Fort Campbell Soldier has 'Healing Touch'
January 27, 2012
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(FORT CAMPBELL, KY, January 27, 2012)-- Lieutenant Col. Sandra McNaughton remembers the faces of the children.
"If we were out in the middle of nowhere, it's usually the children that would come," recalled the Soldier, who now serves as Blanchfield Army Community Hospital's Assistant Deputy Commander for Nursing. "I remember crying … I would see these little 4- and 5-year olds carrying babies -- their little sisters and brothers -- that was really, really hard."
These Afghan children would often come with their siblings in wheelbarrows through the harsh countryside while McNaughton helped provide medical care there from June-December 2008. The 20-year Army vet volunteered for the duty in Afghanistan, where she frequently left the base in Kandahar and traveled outside the wire along with another female medic to complete Medical Civil Action Projects, or MEDCAP, missions.
"A couple other nurse practitioners stayed on the fixed facility in Kandahar or Bagram or they worked for the ministry," McNaughton said. "But, I wanted to be right there -- hands on."
As she interacted with the locals with help from an interpreter, McNaughton developed compassion for a people plagued by back pain from manual labor, skin rashes and skin cancer.
"I felt very rewarded," she said. "I felt like I was making a difference, even though it was more of a Band-Aid effect."
She immediately took to going above and beyond basic care, making sure her patients received diapers, formula, toys, blankets and even shoes as needed.
"I would wash these babies, and I would clean them," she said.
Teaching Afghan women about their health and bodies became another major theme during the MEDCAPs, which often lasted two or three days at a time. The clinics, sometimes set up in abandoned schoolhouses, often attracted more than 1,000 people seeking treatment.
"They've never received care," McNaughton said. "They don't know what it's like to get any type of care."
Afghan women questioned the female treatment teams about birth control, in the face of cultural ideals that make such options taboo.
"Their main purpose is to procreate to have more children," McNaughton explained of what many in the country believe. "They are so far behind, unless you go to Kabul, where it's more civilized. But out in the villages and out in the far countryside, they have nothing."
While having the opportunity to treat U.S. Soldiers, as well as their Afghan National Army counterparts, the most rewarding part of the experience for McNaughton was treating the women and children, often dehydrated and malnourished.
McNaughton also saw violence during her time in country, especially during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, which calls for participants to fast all day until after sunset.
"[There was] a lot of stabbing during Ramadan, they would fight over certain things," McNaughton recalled.
These MEDCAP missions served a critical role in a country marred by war and cultural restrictions. Female nurse practitioners, with the authority to treat illnesses and dispense medications, gained trust with Afghan women unwilling to be treated by males.
The female treatment teams received special training at Fort Bragg, N.C., before deploying. Her first time in Afghanistan, McNaughton explained that the Soldiers in the units she traveled with equipped her to do more than just care for the wounded. When back in Kandahar, McNaughton could often be found sharpening her skills at the weapons range.
"It was dangerous," she said.
"We encountered Taliban on a frequent [basis]. [The U.S. Soldiers] were very respectful of me and they taught me everything I needed to know to operate the vehicle, to be able to manage my weapons that I had to carry with me. So I could be able to do what I needed to do, as far as if I was the last person or if we were caught in a difficult situation."
The product of a military Family, McNaughton planned to stay in the Army for only four years, but enjoyed it so much she continues to don her uniform.
Her mother also worked as a nurse, which is where McNaughton said she inherited the "need to help and care."
"I came from a military Family, so I always wanted to serve my country," she explained.
McNaughton is one of seven Army nurse practitioners to participate in this program, which is now under the direction of the Air Force. She does not regret the experience and would do it again.
"It was draining, but it was exciting and rewarding," she said.
"You felt like you were doing something, and now you come back and the little things don't matter anymore. It's an eye-opening experience and it really makes you appreciate what you have. I wish all Americans could see how lucky they are."