Navy medic rising to the challenge in Kabul

This article has photo gallery Published on CPL Mark Doran (author), CPL Oliver Carter (author and photographer)

Topic(s): Operation HIGHROAD

Royal Australian Navy Leading Seaman Medic Mel Bennett speaks with colleagues from the Czech Republic and the United States military in the NATO Role 2E Medical Facility at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. (photo: CPL Oliver Carter)
Royal Australian Navy Leading Seaman Medic Mel Bennett speaks with colleagues from the Czech Republic and the United States military in the NATO Role 2E Medical Facility at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.

Leading Seaman Medic Mel Bennett said she always liked a challenge and growing up the eldest of five children from Campbelltown, New South Wales, she admitted this could be the reason why.

“Either that or it’s just made me bossy,” she joked.

When she wasn’t barking orders to her three younger brothers and younger sister, she listened in awe to her Uncle Alistair’s stories of courage and adventure as a medic in the Australian Army.

Warrant Officer Class Two Alistair Nicholson served with infantry battalions in Cambodia, Iraq, and on two separate deployments to Afghanistan.

“He even helped in an amputation,” Leading Seaman Bennett said.

Her uncle’s inspiration was enough for her to reconsider her career as a legal secretary just a few years out of high school.

“I was also sick of paperwork,” she said.

In 2007 Leading Seaman Bennett followed in her uncle’s footsteps and joined the Royal Australian Navy as a Medic.

She said she chose the Navy because she felt like it had a stronger gender balance.

“And not as much paper work,” she laughed.

“It never really occurred to me to go into medicine.

“But Uncle Alistair got me interested and when I started my initial training I thought this is perfect for me.

“It’s structured, it’s fast-paced, it can be incredibly busy and that’s what I like.

“It has been challenging for a variety of reasons and it keeps me on my toes.”

In the last eight years Leading Seaman Bennett has lived in Perth and Sydney, travelled all over Australia and visited Singapore, China, South Korea, Japan and Guam as part of a North-East Asian deployment in HMAS Ballarat.

In 2014 she became a crew member in the Royal Australian Navy’s sail training ship Young Endeavour on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland, New Zealand.

“That was another big challenge,” she said.

“Climbing the masts and overcoming my fear of heights.”

In 2015 Leading Seaman Bennett took on a whole new challenge and deployed to land-locked Kabul, Afghanistan as a member of the NATO Role 2 Enhanced medical facility at Hamid Karzai International Airfield.

She works as part of a United States-led combined surgical team including American, Australian and Czech surgical staff in the Emergency Unit, supported by Albanian, Danish, Romanian and Turkish medical professionals in other areas of the hospital.

Leading Seaman Bennett said working in the dynamic coalition environment has been a steep learning curve.

“We have a lot of downtime in the hospital which means a lot of training,” she said.

“The knowledge, skills and experience that the American Reserve Officers bring to the unit is incredible.

“When we don’t have patients we spend time in trauma training and attending lectures.”

The NATO Role 2E hospital services approximately 4500 coalition military personnel and contractors based in and around Kabul, including approximately 250 Australians based at the Airfield, Camp Qargha and the NATO Resolute Support Headquarters.

While the Emergency Ward stays empty on most days, Leading Seaman Bennett said that when the something happens the pace is intense.

In August 2015, the unit received casualties from an insurgent attack against Camp Integrity, next to the airfield.

“We received five casualties including a gun shot wound to the head, and a gun shot wound to the abdomen,” Leading Seaman Bennett said.

“In those situations, everyone chips in.

“It doesn’t matter what nationality they are, the amount of effort that goes into saving someone’s life is incredible.

“My role is to be 100 percent forward, to go wherever I’m needed.
“If I’m needed on intravenous, that’s where I’ll go, if I’m needed on airway, that’s where I’ll go.

“On that occasion we had an anaesthetist, orthopaedic surgeon, two general surgeons, two nurses and me in the team.

“I find it amazing to watch and help the surgeons perform their work.

“Their decision making is lightening fast.”

Leading Seaman Bennett said that when the events are over, the team spends a lot of time conducting debriefs, considering lessons learned and ways forward.

“We look at the things we could have improved on and the things we did well.”

Leading Seaman Bennett said the camaraderie in the coalition team has been the clear highlight in her six-month deployment but she’s looking forward to a whole new set of challenges when she gets home.

“My partner Sky will be having twins in January,” she said.

“And I’ll be starting my clinical manager’s course at the same time.

“It’ll be a really busy year, but it’s a challenge and I do like a challenge.”

Australian Defence Force personnel are deployed across Afghanistan in a variety of roles on Operation HIGHROAD, Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led Resolute Support mission.

Resolute Support is focused on training, advising and assisting the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces and Afghan security institutions at the operational, institutional and ministerial levels.