At Craig Joint Theater Hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan, we care for the whole person, often in creative ways. No one is specifically assigned as the ‘chief encouragement officer,’ it’s a collective effort to encourage patients and help them heal.
Falling under the 455th Air Expeditionary Wing, service members assigned to CJTH are charged with providing combat medical services and support to U.S. and coalition forces throughout Afghanistan.
One way we achieve this is by equipping the Afghans to tackle life despite their injuries by feeding their hearts, minds, and stomachs while providing world-class medical care in a war-ravaged country.
In a foreign environment, with sterile white walls and no semblance of their native land except a few emergency signs in Dari and a public health poster about covering your mouth when you sneeze, it could seem like the Afghans are on American turf.
In collaboration with our interpreters, I facilitated placing inspirational Pashtu and Dari proverbs on the walls of CJTH to connect hearts and minds. Much care was taken in the selection of the specific proverbs for this particular project to ensure no language was singled out.
The proverbs provide a unique opportunity to foster a squelched sense of community by encouraging discussion and hopefully, a sense of home, as these proverbs are familiar to many everyday man.
Life is communal here. As Americans, we place huge importance on personal space and a private room is highly sought after. Conversely, the Afghans thrive on community. Some patients wilt when they have an infection causing them to be moved to a single room instead staying in the open bay where they can be around others.
In particular, one of our patients became depressed, which exacerbated the monumental healing process after losing both legs and part of his hand. While limbs can sometimes be stitched back together, or at the very least we can teach range of motion exercises and adaptive techniques, the mind is a more complex challenge.
There is a Dari proverb that illustrates this, “A broken hand can work, but a broken heart cannot.”
The biggest change in this patient, as multifaceted therapies were engaged to help him, was his mind. We took him outside with a group of other patients to see the sunrise, feel the breeze, and breathe fresh air. While the sunshine was good, the feeling of belonging, even to a club no one wants a membership to ‘amputee,’ changed his psyche.
The Dari saying “The first day we are friends, the next day we are brothers” paints a picture of the community built here.
Talking, sharing common techniques for moving the obstinate wheelchairs, encouraging each other and laughing culminates the sense of togetherness. Americans and Afghans, young boys and seasoned men share the commonality of being injured in a war that has raged longer than most of them can remember.
On the way out of the ward, the proverbs read, “Even though the mountain is high, there is a path to the top.”
These patients will face unbelievable amount of obstacles physically, emotionally, mentally and even spiritually as they grapple with their loss, their new life and so much more.
I have learned more here about the strength of the human spirit and the bond of military family across ethnicities, languages, and cultures than I could have ever imagined during my months spent here. If simple words on the wall can help shift a perspective or lift a gloomy mindset of any of these patients, then we’ve all won in more ways than one. Our patients’ courage and strength have given me perspective and changed the person I am; their stories will be shared with my future generations.
“Everyone should be looked at with the same eye” is an applicable proverb. We all bleed red, need the feeling of connectedness and respond to human kindness.
By Major Rachel Stevenson, 59th Medical Wing
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas