Tuesday, July 05, 2011
Afghanistan: a combat medic's perspective and insights
Good Morning and Happy Birthday to the United States of America. This 4th of July has an extra special meaning as justice was recently served with the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Though his death does not bring back the victims it helps us to close the door on a horrible chapter of our nations history.
My name is Jeff Ballard and I am a combat medic in the Army National Guard. Last year I left my full time job as an RN in the Emergency Department at Wentworth Douglass Hospital to deploy to Afghanistan in hopes of using my medical skills wherever needed.
I would like to thank you all for joining us today. I'd like to thank Mayor T-J Jean, Joel Plante the New Hampshire State Deputy of the Knights of Columbus and all of the groups which comprise the Rochester Veterans Council who are with us today.
As I stand here in front of you this morning, I am deeply aware that I am just one of many in a long line, both men and women, that have been involved in defending our country against our enemies...We have always valued freedom and defended others around the world, as well as our families here at home ...hoping that peace and democracy can be brought to all of the people of the world.
We are Americans and we honor all that have made this country so great.
As we celebrate with our friends and family I ask that you remember those who are still in harms way fighting to ensure that America gets to celebrate another 235 birthdays.
With us today are my wife, Stephanie and son Tyler and I would like to publicly thank them and recognize the sacrifice that they made to keep our family running smoothly while I was away. For Stephanie this included us buying a new house and moving in by herself, her company moving from Wolfeboro to Pembroke which made her commute increase from 20 minutes to an hour and a half and her running my successful campaign for State Representative, though the other guy got more votes, so now we are waiting for 2012.
Let me start of by saying that my statements today are in no way endorsed by the Department of Defense. They are all my own independent thoughts based on my unique personal experiences.
I am happy to say that while in Afghanistan I had more positive experiences than negative ones. My company, Charlie Company 3/172 Infantry brought all of our soldiers home and only had one soldier who needed to be evacuated out of country due to a gun shot wound. Our soldiers did suffer a significant number of head injuries and concussions due to IED and mortar attacks. Many of these soldiers are still dealing with the effects of those injuries today.
Sadly our battalion did lose two soldiers who were killed in combat. Sgt's Tristan Southworth and Steven Deluzio were killed in action on Aug 22, 2010 in the Jaji district of Paktia Province. They will always be remembered and honored.
We served in a mountainous region of Afghanistan called Paktia Province which is 3800 square miles or about a third the size of New Hampshire. The elevation ranged from 7000 to 8500 feet. The climate was very arid with average temperatures being in the 70's during the summer months.
Paktia province has a historical value both in ancient history as well as more recently as it is the area of the country where Osama Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks and later escaped to Pakistan from.
Our journey to Afghanistan started in Oct 2009 with several months of training and supplying with thousands of dollars of new gear and flame resistant uniforms.
When the time came for us to leave the US in the first week of March we flew out of Louisiana in the middle of the night. Our first stop was in Bangor, Maine. We arrived around 6am in the morning and the Freeport Flag Ladies were all ready there to greet us. This is an amazing group of volunteers who partners with our own Pease Greeters to ensure every flight returning or departing is greeted. A lot of people have bumper stickers that say we support our troops, but very few people can say they do like these two groups.
Life in Afghanistan for us was surprisingly comfortable most of the time. We lived in B huts and almost all of us had private rooms which were about 8 by 8 and we were free to customize them however we wanted to based on the materials we could secure. There were some very creative rooms to say the least.
I quickly got to know a lot of the locals who worked on our base. I enjoyed the Afghans and their sense of humor. They joke around much like us and enjoy pulling pranks on one another. They are also the most generous people I have ever met. These people live in severe poverty, but they don't think twice of sharing anything they have, even with us Americans who make more in a day than most of them do in a year. With this years budget in Concord and the hits on the poor and mentally ill I think the legislatures in Concord could learn a lot from the Afghans. Frankly I believe most Afghans would be embarrassed by our budget and our lack of generosity for the less fortunate.
