Our Afghan M*A*S*H unit

In Kandahar, our docs are saving lives and making friends

Our afghan M*A*S*H unit

U.S. and Canadian military helicopters sound in the distance at the Role 3 Multinational Hospital on the Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. The dusty, sandy lobby is full of young multinational soldiers wanting to see the social workers, while others wait to get their prescriptions filled at the pharmacy. I am stunned to find that the facility is made out of freight containers, plywood, duct tape and wires. It is September 2009, and I have just arrived to spend three weeks doing research for a TV drama series, as the guest of the Canadian Forces.

As the sound of the choppers gets louder, Col. Danielle Savard, the hospital’s commanding officer, announces that multiple casualties are arriving. The international team of doctors, nurses, anaesthesiologists, lab techs, radiologists and specialists, along with Afghan interpreters, abandon what they are doing and get ready as Maj. Marc Dauphin, in operational charge of the hospital, starts assigning medical teams to the trauma bays (both Savard and Dauphin have since left Afghanistan, and administration of the hospital has been taken over by U.S. forces). “You are about to see something you will never see in any major trauma hospital in any city in North America,” Dauphin warns me. “These aren’t motor vehicle casualties, these are war injuries.”

And from a variety of sources: improvised explosive devices, suicide bombings, gunfire. Dauphin says that the hospital treats not just soldiers, but also local Afghan children and adults who arrive with blunt and penetrable head injuries, limbs blown off, burns, chest wounds and other horrific injuries. I remind him that I am not a medical student but a civilian planning to write a television series based on the Role 3 hospital. Standing in the blistering heat, with ambulances and stretchers ready, he assures me: “You’ll get used to it.”

As the officers look over the incoming wounded on the stretchers, the screams from the hurt soldiers are unbearable. But, Dauphin says, “If they are screaming in agony, that is a good sign that their airways have not been compromised and they’re breathing on their own.” In the operating area, the trauma bay teams quickly assess the wounded; within 11 minutes, three of the casualties are on IV and prepared for CT scans and ultrasounds. Within 20 minutes they are in surgery.

By day’s end, these physicians, nurses and other medical staff have received every kind of casualty imaginable, operating to stop hemorrhaging, amputating legs and arms, fixing broken bones, performing heart surgery, carrying out facial reconstructions. The doctors try to let the injured military personnel recuperate for no more than a day before they are transferred—most of the Canadian and American troops are flown to the U.S. Army’s Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany before heading home. This is the usual daily fare here, with the medical staff on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until the end of their seemingly unrelenting tour of duty that, for most Canadian military medical staff, lasts six months.

W ithin 24 hours of my arrival, I am at the airfield for a ramp ceremony, the first of three I attended during my stay, watching as the casket of a Canadian soldier is carried past. When something like this is broadcast at home, many Canadians must think, “Another fallen soldier—what are we doing there? We should pull out!” But on the tarmac all I can think is what an incredible person this brave young man must have been, giving his life to help others less fortunate in a foreign country. In that same fleeting moment, I feel proud to be Canadian. Then sadness, and fear—could I become a casualty? The Taliban are ruthless, placing bombs in locations that would result in the maximum carnage, regardless of innocent Afghan men, women and children. That is something that is not lost on the base commanders.

“No matter who enters this facility,” Dauphin tells me, “be it our own coalition forces or local nationals, everyone is searched for explosives.”

Canada has been in Afghanistan since 2002. Today, the nation is one of 45 countries in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, working alongside troops from places such as Australia, Sweden, Austria and Jordan. Many Canadians oppose the war—a December poll by Angus Reid had 53 per cent of the country saying they were against the military mission—but to be in the midst of coalition personnel as they carry out their daily duties is an eye-opener. Our military and civilian medical personnel are here, of course, to tend to Canadian and coalition troops. But these professionals also display great compassion toward Afghans who are also the casualties of this bitter conflict—even the enemy.

