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Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, left, briefs Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020. In the center is Capt. Katie Coble. Hockenbarger, Coble and Capt. Kathleen Schurr were all awarded the Bronze Star for helping stem a coronavirus outbreak at the base.
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, left, briefs Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020. In the center is Capt. Katie Coble. Hockenbarger, Coble and Capt. Kathleen Schurr were all awarded the Bronze Star for helping stem a coronavirus outbreak at the base. (DANA CLARKE/U.S. ARMY)
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, left, briefs Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020. In the center is Capt. Katie Coble. Hockenbarger, Coble and Capt. Kathleen Schurr were all awarded the Bronze Star for helping stem a coronavirus outbreak at the base.
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, left, briefs Gen. Scott Miller, commanding general of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, on efforts to combat a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020. In the center is Capt. Katie Coble. Hockenbarger, Coble and Capt. Kathleen Schurr were all awarded the Bronze Star for helping stem a coronavirus outbreak at the base. (DANA CLARKE/U.S. ARMY)
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger trains to perform a COVID-19 lab test at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan sometime in 2020.
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger trains to perform a COVID-19 lab test at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan sometime in 2020. (Brandon Hockenbarger)
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.
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 )
Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, 959th Medical Operations Squadron internal medicine flight chief, poses with his Gold Star survivor pin, remembrance bracelet, Bronze Star medal, and wedding ring Jan. 25, 2021, at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Hockenbarger said he serves to make his wife and kids proud, as well as honor his brother’s memory.
Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, 959th Medical Operations Squadron internal medicine flight chief, poses with his Gold Star survivor pin, remembrance bracelet, Bronze Star medal, and wedding ring Jan. 25, 2021, at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Hockenbarger said he serves to make his wife and kids proud, as well as honor his brother’s memory. (Amanda Stanford/U.S. Air Force)
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger reunites with his wife and three children on Nov. 5, 2020, after a deployment fighting a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger reunites with his wife and three children on Nov. 5, 2020, after a deployment fighting a coronavirus outbreak at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Brandon Hockenbarger )
Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, 959th Medical Operations Squadron internal medicine flight chief, holds his Bronze Star medal, citation, and his Gold Star survivor pin Jan. 25, 2021, at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Bronze Star medal is the fourth-highest ranking decoration a service member can receive for meritorious service in an armed conflict.
Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger, 959th Medical Operations Squadron internal medicine flight chief, holds his Bronze Star medal, citation, and his Gold Star survivor pin Jan. 25, 2021, at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. The Bronze Star medal is the fourth-highest ranking decoration a service member can receive for meritorious service in an armed conflict. (Amanda Stanford/U.S. Air Force)
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.
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)
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger conducts door-to-door coronavirus testing for those in isolation at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020.
Air Force Master Sgt. Brandon Hockenbarger conducts door-to-door coronavirus testing for those in isolation at NATO Resolute Support Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, sometime in 2020. (Brandon Hockenbarger)

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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

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