HAUNTED BY LOST SOULS
THE exploding land mine 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 Cairns Post’s special 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. 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. 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
Sergeant Brad Watts It was a pointless death. What hurt the most - she was someone we could have saved
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 them and 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.”
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 non-combatants in hospital (main image and below centre), while Cpl Tom Newkirk treats people in the field (below left and right). Pictures: SUPPLIED