Utah Aviators Help Young  Afghan Girl to See

 By Major Lorraine Januzelli - Published - Sept. 23, 2004

   

Photo by Utah National Guard

Recovering Halima sits on the lap of the Egyptian who was the lead doctor in her surgery.

 

A five-year old Afghan girl sees better and brighter due to the caring actions of Utah aviators deployed to Afghanistan.   Earlier this month, a girl named Halima had a successful surgery to treat an eye condition called Strabismus.   The story surrounding Halima’s surgery illustrates a growing sense of trust and collaboration among an unlikely ensemble: Afghan villagers, Egyptian coalition forces, Russian-Kyrgestani hairdressers and AH-64 Apache pilots based out of West Jordan, Utah.            

            In April of this year, the aviators from the 1-211th Attack Aviation Battalion of the Utah National Guard deployed to Bagram Airbase located in north central Afghanistan as part of Task Force Pirate.   While the country is on the mend from the repressive Taliban government and decades of regional strife, it still faces many challenges.  Pressing issues include a healthcare system that can not yet provide adequately for all its citizens and recurring shortages of basic goods. 

            Soon after arriving in-country, the 1-211th Soldiers took the needs of the nation to heart and put together a plan to bring badly needed humanitarian aid into the region.  With the assistance of the Parwan Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT), the 1-211th “adopted” a nearby village, Jegdalek.  A girl’s school is currently under construction there and the village seemed to be a good fit with the 1-211th.

            Back in Utah, 1-211th family members enthusiastically supported their endeavor and started a humanitarian aid organization, Angels for Afghanistan.  Throughout the summer, the Angels, which expanded to include family members from a sister unit in Hawaii, collected items not normally available in Jegdalek, including school supplies, shoes, books, toys and winter clothing.  They then mailed the goods to their spouses at Bagram.  By August, enough aid had arrived to make a delivery.

            The aviators traveled to Jegdalek to deliver the goods on August 28th.   They arrived on two CH-47 Chinook helicopters loaded with seven pallets of humanitarian aid and 37 representatives from Parwan PRT, Task Force Pirate, and photojournalists from Freedom Watch, Bagram’s on-base newspaper.  During that trip, Chief Warrant Officer Layne Pace and 1st Lt. Jon Richardson, both Apache pilots from the Salt Lake area, noticed a little girl with some peculiar eye problems.  When she looked at them, she was unable to focus with both eyes.  Alternately, one eye or the other would turn away to the side.   The Soldiers believed they could help.

            That child, Halima, was born with a condition called Strabismus, a misalignment of the eyes which truncates depth perception and prevents accurate focusing.  If left untreated, Strabismus can cause permanent sight dysfunction condemning the sufferer to an eternally blurry world.         

            Upon returning to Bagram, Pace and Richardson immediately took steps to arrange for surgical treatment for Halima.  They started with surgeons working at the U.S. hospital on base.

            “We were told they could do the surgery, but she needed to be taken through the Egyptian Hospital system,” Pace explained.  The Egyptian Hospital is located on base a short 15-minute walk from the 211th facilities.

            “Ironically, we had already been associating with the Egyptian hospital staff and were personal friends with most of them, specifically their Commander.  This occurred through our regular visits at the hospital giving out humanitarian aid to the locals being seen by the Egyptians,” said Pace.  “The humanitarian aid had been coming from our families back home through the U.S. mail.”

Photo by Utah National Guard

Halima is big smiles in her new dress and styled hair after surgery.

            “When we asked to see the Egyptian Commander [for permission] and showed him the picture of the girl, he smiled and said ‘bring her, we will do the surgery.’” 

            Surgeons Dr. Gobram, an Egyptian, and Dr. Gregory Bramblett, an American, agreed to do the surgery.  Gobram would take the lead.  Additionally, leaders from Task Force Pirate approved the requests to fly Halima and her father to and from her village to the hospital. 

            Arrangements for Halima’s surgery took place in a matter of days.  However, it was done entirely without asking Halima’s father and village elders for permission since they had been unable to get back to Jegdalek.   It was uncertain whether or not they would approve of the surgery especially since it would be done by foreigners at a military compound relatively far away from her home.  Pace carefully worked out with an interpreter the best way to approach the subject.  

