25 November 2007

The Soldiers of Aid Station Orgun-E in Afghanistan

Aid-station Soldiers run with a patient suffering from a gunshot wound to the leg. The aid-station staff is made up of two units: 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) from Vicenza, Italy, and the 541st Forward Surgical Team from Fort Bragg, N.C. They function as one. The only thing separating them is the patches on their shoulders, said one medic. Photo and story: Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Bellis.

ORGUN-E, Afghanistan -- A Blackhawk helicopter screams down to the airfield blasting waves of dust, dirt and pebbles. The medics turn their backs to shield their faces from flying debris. Seconds later, they sprint to the helicopter door where a Soldier in a flight suit and helmet pounds chest compressions on a patient hidden from view. They grab the litter and sprint for the hospital doors. Life depends on their speed.

Inside, it’s a frenzy. Chest compressions continue. Voices are loud and commanding, but no one is yelling. Medics dart around the room grabbing supplies and equipment: needles, machines, tubes. Doctors sweat and furrow their brows as they work to stabilize the patient. A nurse stands to the side mentally sifting the tumult, documenting the essentials. The scene appears wild and random, but it isn’t.

The team is focused; every move is deliberate.

The forward surgical team and 1-503rd medics work to stabilize a critically wounded Soldier. The aid station is often the first stop for injured Coalition Soldiers evacuated from combat. The team’s job is to perform surgery if necessary, stabilize the patient for transport and prepare them for higher echelons of care at Bagram Airfield or Forward Operating Base Salerno, Afghanistan. Photo and story: Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Bellis.

“The best way to describe it is controlled chaos,” said Army Capt. Brian Shultz, of the 541st Forward Surgical Team from Fort Bragg, N.C., and one of two general surgeons here.

“You try to remain detached, do your job effectively and to the best of your ability and maintain the efficiency of the team. Afterward, if we do lose people, we sit down and talk about it — if there are things we could’ve done better.”

Despite the team’s best efforts, the patient has passed away.

Some of the medics sit motionless around a table on the aid station’s porch staring at the plywood floor. They only move to bring cigarettes to their lips. No one is ready to talk. One stands in the gravel and pours hydrogen peroxide on his boot. This helps get the blood stains out.

“Everybody deals with it a little differently,” said Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Junod, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 503rd Infantry (Airborne) medical platoon sergeant. “Sometimes, I think just being together is the part that helps the most. ...

“It does take an emotional toll,” said Shultz. “Everyone has their own way of dealing with the shock of losing someone and realizing the finality of it that they’re not coming back. Some guys go to the gym, some guys run, some guys read.”

This team has done plenty. Some have been tasked with a nearly impossible chore: growing up facing loss, tough calls and suffering. Army Pfc. Joshua Ashford, of HHC 1-503rd and just 20 years old, is the youngest on staff. By American standards, he isn’t old enough to drink a beer, but he’s old enough to have someone’s life in his hands.

“When they come in, I kind of just ‘blank’ and I just work. You just do it,” said Ashford. “All your training comes back; you know what has to get done. You don’t really think about it. Once you’re all done and they leave, you kind of sit out back and think about what you went through.”

A member of the forward surgical team displays various items removed from patients during surgery at the aid station. Among them: shrapnel, a bullet and a rock. The large item in the center is a component of a rocket propelled grenade. The team called explosive ordnance disposal in to determine whether or not it posed a threat. Photo and story: Air Force Staff Sgt. Daniel Bellis.

Medical care here runs the gamut from IED blasts to gunshot wounds, shrapnel, burns and broken bones; intravenous lines, X-rays, splints, atropine and morphine.

“I think we do good things,” said Shultz. “I think we’ve made an impact on the field medical care available, especially in the forward emergency resuscitative realm. All in all, everyone likes what they’re doing here. This is what we’ve been trained to do, so everyone here is happy taking care of injured patients.”

“I sleep so well at night,” said Junod. “I like knowing that what I do counts for something.”

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