Imagine being a nurse specializing in staff education and training. Then imagine being dropped into a trauma ward half a world away dealing with gunshot wounds and injuries from improvised explosive devices.
That was what Cmdr. Chris Mannion, Naval Hospital Oak Harbor, encountered as part of a recent Individual Augmentee deployment to Kandahar, Afghanistan.
This was Mannion’s second IA deployment, the first being to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, three years ago. Mannion, who returned from Afghanistan in March, spoke April 28 at an IA appreciation event at the Convergence Zone on Naval Air Station Whidbey Island.
“I was supposed to go to Haiti, but I wasn’t needed,” he said. “So I told them to keep my name in, and I was chosen to go to Kandahar Air Field in Afghanistan.”
IA deployments are designed to support, or augment, another command, whether it’s Navy, Marine Corps, Army or Air Force. As opposed to traditional deployments, IA assignments are longer, usually about a year, and as the name implies, sailors are deployed individually; they do not travel with their commands.
“With the global war on terrorism, the Navy has been sending individual augmentees on deployments to support roles in Iraq, Afghaistan, Djibouti, Guantanemo Bay, Cuba and Kuwait,” explained Pam Delaney, an individual deployment support specialist at the Fleet and Family Suport center on NAS Whidbey. “They are deployed mostly with the Army, but there are other support billets as well.”
Currently 292 sailors from NAS Whidbey are on IA deployments. Some volunteer to be part of the program, while for others, it is part of their duty orders. Quite often sailors must perform functions outside their normal training.
“Most assignments are out of the course of their normal assignments, what they normally do,” said Delaney. “There’s challenges. You’re in a different service and you’re in a different chain of command, so you have to learn all that.”
Most often, sailors taking part in an IA deployment will undergo a brief training before their assignment begins. Mannion, for example, spent a month training at Los Angeles County/University of Southern California Hospital. There are a number of gangs within a short distance of the hospital, according to Mannion, so there were more traumatic injuries to treat. Still, it was nothing like what he encountered at the Role 3 Trauma Hospital at Kandahar Air Field.
“I would say 30 percent of our patients were children,” said Mannion. “That’s rough. That, and seeing our own servicemen injured.”
Mannion said gunshot wounds and triple amputations from injuries caused by IED’s were the most common. And, while the family practice senior nurse from Team Cascade at NHOH didn’t specialize in treating trauma injuries before, the experience was rewarding.
“It’s the ability to put a career’s worth of training to work,” he said. “It’s the right thing to do, the patriotic thing to do. We need people who have training to step up.”
The Fleet and Family Support Center holds IA appreciation events twice a year. Both returning and deploying personnel were present at last week’s event.
NASWI commanding officer, Capt. Jay Johnston, told the small crowd the most recent figures indicate more sailors are returning from IAs than are being deployed.
“As of April 13, 44 have departed since our last IA appreciation event (six months ago), and 90 have returned,” said Johnston. “There are 38 scheduled to depart in the next six months and 70 are scheduled to return. That’s a two-to-one return ratio.”
Risk adds stress
Mannion said even though Kandahar Air Field was one of the safest places to be, there was still danger. In addition to their regular nursing equipment, weapons were standard. Mannion carried a 9-mm.
“There were 50 rocket attacks in six months,” he said.
While all military service carries risk and danger, an IA deployment can add stress not only for personnel deployed, but their families.
“It’s more stressful because they’re concerned about the area where their family member is deployed,” said Delaney, who stays in contact with IA families throughout a deployment, making sure they stay connected to the resources available from the Fleet and Family Support Center.
“When I was deployed the things that brought me peace were working out, staying faithful in my religion – I’m Catholic so I went to Mass regularly,” said Mannion, who also wrote about his experiences in journals and used Skype to keep in touch with his family.
Experiences during an IA can have a lasting effect.
“I think it changes some people,” Delaney said. “You just become a different person because of the experiences you’ve gone through, possibly. Little things in life are very important.”
“Someday your grandkids will ask what you did in the war, and you’ll have an interesting story to tell,” said Johnston.
“It’s what you are trained to do,” Mannion said. “It’s so rewarding. It’s rich. It’s the real deal.”