Utah National Guard
sits on the lap of the Egyptian who was the lead
doctor in her surgery.
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 Halimas 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 girls 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,
Bagrams 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
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
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.
Utah National Guard
Halima is big
smiles in her new dress and styled hair after
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 Halimas surgery took place in
a matter of days. However, it was done entirely without
asking Halimas 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.
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
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
Within a few short hours, Halima and her father
were packed and loaded onto the CH-47 for the ride back to
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
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
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
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.
Utah National Guard
Dante Fontenot holds Halima prior to her eye
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 Halimas 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 Halimas home for tea and to visit the
father earns $60 Afghan dollars (approximately equivalent to
$3 U.S. dollars per day) as a construction worker at the
girls school and lost a weeks 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, Halimas 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 girls school is
completed, construction on a boys school is set to begin.
Utah National Guard
Jegdalek Elders pose for photograph
with the Chief Warrant Officers Stauffer, Thomson
and Pace. (L-R)