            On September 6, Pace and Richardson returned to Jegdalek on a CH-47 with several pallets of aid and their carefully formulated request.   The situation quickly took on its own life. 

            Pace explained, “Within 10 minutes of the dust settling, the interpreter blurted out our request. I knew something was going on above the normal buzz in the assembled people.  I asked the interpreter what was going on. He said the elders have already agreed to sending Halima and she and her father have already left to change into clean clothes.”

            Within a few short hours, Halima and her father were packed and loaded onto the CH-47 for the ride back to Bagram.

            Pace and Richardson were wisely but unnecessarily concerned that Halima might be afraid of the large helicopter.  “We compared it to asking our children to get on a UFO that had just landed.  We put some hearing protection on her and she just marched up the Chinook ramp like she was on a Disneyland ride. She would not stay seated in her seat, but stood up and looked out the window the whole flight.”

            The surgeons operated on Halima on September 8th.  The delicate surgery required cutting a number of ocular muscles in order to restore normalcy and went exceptionally well.

            Pace and a few others were allowed to observe the two-hour procedure and visited Halima soon after she returned to her hospital room.  “They did not bandage her eyes. Her father woke her up when we

arrived and she sat straight up with her eyes shut.  When she heard our voices she squinted her eyes open and burst into a huge smile. This was our first hint she could see. Dr. Gobram came right over and did an eye exam.  She did not have any blurring or double vision. He was able to get her to play a game where she would mimic how many fingers he showed her, all with a smile,” recalled Pace.

            After one day of recovery, Halima was already seeing well, alert and ready to explore.  The 211th Soldiers treated Halima and her father to lunch and dinner every day, including trips to the chow hall and the on-base Burger King.  Twice, they brought Halima to a beauty salon run by Russian-Kyrgestanis women.  Both trips, the hairdressers lavished Halima with special treatment.

Photo by Utah National Guard

1st Lt. Dante Fontenot holds Halima prior to her eye surgery.

            “All we asked them to do was wash her hair.  They not only washed, curled, styled her hair, they washed her feet, cleaned her shoes did a pedicure, painted her toe nails with flowers, manicure with fingernail polish.  They would not take any money, so we dropped some tips their way. You should have seen the look on Halima’s face.  I think it was a non stop smile,” Pace said.

            The aviators returned Halima and her father to their village on September 13 together with another shipment of humanitarian aid.  Halima got off the CH-47 and was immediately surrounded by several hundred village members looking at her eyes.   She then ran the mile trail back to her home to show her mother.  Pace and his fellow aviators were later invited to Halima’s home for tea and to visit the family.       

            Halima’s father earns $60 Afghan dollars (approximately equivalent to $3 U.S. dollars per day) as a construction worker at the girl’s school and lost a week’s worth of wages due to the surgery.  To help compensate, the 1-211th took up a collection and presented him with $9,000 Afghani dollars before they left.  For all involved, Halima’s surgery was mission success on multiple fronts.  Not only can a young girl see now, but lasting bonds developed among very different people with a common concern for children.

            Pace observed, “With the last flight bringing her back, we are now being greeted with traditional Afghan hugs and right hands over their heart.  I can say they totally trust us.  We are excited to bring them news that we will bring a medical team on a regular basis.” 

                  Relations between the Americans and Egyptians also continue to flourish.  “We are very excited to know and be friends with them; they are very energetic in this feeling. Last week, one of the Egyptian gate guards chased me down, ripped the patch off his shoulder and handed it to me. He does not speak any English.  I was touched that they feel this way toward us,” reflected Pace.

                  Both humanitarian aid provided by 1-211th family members and visits from healthcare work continue to flow into Jegdalek.  Globus Relief Fund, an international humanitarian aid organization, has stepped in and agreed to ship the goods to the region.  After the girl’s school is completed, construction on a boy’s school is set to begin.

Photo by Utah National Guard

Jegdalek Elders pose for photograph with the Chief Warrant Officers Stauffer, Thomson and Pace. (L-R)