Program has sick, wounded servicemembers back on duty in Afghanistan in 30 days
A sharp burst of stomach pain during a routine patrol near Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, was the first sign that something was wrong with Airman 1st Class Bernabe Tucker.
The 25-year-old member of a 755th Expeditionary Security Forces Squadron “reaper team” was starting his first combat deployment in late June — lugging a bag of gear across a ravine — when the injury occurred. At first, he tried to shrug it off, but, as the pain worsened, it became clear that it was something serious.
“I noticed that my intestines were outside and not where they were supposed to be,” said the Lexington, Tenn., native, who continued to patrol despite the discomfort. “It was getting to the point where just standing up with gear on was excruciating.”
Five days after the pain started, Tucker told his patrol leader he needed to see the medic, whose reaction, when he felt the bulging intestines, was: “Wow,” he said.
Surgeons at Bagram advised that the young airman wouldn’t be able to continue his mission without an operation to repair the hernia.
That might have involved going back to the U.S. and a likely end to Tucker’s deployment were it not for a program designed to return personnel with moderate injuries back to duty in Afghanistan without sending them home.
The Intra-Theater Care Program, which the Air Force has operated at an undisclosed location in South West Asia since 2008, is designed to return personnel who have been wounded or injured in Afghanistan to duty there within 30 days.
Staff Sgt. Shannon Maynard, 25, of Coolville, Ohio, an Air Force medic, said she works with about 15 patients participating in the program each month.
Ninety-five percent of them recover quickly and return to their units in Afghanistan to finish their missions, although a few suffer complications and have to be sent elsewhere for more advanced treatment, she said.
Many have hernias or broken bones or need appendectomies. Most of their injuries are not combat-related, but some have moderate combat wounds, she said.
During patients’ recuperation, Maynard helps get them to and from medical appointments, changes dressings, liaises with their units and arranges transport back to their duty stations once they are fit enough.
“We are a force multiplier because otherwise they would be going back Stateside,” she said. The cost and logistical challenges of moving personnel in and out of theater means most who return home don’t come back to finish their deployments, she said.
Some of the recovery stories are inspiring.
Maynard recalled a patient who suffered a severe infection after striking his foot with a sledgehammer.
“They thought the infection had gotten to the bone,” she said. “We had to… remove dead and infected skin from his foot twice-a-day, but, by the end of it, he was running and returned to duty.”
The facilities that the program provides for patients are conducive to recovery and include donated care packages and a direct line to surgeons, Maynard said.
That’s important since the personnel are recovering away from their families and their units, which can be akin to families, according to 379th Expeditionary Medical Group Commander, Col. Greg DeWolf.
On Aug. 8, surgeons reinforced Tucker’s stomach through a 2½-inch incision to repair his hernia. Two weeks later, he began moderate exercise and, by Sept. 16, he expects to be cleared to return to duty with his unit.
“I’m thankful because this has saved my first deployment,” he said. “In the security forces world, deployments are an unofficial right of passage.”