Special Forces Medic Reaches Out to Afghan People
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 22, 2002 Sgt. 1st Class Victor Andersen had never seen a donkey bite before. That's why he couldn't identify the large crescent-shaped wound on a young boy in Afghanistan. In fact, the Special Forces medical sergeant saw a lot of things in Afghanistan that he never expected to see.
Andersen, a member of the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion from Fort Bragg, N.C., recently returned from a seven-month stint in Afghanistan. He shared some of his experiences in an interview during a Pentagon visit in October.
He came across the injured boy, believed to be around 9 or 10 years old, on a routine trip in the Orgun Valley region. "He had the strangest laceration, a perfect horseshoe shape," Andersen said.
He said it resembled a bite, "but it was way too big to be from somebody's mouth." The wound was clear through the boy's hand to the bone.
The wound was several hours old and had to be scraped out and disinfected. Andersen wasn't carrying anesthetics, but the boy didn't need any. "These kids are tough as nails," he said. "He just stood there as stoic as could be and just appreciating the attention."
Only after someone arrived who could talk to the boy did Andersen learn about the boy, his donkey and the wound. "Then he rode off on the same donkey," he said.
Civil affairs teams work with local governments and civilian aid organizations to rebuild infrastructure and build stability in an area. As a Special Forces medic on a civil affairs team, Andersen has been trained in all aspects of health care, including general surgery, dentistry, obstetrics, and even veterinary practices.
While he was able to help the boy with the donkey bite, the career soldier said he saw many things in Afghanistan that were beyond his abilities. He worked closely with soldiers from the 947th Forward Surgical Team, an Army Reserve medical unit from Connecticut.
Together, the civil affairs team and Reserve unit built a hospital for the Orgun Valley, provided routine care to civilians in the region, responded to emergencies and trained local care providers in modern standards.
Most local doctors had been trained in Pakistan decades before and had received no updated training since. Andersen said the most common medical treatment before the Americans' arrival was egg yolk and tobacco spit.
"They would rub this into any wound," he said. He spoke of a man the team saw who had a dislocated wrist. Here's how local hospital's doctors treated him: "Egg yolk and tobacco spit," Andersen said. "This was their cure for everything."
Andersen said he saw "a hundred years' worth of change" during his stay in terms of medical care available to the local civilian population.
"They're so accustomed to no help being available that when someone reaches a condition (of a certain level of seriousness), they expect the person to die," he said. The sergeant noted the Afghans' average life span is 44, "and most don't make it that far."
Andersen said most Afghans seem fairly healthy, but added with some bitterness that's because the ones who aren't healthy die. He said he believes the American soldiers' caring for the people and improving the skills of local care providers have begun to change the sense of fatalism held by most Afghan civilians he came to know.
The Afghans saw what the Americans were willing to do to help -- the care, the importance placed on timely treatment, and the fact the Americans would send helicopters to medevac their injured and sick children and anyone else who was sick. "The value we put on human life was just amazing to them," Andersen said.
One area he said he didn't see much progress in was medical care for women. He never delivered a baby in Afghanistan and only once saw women as patients, during a medical capabilities exercise in a local village. And even then, he didn't really "see" them.
"They would cover up one eye, and I could check that eye. Then they'd cover up that eye, and I could check the other. Then they'd cover their eyes, and I could look in their mouths," Andersen said in describing his frustration in dealing with local cultural taboos. "They thought they were cooperating, but they're just not ready for an actual exam."
Andersen and the other medical workers carried "well- stocked" aid bags wherever they went. People would often approach team members to seek treatment for minor injuries and illnesses.
"The people would know that we had the capability for medical care, so they would come up to us and show us every cut, scrape, rash, and old gunshot wound," Andersen said. "They thought we could fix about everything."
The team members also made house calls. "We would have people bring us notes. Some were translated into English, some weren't. Others would bring us information on families who needed help," Andersen said, noting the soldiers never refused anyone care.
Some cases were more harrowing than others. He recalled the time three young brothers, ages 4, 7 and 9, were playing with machine-gun ammunition that exploded and critically injured all three.
"They were covered in blood," he said. "Two of them we weren't sure if we were going to be able to save or not."
One child ended up with his spleen removed, another had a hand amputated, and the third had a punctured lung. Members of the 947th operated on -- and saved -- all three.
"We were able to return them home alive," Andersen said, with a noticeable sense of satisfaction. "The people who brought them didn't think that was possible."
That story ended happily, but not all of his do. Andersen recalled another boy he treated who'd been grievously wounded while playing with unexploded ordnance.
The 5-year-old was trying to dismantle a 107 mm rocket when it exploded, he recounted. The boy lost his left foot, right hand, all but two fingers on his left hand, and his spleen. He had a punctured lung and a pierced bowel, and he was blinded in the explosion.
"We saved him," Andersen said. And to people who think the boy would have been better off dead, he simply says that wasn't their call.
"We don't care what their injuries are. We don't care what they're going back to," he said. "If they're hurt, we do what we can."
Unfortunately, the child's parents didn't feel that way. They later sent a message that they didn't have the means to care for him and would rather he die.
"That, to me, is pathetic," Andersen said in undisguised pain. "They've gotten so used to having no value on human life that they weren't willing to take care of him. That will stick in my memory."
The medical team Andersen worked with performed 107 surgeries while he was there and lost only one patient. Andersen remembers that as a traumatic day.
A suicide bomber brought a grenade into a crowd of police officers. Four officers were wounded; two required lifesaving surgery. Shrapnel pierced the bomber's heart, and he died in surgery.
"If he had hugged a grenade in an emergency room in Washington, D.C., no surgeon could have done a better job than what we tried to do," Andersen said.
All four injured police officers recovered from their wounds. "They were all back working by the time I left," Andersen said. He added that those memories are the ones he prefers to focus on.
"The only person we lost was that suicide bomber," he said. "Other than that, it was all miracles. It was good to be a part of it."