredibly different sense of time and communication that exist between our two cultures. Time in Afghanistan is not a construct like it is in the West. One of the most common expressions you here in Afghanistan regarding time is "Inshallah" - God willing. In other words, if God wills you to be on time, than you will be there, but if something else comes up or you are delayed, it is God's will. This is also combined with the fact that communication in the Afghan culture tends to be very indirect, it is how Afghans maintain good relationships. So, the average person finds it hard to be told "no" or "maybe" to a request and the average person finds it hard to say "no" or "maybe" to any request.

As an example, I found this blurb of advice on the Internet about how to say no in Afghan culture:

The Three Step Rule for Effective Cross Cultural Communication:
I suggest one communication strategy is to follow the three step rule when making a request.
The first step is:
1. When we make a request and get the initial reply, "Yes" then we should talk about something else for a bit
2. The second step is: After talking a bit return to the request and ask it again. But this time throw in an extra phrase like, "What do you think, can you...?"
3. The third step: Go on to talk about something and return to the request a third time. This time, however, give valid reasons why the friend might not be able to do what you want even if they are willing, so they have a good excuse why they can say no.

In returning to the story, it eventually came out that the patient had been at a wedding the night before and it can be supposed she knew when the surgery was being scheduled she would not make her check in on Tuesday night, however she did not raise this schedule conflict as an issue. It is also likely that given Afghan cultural understandings, she did not foresee her showing up late for her surgery to be a problem.

It's when these two cultures meet head on that a power struggle ensues. American bound by their adherence to schedules and appointments and Afghans subscribing to a fluid, forgiving concept of time, find themselves frustrated and confused about why the other is so inflexible and cannot adapt in order to get things done.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

So today has been a pretty great day. This morning when I got off shift, my team leader and I went over to the hospital and we did our first hospital visit. We visited with one servicemember in ICU who had a gunshot wound to his abdomen. We sat with him and held is hand and just tried to let him know he wasn't alone.

Then when we got back to the office we ran into the Lt Colonel who is in charge of the vet clinic for the entire Northern half of the country. He invited me to come back over to the hospital to sit in on a surgery of one of the working dogs but by this point it was after 10am and getting really close to bed time so disappointingly I had to pass.

Then after I sleeping during the day, I got back into the office for my shift at 9pm and the office was packed with troops here for a movie night. We also got to talk to a Sergeant Major whose son had just been selected in the NFL draft!

But the best news of the night was that my food service request for our Memorial Day BBQ was approved so we now have burgers and hot dogs and drinks and fruit salad approved for our event! To top everything off, I may have acquired a microphone for the Wednesday Health Education talks that we have been organizing for the Afghan women at the Korean Hospital. So pleased!!!

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Hi there,
Quick update to say that all is well, but I am pretty exhausted everyday from the schedules we are maintaining. We are working particularly long shifts at the moment to make sure we've got all our bases covered at the start of the deployment. The result though is that after an 11 hour night shift, a workout and then lots of running around meeting people and planning events and visiting units and volunteering I am barely functioning!

That being said though, there's lots of wonderful stuff going on. The other day I visited the Warrior Restoration Center which is another equivalent of Combat Stress. I recently found out there IS a combat stress/therapy dog on base known as Maj Eden. She was a bombing sniffing dog who loved food more than the smell of chemicals so she didn't make the cut as a working dog. Unfortunately she's out on mission at the moment, but lots of plans to partner with her and her handler when they return.

I also went over to the CASF the other day, the unit that runs the MedEvac missions. A friend of mine who I worked with at the CASF on my last deployment is actually back in theater! So I got to catch up with her and get an update on how to get back on board with the MedEvacs.

And finally, this morning I was back over at the Korean Hospital. I wanted to follow up on a story I wrote last Wednesday about a girl who had been seperated from her family who was holding her medical paperwork. She DID come back this week and was seen by the OBGYN. Even better news was that her diagnosis came back far more positive than originally thought. More than anything I was just so pleased and relieved to see her.

I am slowly starting to learn Dhari and can now have a very basic conversation. I'm also learning really random words in Dhari from working at a hospital... glucose, diabetes, does this hurt? Yep, I've got really great chat at the moment :-)

Perhaps most exciting of all, plans are really coming together to run a women's empowerment program through the hospital. Are primary challenges at the moment are that is needs to be extremely subtle so as not to affect the reputation of the hospital. Equally as challenging is the resistance expressed by the women themselves. However, we may have found a way to account for these conditions. Most certainly more to follow!

Sunday, 5 May 2013

A few photos of the office and my little home sweet home ;-)


Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Yesterday was another one of those incredible days where so much happens it's difficult to wrap your head around.

After I got off shift at 8am, I helped my team leader honor 4 Seabees (Navy) who built a giant store room for the Red Cross office right of our canteen. We presented them each with Red Cross coins and a huge helping of thanks.

Then it was off to change and head to the Korean Hospital. When I arrived I sat down at the nurses station and they were excited to see me because apparently at 12:30 they were going to have a female Afghan doctor speak to the female patients about malnutrition. I originally had no intention of staying that late in the day (my night) but I couldn't pass up the opportunity.

I ended up spending the morning sitting in with an American OBGYN doctor who was volunteering her time at the hospital. Of the women she saw, most of them had had between 6 and 12 pregnancies and had lost between 1 and 3 children. They came in for a variety of reasons, but the doctor confirmed, most commonly the women came about relatively normal bodily ailments which seemed suspicious because of their lack of health education.

The women had traveled from all over the country to visit this hospital, one girl's visit ending in tears because she had been seperated from her family at the security check point and her family was holding her CT scans and medications. The doctor could not diagnose her without her paperwork and she was told to return next Wednesday. They girl told us through an interpreter she had traveled from about 3 hours away with her aunt and uncle and did not think her father would give her permission to return next week.

At 12pm everyone breaks for lunch and all the women patients and hosptial staff eat lunch together. At 12:30 two female interpreters who work on the base came over to do a seminar on malnutrition. They are both Afghan-American and volunteer their time at the hospital. After the seminar (which was in Dhari- I didn't catch a word :-) the interpreters, the director of the Korean Hosptial and I sat down and chatted about ways we might develop a women's program for the hospital. It was one of the most rewarding experiences perhaps almost ever in my life.

After our meeting, I got back to my Bhut around 2pm and managed to catch some sleep until 8pm when I had to get up for my next shift. On the way to the office we took our first "Incoming" of the deployment. I initially crouched behind a T-wall for protection, but when it seemed safe enough I went to the office to meet my co-worker. The base-wide "Incoming" announcments continued for about 30 mins before we got the "All-Clear". At that point we did a team accountability check and then the shift began!