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Air Force Medical Student Called to Work as Translator for Afghan Evacuees

Jan. 21, 2022 | BY Ian Neligh

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences medical school student Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop was doing clinical rotations at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth when she was asked to change her rotations to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a special assignment.

In late August 2021, the Defense Department began airlifting nearly 130,000 people out of Afghanistan as part of the drawdown of U.S. forces. The operation was among the largest mass evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. history. It wasn't long before evacuees arrived at Walter Reed needing medical assistance.

A woman in operating scrubs assists during  surgery.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop is fluent in speaking several languages, including Persian Farsi and Dari, which she used during her rotations at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bishop is seen here assisting during an orthopedic surgery in October, 2021.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
VIRIN: 220119-D-D0439-002

Bishop was an Air Force airborne linguist before she attended medical school at USU. She flew on a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, where she said she analyzed intelligence in foreign languages. Fluent in several languages, including Persian Farsi and Dari, Bishop's skills were suddenly in demand and she was asked to assist as a translator.

"I was notified about everything that was happening at Walter Reed — we were getting a lot of Afghan travelers," Bishop says. "At that time, they didn't have any in-person translators." So, she left Portsmouth and returned to Bethesda.

"It was great," she says, "because I got to see whole families of patients; patients who needed surgery, as well as patients on the internal medicine side. I also saw them in pediatrics and it was very rewarding."

Bishop, who is now in her third year of medical school at USU after initially completing the university's two-year Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program, says she believes her pathway to medical school and choice of medical schools helped give her this unique opportunity.

A woman in military uniform stands in front of a military aircraft.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences medical school student Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop helped to translate for Afghan refugees arriving at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during the Defense Department's evacuation efforts from Afghanistan in August, 2021. Bishop was previously enlisted in the Air Force as an Airborne Linguist and flew on a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft before pursuing a medical degree.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
VIRIN: 220119-D-D0439-001

Bishop describes her experience as a translator for evacuees as "profound."

"It feels like the culmination of my efforts and everything thus far in my life, because I was able to do what I love — help people and specifically use the skills that I have — to serve," says Bishop. "… It is a very direct application of what I have to offer and I am truly grateful I was given that opportunity."

She says each patient's reaction to her was different. However, she found that largely people had feelings of immense gratitude, not only towards her, but to the rest of the medical team as well.

"There were multiple times that people expressed that they were very thankful that they had received care and that they were receiving better care than they would have gotten had they not been evacuated — so that was also very humbling to me," Bishop says.

Many of those with whom she spoke were surprised that, as a woman, she was in uniform and could also speak and write in multiple languages as well as pursue a career in medicine.

A woman in a medical uniform holds up bags of supplies.
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop, currently a third-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, hands out essential supplies to Afghan mothers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center during her rotation at the hospital in August, 2021.
Photo By: Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop
VIRIN: 210822-D-D0439-001

"I heard more than one person say, 'Oh, so you’re a woman and you do all these things?' And I said, 'Yes, those are the opportunities that we have here," Bishop says.

In one instance, while working in pediatrics, Bishop met with a young Afghan girl.

"She found out that I spoke Dari and she was so excited. She wanted to talk to me about how I learned and 'do I go to school?'" Bishop says. "And she took my uniform cover, she put it on her head and she told me she was pretending to be me when she grows up. It was heartwarming that she gets to see women who are not held back by their gender, and that she gets to see people who are role models."

Bishop's linguistic background and passion for medicine helped give her the unique opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those looking for a better future.