Army medics playing crucial role in Afghan withdrawal

A leading surgeon from the region, currently running a military hospital in Afghanistan, believes the Army is on target to leave the war-ravaged country with a viable healthcare system when the troops leave in 2014. Mark Foster reports.

IT’S been a tough job and it’s needed some tough love – but the humanitarian element of the Army’s work in Afghanistan is showing signs of paying off.

Often overlooked during the madness and mayhem of war, the work of the military surgeons, doctors and nurses has been vital for soldiers and civilians alike throughout the conflict.

Much of the work of the International Security Assistance Force has been centred on developing the soldiering abilities of the Afghan National Security Forces, but there is now a major push to provide basic healthcare skills to the local medics.

And although the coalition forces admit they have been playing catch-up in that role they are now making significant progress, according to Colonel Paul Parker, director of the field hospital at the sprawling Camp Bastion in Helmand Province.

Until recently he was a senior orthopaedic surgeon with the South Tees Hospitals NHS Trust, with clinics at the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton and Catterick, but he’s also a highly-trained soldier of 30 years experience who has served in many of the world’s hotspots, including Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone.

However he’s under no illusions about the scale of the task before them as the time of the British withdrawal looms ever closer.

“I think we were behind the curve on mentoring and transitioning but we are trying to catch up,” he said.

With time now running out before the ISAF troops pull out next year, the transition process has become a prime objective for his medical team The efforts include training and mentoring sessions which are being held at least two or three times a week at an ANA base known as Shorobak which is beside Camp Bastion in the desert of southern Afghanistan.

Colonel Parker, who trained at Queens University, Belfast, said: “What we are doing is working with the Afghan army doctors in Shorobak, looking to train them up to begin to treat more and more seriously injured casualties.

“We are running a mentorship programme with them. We have also received permission to actually bring them into the hospital and teach them basic surgical and anaesthetic skills so they can start to do more and more work on injured Afghan soldiers.”

There are also lessons for those local medics who are out on the ground - including tourniquet application, the crucial procedure which has helped saved the lives of scores of British soldiers wounded in explosions.

Those who are more hospital-based are taught how to use the tools and equipment such as fracture pins and frames that will be gifted to them when the British leave in 2014.

“It is our hope they will have an Afghan system. What our principle is, is that Afghans should care for Afghans,” said Col Parker.

“We don’t want to create a cycle of dependency. We want to gradually turn off access in the best possible way.

“Sometimes that is called tough love, but in the best possible way - to turn off access to here, Camp Bastion, but at the same time ramp up our mentoring and transitional process.”

Despite its position, the busy hospital at Camp Bastion is regarded one of the most advanced of its type anywhere in the world.

However when the British leave it will be stripped of expensive electronic equipment such as CT scanners and respiratory machines which will go for use elsewhere.

But the more basic equipment is expected to be left behind for local use, rather than being simply disposed of.

Colonel Parker, who also served in Afghanistan in 2001, 2006 and 2010, said: “We have also given them some of our appropriate spare equipment for external fixation. We also teach them how to use it before we give it to them. It doesn’t require any electricity - hard tools; simple equipment.”

He added: “Some of the technology we have is inappropriate for the austere environment so, we cannot leave everything behind.

“But, I think we can leave a basic healthcare system behind which they can build on for the future.”

The Army doctors are also working with civilian staff at the main hospital in Lashkar Gah to advance their skill set.

“We are clearly not teaching them Western ways but we are teaching them appropriate technology and skills they can use,” said Col Parker.

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