The first half of my tour I spent acting as a medic for a Military Police platoon. With them we worked closely with the Afghan Uniformed Police. We would conduct duel patrols and raids based on intel gathered by the AUP. Most of these raids would end with us finding small weapons caches which were more likely for self defense than attacking us, but it showed our presence and that we knew what was going on in the villages.
My very first mission in country was to conduct a cordon and search of a village suspected of harboring the Taliban. It had the potential of being a very dangerous raid as no Americans had been there for 4 years and the long road there was suspected of being heavily IED'd. Due to the hillside location of the village they would see us coming from miles away and would have time to place ambushes for us.
Luckily our large convoy of 30 or so trucks made it to the village with no IED's going off and once we started searching a few friendly villagers quickly gave up the location of the large caches. We found RPG's, Mortars, AK-47's, Machine Guns as well as hundreds of pounds of IED making materials. By taking these out of the enemies hands we saved countless lives that day without suffering a single injury.
My next major mission was a large combined Air Assault mission which was the largest since Operation Anaconda at the beginning of the war and also took place in some of the same villages. This mission ended up being a bust as the village we searched no longer appeared to be a safe haven for the Taliban as we had feared. None the less it was an exciting experience and one I will always remember.
After I returned from leave I was transferred to Zormat to be with 3rd Platoon Charlie Company 3/172. This was an exciting move for me as the majority of fighting had taken place in Zormat.
My first mission was to move to a village called Raymen Kheyl to help secure it while a new American combat outpost was being built. The Taliban had been launching daily mortar attacks at the new base from the village so we were there to stop them. It was an enjoyable two weeks as our daily routine involved getting to know the local children, sleeping in if you were not on guard duty and enjoying the Afghan summer. Of course we had no running water, no hot food, only had basic shelter which we built ourselves, but we were able to grow beards so we enjoyed it none the less.
It was here that I saw for the first time the effect of children growing up with war in their back yards. About a half a kilometer away a civilian vehicle hit an IED and exploded. The explosion was followed by AK-47 firing from a nearby AUP unit (they often shoot indiscriminately at the sound of any explosion). Despite an explosion close enough to feel the shock wave and automatic rifle fire the children did not miss a beat in the game they were playing. Sadly it has become that much of their everyday life.
Despite what you hear one the news we are doing a great job in Afghanistan and winning the people over. I feel the problem is in our approach. We are trying to do a top down recovery, trickle down, if you will. The people at the top are hoarding the money and moving off to places like Dubai while the work that is being down is shoddy at best since the money intended for the projects is not being spent on them. If we started a bottom up approach where Company Commanders went to the villagers and asked them what they needed and then provided it to them it would give them a reason to stop fighting us.
A lot of Taliban fighters have nothing against America, they just have no other way to provide for their families. While it would do little to stop the hard core fighters, providing real jobs would take away the fighters who fight because they have no other way to feed their families.
I enjoyed teaching the Afghan medics what I could. Their basic diet consists of almost everything being cooked in animal fat so indigestion is a common problem. Once they discovered Zantac I quickly became a hero as I always carried a bottle with 1000 pills so I could dispense a week or two's worth to every Afghan. I would always try to supply the medics with an extra supply of Zantac too.
Sadly we got to treat many children with injuries. Burns are very common since their food is boiled in animal fat over an open fire. It was rewarding to ease their pain and provide proper care to them to prevent infection and minimize scarring.
I had negative experiences too. I saw things done to a human body that no one should have to see. I had one Afghan Soldier so severely injured there was no way I thought he could be alive. He was literally a ball of flesh, yet somehow he managed to live for nearly an hour. We did what we could to keep him comfortable and to provide him dignity.
I'll end with sharing my personal story. When I arrived home I was not able to get the psychological help I needed right away due to some physical injuries that took precedent. It became much too easy to resort to alcohol instead. If you are a veteran suffering from PTSD I urge you to go to the Vet Center or any other resource to help you. In just a few visits I was able to identify my problems, and I was given coping mechanisms so now I can have a drink when I want one, but I never NEED one.
Thank you for giving me the chance to share my story today, as many of the vets here know there can be healing in opening up and sharing your experiences. I would encourage you to also share your story when you are ready and begin your own healing processes if you haven't already.