Deployment Stories: From common to chaos and back

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Grace Thomson
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

We often use stories as a way to communicate about a particularly difficult time, or to impart some sort of knowledge that we think others need to hear. This is exactly what the 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron has been doing with their recently deployed Airmen. These Airmen are imparting knowledge and preparing their fellow Airmen for the difficulties they may face while deployed.

Deployments are never easy, but it’s especially difficult during a time of uncertainty and conflict, away from family, away from the comforts of home, or in a combat zone unsure if you will make it back. It’s even harder when you deploy alone and imbed into a group of people you’ve never met before, but that’s exactly what Capt. Brendan Stokes, 911th ASTS nurse, went through during one of his hardest deployments in the last ten years.

“[We] thought a lot about who we could send by themselves that would be able to assimilate, really function, at a high level and fit in from the very beginning,” said Lt. Col. Brian Carr, 911th ASTS chief nurse. “That's not an easy task to come up with. And when we looked at who was deploying, he was the best fit out of anybody.”

Carr describes Stokes as “a hard charger that you don't have to have a whole lot of oversight with, he comes up with the plan and he gets it accomplished ethically, fairly, and quickly.”

The deployment to Afghanistan was going to be a hard one no matter who went or what they had prepared for.

“The one thing that we found consistently was we had no idea what to expect,” said Stokes. “Nobody knew what was coming.”

During Stokes’ time in restricted movement due to Covid-19 protocols, President Joe Biden officially announced on April 14, 2021, the drawdown of all 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beginning May 1, 2021, and concluding by Sept. 11, 2021.

"Uncertainty became the theme for the deployment," said Stokes. "Anybody who's been in the military knows that you can expect some [uncertainty] while you're helping and as we're finally getting overseas, and [when we were] starting our mission, that level of uncertainty hasn't abated."

When Stokes arrived at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, it was just the beginning of the drawdown. He said that he saw 20 years of history erased and that it was humbling to see.

“We knew that we stood on the shoulders of giants, and it's not an exaggeration,” said Stokes. He borrowed a phrase from retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, former secretary of defense, saying, “the lessons that we've learned in this conflict and others are derived from combat and they're written in blood.”

There was a lot of hardship during his deployment; he said he witnessed suffering and the ravages of war first hand. During his presentation to the squadron, he told a story of a boy who was severely injured by the Taliban.

Stokes said that the boy “had multiple surgeries and he was coming back to us as a continuity case.” Stokes showed a photo during his presentation of a drawing the boy did while under care at Bagram.

He said it was an instance that struck him during the deployment because “kids are kids, anywhere you go,” and if you give a three year old markers, they will draw whatever they want on paper.

It wasn’t just the kids that made an impact on Stokes during his deployment; it was the Afghan National Army as well.

Stokes said that “a lot of them would look us in the eye with the expression of a patient who had just received a terminal diagnosis. They knew that they either weren't going to survive their medical care on the outside or that they just weren't going to survive being hunted by the Taliban. And that was a challenge for all of us.”

It wasn’t long after his arrival at Bagram Air Base that Stokes and his team left to go to Kabul, Afghanistan, and even that was a completely different environment than Bagram.

“The difference in Kabul versus Bagram is that we didn't make the rules anymore,” Stokes said. “We were playing with the Norwegians and it was their playground, their rules.”

There were differences in the way the U.S. and Norway ran things, Stokes said. They practiced medicine differently and everyone, including the commanders, was on a first name basis.

Through all of the work and tough times, they still found ways to bond and find common ground. Stokes said that they would have cookouts, movie nights, and marches that the Norwegians do as a rite of passage in the military.

But the work would always begin again.

“We started taking some sniper fire on the periphery with no coalition casualties, but we did start taking those trauma patients into the hospital,” said Stokes. “That is about the same time that people started to overrun the airfield. This is when the refugee crisis began. This was when the mission changed and it changed really fast.”

They were on lock down on and off throughout his time there and they were “stuck in the hallways, taking care of patients and doing so with portable oxygen and portable equipment because that was the most secure location that we could fall back to.”

Stokes said that he had no idea what was going on outside except that there were thousands of people seeking help.

They didn't know who was armed, who had a bomb, or what their intentions were, Stokes said. At that point they had to defend the hospital, “because again, we had no idea what was going on. Nobody did.”

This was the part where civilian news media showed several crowded aircrafts full of refugees. All that Stokes and his team could do was take care of the people on the ground, giving kindness to those around them who just lost their country.

“It was the simple acts of kindness that really got us through this period of time,” Stokes said.

He said that they showed kindness by taking care of families and patients, feeding entire families, and creating chairs for the women to sit on.

“[We did] whatever we could do to make this experience a little bit easier for them. These people waited for days, with minimal food and water outside of the gates and filthy conditions, trying to get access to the airfield.”

The kindness didn’t stop with the people in Afghanistan. Stokes’ leadership here at the 911th Airlift Wing kept in contact with him as much as they could without interfering with the mission.

“I sent him quite a few texts, tried to keep tabs on him,” said Carr.

He not only sent texts, but Carr also checked in the Unit Deployment Manager to make sure that Stokes was checking in every couple of days.

Carr said that he wanted to make sure his Airman knew that the people back home were thinking about him and wanted him to stay as safe as he could. He said he didn’t feel a sense of relief until Stokes was in Qatar.

Airmen from the 911th ASTS were at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, at the time that Stokes was set to arrive. Carr knew they would take care of Stokes.

“The worst part is done,” Carr recalled saying to Stokes. “We're just gonna get you home and take care of you on the back end.”

Carr has been deployed to Bagram Air Base before, but he said that his experience was very different from Stokes’s.

“Significance wise, it doesn't compare to what you [Stokes] went through and lived through and to be able to tell the next generation what it was like to end a 20 year war, that's something that few people are going to be able to do.”

Stokes is the first to tell his story at the 911th ASTS morning Unit Training Assembly meetings, but he won’t be the last. He had some final words to tell the Airmen listening.

“I want to bring those lessons that we learned in Afghanistan back to you guys,” he said. “I know that I want to take my own training and my own experience to the next level so that I can be there for the next crisis. Be that calm in the storm and that comforting set of hands whenever stuff goes completely crazy.”