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Airmen receive Bronze Stars for stemming COVID-19 outbreak at Afghanistan base

Troops at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, assist a patient during an aeromedical evacuation due to COVID-19, in a photo taken in 2020.

DANA CLARKE

By J.P. LAWRENCE | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 2, 2021

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Two Air Force doctors and a medic have been awarded Bronze Stars for their efforts to stem a coronavirus outbreak at NATO headquarters in Kabul, where infection rates reached 30% last summer.

Capt. Kathleen Schurr and Capt. Katie Coble received their medals in October, and Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger received his in January.

The camp already had 30 to 40 cases when Hockenbarger arrived at the NATO base in Kabul’s Green Zone in June, he said in a phone interview.

By mid-July, there were about 160 to 200 people infected, Hockenbarger and Schurr said.

Some 25 severely ill patients required evacuations to U.S. hospitals in Germany, while another 150 patients in stable condition also were evacuated out of the country.

U.S. officials have repeatedly declined to discuss the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on troops in Afghanistan, citing a Pentagon directive. But a recent Air Force press release shed some light on the extent of the COVID-19 outbreak last summer.

The disease spread quickly due to the base’s small size, Schurr said in a phone interview Monday.

“Everyone (on the base) was pretty close, individuals are going to see each other,” Schurr said. “The hardest part was figuring out a good plan of attack to keep those who were exposed from exposing other people.”

Hockenbarger, Schurr and Coble worked alongside two nurses from Estonia and Slovakia, a British medic, and soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division.

Over several months, their schedules began early in the morning and lasted long into the night. Each day included hours of testing, cleaning and sanitizing to avoid getting the disease themselves.

“We knew if we went down, the whole camp went down,” Hockenbarger said.

One of the biggest changes came when Hockenbarger realized that troops waiting for a coronavirus test were putting themselves in danger of infection. He said he worked with military civil engineers to convert an empty parking lot into a testing site with enough room for social distancing.

After months of effort, infection rates dropped to almost zero, said Schurr, who now continues to battle the pandemic as a doctor at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas.

Hockenbarger said he serves to make his family proud and to honor the memory of his older brother, Air Force Staff Sgt. Neil Christopher Hockenbarger, who died in a car accident more than a decade ago.

Hockenbarger left Afghanistan on Nov. 3 and reunited two days later with his wife and three children in San Antonio. His deployment to a war zone during the pandemic and a troop drawdown was unusual, but he said he felt proud to be part of an important time in history.

“To be a medic, caring for COVID patients as well as the constant threat and possibility of trauma patients, is everything a medic trains for,” he said.

lawrence.jp@stripes.com
Twitter: @jplawrence3

 

Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger helped stem a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters with a small team that included two U.S Air Force doctors, two nurses from Estonia and Slovakia, and a British medic. From left to right, Capt. Kathleen Schurr, Hockenbarger, Staff Sgt. Ivana Krivosova, Cpl. Lean Hawxwell, Senior Airman Devin Figures, Staff Sgt. Johan Koort, Capt. Katie Coble. Hockenbarger, Coble and Schurr were all awarded the Bronze Star for their work.
BRANDON HOCKENBARGER