Afghanistan. My soldier "The Hubs" is still there, part of a medical team that provides trauma care for the soldiers and locals. These Forward Surgical Teams work day and night under conditions that are hard for most to comprehend. Yet, the Internet has done much to provide a glimpse. In addition to email and the occasional chance to Skype, we have photos to drive their stories home in ways that mere words cannot.
Winter has hit in the Hindu Kush. It's getting dark, wet, and cold. The region described in the classic travel book A Short Walk In The Hindu Kush by Eric Newby has been marked by wars, but this much is probably the same.
"…where the mountains seemed like the bones of the world breaking through, I had the sensation of emerging from a country that would continue to exist more or less unchanged whatever disasters overtook the rest of mankind."
Though the days are short, work is always at hand.
Children make up a large number of the patients who are seen in their clinic (held daily) for locals. Eighty percent are under the age of twelve. The children come in sick or wounded. They are war's smallest victims, getting sick from the elements or malnutrition, suffering from severe burns caused by cooking accidents, or needing trauma care for injuries caused by IEDs.
Here, a young boy is rushed into the FST accompanied by a medical team and his father. The boy has suffered serious burns and will be initially treated here, then flown to a bigger air base with a hospital with more facilities. The father will stay with him throughout – in this case probably all winter and into the spring. The little boy and his father will not be sent home until the boy is ready.
God willing, he makes it. He will be like one of the children described in Chris Coppola's book, A Pediatric Surgeon In Iraq. Like Dr. Coppola, the team has fallen in love with several of their pediatric patients. Sure, it crosses all sorts of professional lines, but this is war. War crosses all sorts of lines as well. And medical teams are only human. No doubt, the medical teams will fall in love with this young burn patient, too. The boy, now stabilized, takes off with his father. God speed.
The children high in the Hindu Kush live very different lives from the cushioned ones western kids enjoy. They herd goats from the age of four, and most never go to school. They have very little. They often have no shoes. One thing that happens time and again: care packages arrive from all over the world, packed by total strangers (mainly bloggers) and family members. To wit: The Hubs and the 759th Forward Surgical Team were adopted by his 86-year-old Aunt Barbara and her friends from a small town in Charlevoix, Michigan. Over the course of a month, the friends cleaned out entire shelves of thrift shops and stores. His aunt and her friends made sure that shoes were sent with socks, pants or skirts sent with underwear. These amazing women sent 25 boxes filled with shoes, socks, underwear, clothes, and good, heavy jackets. Finally, after running out of storage space and having to sleep amid boxes in his small room, The Hubs issued a plea: "We have enough!" All of the articles of clothing were carefully cataloged, then given out by the chaplain and other team members directly to families in need. Many times, the children were patients in the pediatric burn unit or at the clinic.
Oftentimes, the first contact a young child has is from the caring hands of a health care professional from the West. Here's one little girl whom the team has taken care of since July. They've built a relationship with her.
"These tough little boys and girls suffer overwhelming physical hardships without a thought of pity or complaint. Even a small gift such as crayons and paper or a piece of candy brings a big smile of joyful surprise. They are attentive, intelligent, and polite. And sometimes very cute." — The Hubs, a surgeon in Afghanistan
That a little girl could be happy with new shoes, a bunch of plastic beads, crayons, and a coloring books makes one shudder when thinking about the excess of Black Friday. It's unfortunate that war's heaviest toll is on children. But the medical teams do their best to show them that the hands of a westerner can be both gentle and healing. One can only hope that these experiences stay with the kids as they grow older and begin the fragile process of building a new world. And one can only hope that we learn lessons from them, to take with us as we continue with this unfortunate circumstance called war.