HERAT PROVINCE, Afghanistan – Eight airmen making up a special operations medical team are currently deployed to Afghanistan from the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron at Hurlburt Field, Fla.
The core mission of this team is to give the special operations community a surgical capability on outside the wire missions.
The team has two sections. The first is the special operations surgical team which has a general surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, anesthesia doctor, operating room technician and an emergency room doctor. The other is the special operations critical care evacuation team which has a critical care nurse, a respiratory technician and a critical care doctor. They are able to operate in austere environments and intended to reach an injured service member quickly, stabilize and treat them while in transit to a larger medical center. Their goal is to extend what they call the “golden hour.”
“The first hour or ‘golden hour’ after an injury is the most critical hour,” said Maj. Jason Webb, SOST general surgeon. “Treatment or stabilization of a patient in that hour improves mortality significantly. Our design is to be far enough forward so we can get to the casualty within that hour, get them stabilized and sent to a larger hospital where more definitive surgery can be performed.”
Tactically Sound, Medically Brilliant
To be able to handle the high ops tempo it’s expected to sustain while deployed, the team undergoes extensive training so the team members are able to keep up with the special operations units they support. Their mantra is “tactically sound and medically brilliant,” and they’re constantly pushing themselves to live up to that.
“We train year round to get accustomed to the operational side of the Air Force,” said Master Sgt. Oladayo Oladokun, SOCCET respiratory therapist. “We support high speed missions therefore our training is geared toward not making us a liability so we can fit in with the unit.”
That preparation involves advanced weapons training and survival evasion resistance escape courses to ensure they’re highly mobile while leaving a small footprint. Additionally, the SOCT/SOCCET airmen take part in medical exercises in harsh conditions that test their capabilities and ability to perform the mission under stress and under fire.
“We train so hard because our skills are tested constantly on trauma as well as critical care,” said Maj. Marion Foreman, SOCCET team lead and critical care nurse. “Every injury is new. Everything we do in the medical profession brings new challenges and through those you become a better medical provider.”
The training coupled with being stationed together at Hurlburt Field is extremely beneficial in terms of increasing communication among the team members as well as trust in each other’s capabilities.
“All the time we spend together back at home station and in training helps us get to know each other’s personalities, leadership styles and quirks,” said Lt. Col. Jade Barrow, SOST team lead, as well as the team’s certified registered nurse anesthetist. “Being only an eight-man team, it helps knowing the other person’s personality and definitely helps with day-to-day communication.”
Collaborating with Afghans
In addition to caring for wounded coalition service members outside the wire, the SOST/SOCCET team members are tasked with another mission this deployment they feel a great deal of pride in. They’re traveling throughout Afghanistan to team up with Afghan medical professionals to exchange ideas and prepare the Afghans to handle the medical mission on their own in the future.
“We’ve seen a wide variety of patients as we interface with local hospitals,” said Foreman. “These hospitals see everything from multitraumas, burns, gunshot wounds and roadside bomb injuries. Each stop has different capabilities so we tailor the mentoring to the needs of the facility we’re visiting.”
The SOST/SOCCET team emphasized the Afghan medical professionals they work with are already doing great work and their visits have been more of a mutual collaboration as opposed to one sided instruction.
“Our Afghan counterparts have been extremely receptive and intelligent,” said Barrow. “What we do is show them a different way of doing things. It’s been nice working in their operating theatres and learning their techniques in addition to teaching them ours. Sometimes you learn just as much from them as they do from you.”
The Afghan doctors at the Afghan National Army Hospital in Herat have worked closely with their American counterparts during their recent visit and expressed excitement over what they’re working on and learning.
“We’re thankful to have this team working in our surgical and intensive care sections,” said General Azim Husieni, Herat’s ANA hospital commander. “We’re learning from their experiences and working as a team to exchange ideas. Our main goal is to serve and help the Afghan people, so this is important because it helps us take care of our patients and improve our hospital.”
In the hospital’s hallways are always family members of wounded ANA soldiers and civilians the hospital is treating. They watch as the SOST/SOCCET team works hand in hand with the Afghan doctors to treat their loved ones. The impact that potentially has is not lost on the airmen of the SOST/SOCCET team.
“Showing those family members and the rest of the hospital staff that their doctors are equivalent to American doctors gives them confidence they’ll be in good hands once we leave,” Webb said. “It also raises the doctor’s level of confidence in treating patients and helps move to the point where they can take over with very little input from us. They’re ready to run the hospital without anyone looking over their shoulder.”
The team sees progress every day they spend in local Afghan hospitals, but one event sticks out in all of their minds as a high point from this deployment so far. They took part in a milestone medical evacuation that to them signals just how far Afghan medical capabilities have come.
“The medevac mission was for an Afghan critical care burn victim. What made it unique was it was the first ever critical care transport on an Afghan fixed wing aircraft. We felt great taking part in that event. It was a great and historic accomplishment for the Afghan professionals we worked with.”
Pride in Mission, Each Other
This is the team’s second deployment to Afghanistan in two years. They spend weeks and months at a time away from their loved ones back home. They all agree that despite how much they miss their families, they know what they’re doing here is worth it and wouldn’t be possible without leaning on each other.
“Our job is to make sure the people of this country are well cared for both while we’re here and in the future,” Foreman said. “We all understand the importance of the missions we are tasked with. This mission is only successful because on this team you can count on the person next to you. I think we’re more of a family than a team.”