Medical mission in Kabul

This article has photo gallery Published on CAPT (Army) Megan McDermott (author), SGT Ricky Fuller (photographer)

Topic(s): Health, Fitness and Wellbeing, Operation HIGHROAD

Senior nursing officer Lieutenant Commander Gavin Milkins (front) with the deployed Task Group Afghanistan medical team in Kabul, Afghanistan. (photo: SGT Ricky Fuller)
Senior nursing officer Lieutenant Commander Gavin Milkins (front) with the deployed Task Group Afghanistan medical team in Kabul, Afghanistan.

There is no such thing as a typical day for the 14 Australian Defence Force medical personnel working at the Hamid Karzai International Airport coalition base in Kabul, Afghanistan.

The specialist team of Australian Army, Air Force and Navy medical professionals, currently deployed on Operation HIGHROAD, provide critical medical support at the Role 2 Enhanced NATO Medical Treatment Facility.

The team provides primary health care services, emergency and trauma medicine as well as dental support for Australian and all Coalition personnel on base, including military and civilian contractors.

As their role is to directly support the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, senior nursing officer Lieutenant Commander Gavin Milkins said every day presents a new and unexpected challenge.

“As I say to my staff each day, ‘you must remain flexible, adapt and overcome’,” he said.

“While many tasks are routine such as checking medical stores and equipment serviceability, anything can arrive at the emergency department with no prior notice.

“It keeps us on our toes.”

Located just 4 kilometres from Kabul city, Lieutenant Commander Milkins said the medical facility has admitted patients at a moment’s notice following mass casualty incidents.

Just recently, the Australian and NATO medical staff received 15 casualties following a massive blast near the green zone, resulting in more than 80 dead and over 400 wounded - mostly civilians.

While local hospitals took the brunt of the casualties, Lieutenant Commander Milkins said the NATO Medical Treatment Facility was ready to support.

Since the start of the spring offensive on 1 May, Kabul has seen an increase in insurgent activity and as a result, the medical facility is seeing injuries associated with modern conflict.

“Recently we received an Afghan police officer who had sustained a severe brain injury as a result of blast exposure,” he said.

“We were able to provide initial treatment here before evacuating the patient to the Role 3 hospital in Bagram.

“We have since learnt he is walking and talking again, a magnificent outcome for both the patient and the team who worked hard to save his life.”

The NATO Medical Facility can see on average 20 to 30 patients per day while the staff rotates through 12 hour shifts on a 24-hour roster and are on call 24/7 for aero-medical evacuation.

Lieutenant Commander Milkins said in addition to the long working hours, the language barrier is perhaps the biggest challenge facing the Australian Defence Force medical team day-to-day.

“Working within a NATO environment, the language barrier is a big challenge, especially when we’re treating Czech, Turk, Slovak and Albanian coalition personnel,” he said.

Thanks to good organisation, interpreters are available to ensure there are no misunderstandings.

Despite the challenges, the deployment has presented invaluable opportunities to learn and to contribute to the train, advise assist mission in Afghanistan.

Lieutenant Commander Milkins said the Australian medical staff conducts regular first aid and professional development training with their NATO colleagues, however their most important role is keeping Australian and coalition forces fit and healthy so they can continue working within their deployed roles.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the Australian medical team,” Lieutenant Commander Milkins said.

“They have wholeheartedly contributed to the mission here in Afghanistan through their resilience, patience and professionalism.”

Operation HIGHROAD is Australia’s contribution to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission and comprises about 270 Australian Defence Force personnel in various mentoring, advisory and support roles across Kabul, Kandahar and Bagram.