Afghan hazards include malaria as well as bombs
Mideast edition, Saturday, September 1, 2007
FOB SALERNO, Afghanistan — Dangerously high fever set against the chills, severe aches and pains, and diarrhea. If you’re downrange and have these symptoms, heed the warning signs, because malaria is not just the predeployment boogie man many troops think. And the obligatory regimen of doxycycline might not suffice to ward off the deadly disease as virulent strands can circumvent the antibiotic prevention.
“I don’t think they take it seriously enough,” said combat medic Staff Sgt. William Mudd. “First thing everyone wants to do is stop taking their medicine, because it’s a hassle or it makes them sick, but you just can’t do that down here.”
Contracted through the bite of a mosquito, the disease attacks red blood cells and eventually internal organs, causing severe discomfort in the abdomen before spreading throughout the body.
The medevac soldiers of Company C, 3rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade have made about a half-dozen emergency runs in the past several months to retrieve troops afflicted with the virus.
Earlier this week, four Fort Bragg, N.C.-based soldiers were tasked with a 25-minute run in their Black Hawk helicopter over 10,000-foot mountains to forward operating base Orgun-E to ferry a malaria-infected soldier to a separate forward operating base for advanced treatment.
Word around base is that malaria has killed two, but Mudd is circumspect. “I label all that as hearsay until I know for sure,” said the 38-year-old.
But Mudd is certain about the surge in roadside bombs over the course of this summer. Blast injuries have surpassed gunshot wounds as the in-air treatment du jour.
Medevac pilot Chief Warrant 2 Tyrone Actkinson, 30, of Jacksonville, Fla., has kept a personal log of his trauma flights since arriving in Khost province in mid-January. Winter and spring were relatively slow with about a flight a week, but the summer has turned hectic with daily runs to retrieve troops struck by the militants’ new weapon of choice across Afghanistan.
“I flew 150 hours in June, and it hasn’t slowed down since,” Actkinson said. “Unfortunately they’re getting better and better at using those IEDs.”
This year might come to be viewed as the era in which Iraqi-style insurgent tactics migrated to Afghanistan, but Actkinson said Forward Operating Base Salerno is relaxed compared to his yearlong tour of Iraq. “This place is calm, it’s a mellow, mellow place,” he said. In Afghanistan, he can count the number of rocket-propelled grenade attacks on his medevac chopper with his two hands. In Iraq, it would take the fingers and toes of a nearly a half-dozen Company C soldiers to track the attacks.
“It’s humbling compared to Iraq, and not just the battle space, but the weather and the heat. It’s demands on you and your crew,” he said.
Fellow medevac pilot Chief Warrant 2 Jason Hewett, 30, of Hope Mills, N.C., said the summer boost in militant attacks has tested his skills as a pilot. “Seeing guys coming up into the aircraft in pieces and covered in blood, it’s intense,” he said. “And then we push the aircraft as hard as we can to get the patient back as quick as we can. It seems we get a mission every day, and you just don’t know what to expect.”
And when they aren’t hustling injured coalition troops, the medevac troops are occupied with Afghan injuries.
“I’ve seen it all,” Mudd said. “Local-on-local stabbings, one guy shoots his brother over a camel, suicide attempts, just everything.”
For now, the Company C soldiers are pleased they are helping to save lives, but anticipate the day when all they do is wait. “No business is good business,” Mudd said. “If we’re not flying, that’s a good thing.”