Medics haunted by those they just could not save

Stanthorpe Border Post - - VOODOO MEDICS - KRISTIN SHORTEN

THE ex­plod­ing land­mine had torn away half of the lit­tle girl’s left leg.

By the time she was brought into the mil­i­tary field hos­pi­tal she had lost so much blood she was barely alive. It was an all-too-fa­mil­iar scene for the medics serv­ing along­side our spe­cial forces in Afghanistan — civil­ians hor­rif­i­cally wounded by Tal­iban weapons.

The Voodoo Medics’ first and most im­por­tant job was look­ing af­ter their com­rades in Aus­tralia’s Spe­cial Op­er­a­tions Com­mand. But their train­ing also com­mit­ted them to help­ing civil­ians when­ever they could — even the en­emy.

The com­plex role is re­vealed in The Daily Tele­graph’s ex­clu­sive se­ries that goes in­side the lit­tle-known world of the elite medics known by the call sign “Kilo”.

The five-year-old girl was brought into the hos­pi­tal at the multi­na­tional base at Tarin Kowt in south­ern Afghanistan, one of three chil­dren from the same fam­ily wounded in the blast from an im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vice in­tended for coali­tion troops. In­side, Aus­tralian and Amer­i­can medics were al­ready work­ing side-by-side on wounded pa­tients. Sergeant Brad Watts was among them, and watched as a young Amer­i­can medic re­moved a tourni­quet on the girl’s shat­tered leg — a rookie mis­take for her con­di­tion. “Rule num­ber one, you never re­lease a tourni­quet un­less you’re in surgery,” said Watts, then at­tached to Perth’s SAS Reg­i­ment.

What lit­tle blood was left in her body was sud­denly stream­ing out, and she went into car­diac ar­rest.

“This lit­tle girl who was fine sud­denly died, and bled out,” Watts said.

De­spite be­ing busy with their own pa­tients, ev­ery­one in the room shifted their fo­cus to the girl.

For three hours they des­per­ately tried to save her, even con­duct­ing a tho­ra­co­tomy – emer­gency surgery that in­volves open­ing the chest cav­ity and mas­sag­ing the heart by hand.

“We gave blood, we were do­ing di­rect trans­fu­sions, we even cracked her chest to try to get her heart pump­ing again,” he said. “We had our truck driver draw­ing blood out of peo­ple.”

Ul­ti­mately, it was too late. Watts broke down last month as he re­called that day, and what he felt obliged to do next.

“We had this re­ally bro­ken lit­tle five-year-old girl. Her chest was cut open and she was pretty badly in­jured. It seemed im­por­tant to me to go and get needle and thread. I sewed her up and tried to get her back to some form of nor­mal be­fore we handed her back to the fam­ily.

“It was a point­less death that could have been avoided,” he said. “That’s the bit that prob­a­bly hurt for most of us; that she didn’t have to go. It was some­one that we could’ve saved.”

Cor­po­ral Jeremy Holder, a pla­toon medic with the 4th Bat­tal­ion Royal Aus­tralian Reg­i­ment, es­ti­mated the spe­cial forces medics would have treated hun­dreds of civil­ian ca­su­al­ties on each six-month de­ploy­ment.

“If I wasn’t on pa­trol with the guys, I’d go to the field sur­gi­cal team and work in a (re­sus­ci­ta­tion) bay or as­sist­ing with trauma surgery,” Holder said.

With war­fare go­ing on and with good med­i­cal care be­yond the reach of most Afghans, there was no shortage of pa­tients.

“Of all the Afgha­nis we treated I saw ev­ery­thing from se­vere lac­er­a­tions, con­cus­sions, blast wounds, big gun­shot wounds and exit wounds,” said Cor­po­ral Tom

Newkirk, a medic with 2nd Com­mando Reg­i­ment.

Some­times the medics’ ex­per­tise would ex­tend even to Tal­iban fight­ers wounded in bat­tle with their own units.

“When it comes to medics ... ar­guably they’ve seen the worst of it,” said Mark Don­ald­son, the for­mer SAS cor­po­ral and Vic­to­ria Cross re­cip­i­ent.

He worked closely with — and was patched up by — the medics in his mul­ti­ple tours.

“Some­times they’re fix­ing up the en­emy who’s been shoot­ing at the­mem andd try­ing to kill them, or civil­ians, or the guys that they work with day in and day out, try­ing to keep them alive — and some­times they haven’t.”

The guer­rilla na­ture of the fight­ing in Afghanistan, with the en­emy blend­ing in with or­di­nary ci­ti­zens and road­side bombs one of their key weapons, meant many ca­su­al­ties were non-com­bat­ants.

Watts said civil­ians were brought to the hos­pi­tal al­most ev­ery day hav­ing suf­fered “hor­rific trauma”.

“See­ing lit­tle kids and fam­ily units de­stroyed were pretty in­tense mo­ments,” he said.

“The main mech­a­nism of in­jury for us while we were there was IEDs cou­pled with gun­shots.

“There was a lot of blood around a lot of the in­ci­dents, and that metal­lic smell — once you’ve smelt it – never leaves you.”

Voodoo medic in Afghanistan Brad Watts Pic­ture Gary Ra­m­age

Brad Watts tends to non­com­bat­ants in hos­pi­tal (main im­age and be­low cen­tre) while Cpl Tom Newkirk treats peo­ple in the field (be­low left and right) Pic­tures: Sup­plied

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