One afternoon, making the rounds with Maj. Dauphin, we enter the ICU. Lying in one of the beds is a severely wounded member of the Taliban. He has lost his right leg, and has suffered considerable head trauma. A Canadian nurse tends to his horrific injuries, despite knowing that he has no doubt inflicted death on coalition forces. In the bed next to his is a British soldier who has undergone a triple amputation; beside him lies an 18-month-old Afghan girl, clinging to life because of injuries suffered in a suicide bombing in her village.

I tell Dauphin that, viscerally, I would like to pull the plug on the machines keeping the Taliban fighter alive. And, indeed, talking to other members of the medical staff about providing care to the enemy, all say they suffer emotional turmoil when tending to Taliban members, but know they have to show mercy—even to someone who would not hesitate to kill them.

Such humanity helps change my perception of our mission in Afghanistan. I was previously opposed to Canada’s involvement; now, watching the interaction of our personnel with the local Afghan population, I am struck by their dedication and commitment, evident even in small gestures such as handing out small gifts to locals during the festival of Id al-Fitr, which marks the end of the fasting period of Ramadan.

D uring my stay on the base in Kandahar, I spend time with the Afghan cultural adviser for our troops, an Afghan-born intellectual whom I shall call Hamid for the sake of his security. He says there is a misconception in the West that all the suicide bombers and Taliban members are Afghans. But, he explains, “two years ago, the Pashtuns didn’t even have a word in their vocabulary for suicide bombers. The bad guys are from everywhere, from Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Pakistan and other Arab countries. The Taliban recruit not just Afghans, but young boys and men who have no education and no hope for a future.”

The following week, Hamid introduces me to local women. They express admiration and respect for our military personnel. Among them is Saghna, a slim, brave girl who just turned 20. She had been running an underground radio station in Kandahar city for two years in the hopes of educating Afghan women on basic health issues. As a result, she has been shot twice, and abducted. She quietly tells me about the day not that long ago when her neighbour turned her in to local Taliban insurgents, who threatened to kill her for her efforts to educate other women. Miraculously, she escaped.

Saghna is the breadwinner of her family. She knows little English and never had the opportunity to go to college or high school. She and her family are under the protection of our armed forces in Kandahar, after having to flee their homes five times. “The happiest day of my life was when the Canadian Forces stepped in last year and offered me and my family protection,” Saghna says, smiling. “They helped by moving us closer to the base so that my brothers and sisters could go to school safely.”

Before I leave Saghna, she says, “If the coalition forces leave our country, my people would have no hope.” She hugs me and offers me the gift of a shawl. I try to pay for our interview so that she could feed her family, but she refuses to accept the money. Instead, she says, “Just by talking to me you have done more than enough.”

When you consider all the nationalities taking part in the Afghan mission, it speaks volumes that Canadian Forces personnel and civilians are, to my mind, the most liked by the locals. But helping our troops comes at a price.

I spend a great deal of time with the Afghan interpreters who work at the hospital. They are initially surprised to see a brown-skinned, Indo-Canadian woman in their presence, and stare at me, unsure of my place there. When I smile at them, the three young men blush and turn their heads away. Then one of them looks back at me and smiles as well.

After they lose their inhibition they talk to me. They say they face extraordinary personal risks in supporting our troops and aid workers. They also say they feel betrayed by the Canadian government, which promised that they would be allowed to immigrate to Canada and is now reneging. (As of early December, none of the interpreters had been allowed into Canada, eight months after Immigration Minister Jason Kenney announced the policy.) They feel that somehow because I am “brown” I can help them, and insist that I personally speak to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and tell him how their families’ lives are threatened daily by the insurgents because they work at the hospital.

In spite of such complaints, during the course of my stay I become converted from someone opposed to the Afghan war to one who supports our troops being there. But our federal government has reiterated its position that Canadian Forces, who have assumed even more dangerous duties in the vital district of Arghandab, north of Kandahar city, will end the combat mission by 2011. I believe we should stay longer. While Afghanistan remains a country beset by bloodshed and corruption, after three decades of chaos the Afghan people deserve to have peace, the basic human rights that we take for granted in the West, and a functioning, honest government. As the furor over fraud during the August presidential election has shown, achieving those aims will be a tough battle, but one that must be fought. It is nowhere near time for Canada to abandon Afghanistan.

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