Captain from Hill honored for saving lives, helping Afghan women

Sep 4 2012 - 6:13am

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Capt. Jennifer Curtis hands candy to children in a remote Afghan village last spring during her deployment from Hill Air Force Base to Chamkani, Afghanistan, where she embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces to assist with village stability operations. She traveled to villages and schools to teach local women basic medical care and childbirth. Because of her heroic work during several attacks on her team, Curtis has been awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. (Courtesy photo)
Hill Air Force Base Capt. Jennifer Curtis holds a child in a remote village during her deployment in Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo)
On the side of the road in Afghanistan, Hill Air Force Base Capt. Jennifer Curtis renders aid to a woman. Last spring, Curtis deployed to Chamkani, Afghanistan, where she embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces to assist with village stability operations. During her deployment, she traveled to villages and schools to teach local women basic medical care and childbirth. Her team was attacked several times by enemy forces during her deployment. She was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Force Combat Action Medal for her heroism as a medic during those attacks. (Courtesy photo)
Capt. Jennifer Curtis hands candy to children in a remote Afghan village last spring during her deployment from Hill Air Force Base to Chamkani, Afghanistan, where she embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces to assist with village stability operations. She traveled to villages and schools to teach local women basic medical care and childbirth. Because of her heroic work during several attacks on her team, Curtis has been awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Force Combat Action Medal. (Courtesy photo)
Hill Air Force Base Capt. Jennifer Curtis holds a child in a remote village during her deployment in Afghanistan. (Courtesy photo)
On the side of the road in Afghanistan, Hill Air Force Base Capt. Jennifer Curtis renders aid to a woman. Last spring, Curtis deployed to Chamkani, Afghanistan, where she embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces to assist with village stability operations. During her deployment, she traveled to villages and schools to teach local women basic medical care and childbirth. Her team was attacked several times by enemy forces during her deployment. She was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Force Combat Action Medal for her heroism as a medic during those attacks. (Courtesy photo)

HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- A short-notice deployment to teach Afghan women basic medical care proved to be the biggest test of Jennifer Curtis' life.

In April 2011, the Hill Air Force Base captain received word that she would soon be deploying to Firebase Chamkani, Afghanistan, where she would be embedded with U.S. Army Special Forces to assist with village stability operations.

During the deployment, Curtis, assisted by an interpreter, traveled to local villages and schools to teach women basic medical care. Curtis said the operation not only provided education but also built relationships between NATO forces and the local Afghan citizens.

During her time in Afghanistan, Curtis developed a series of medical messages that were aired on the local radio station. Their popularity prompted the locals to request that she provide more of them.

"A lot of the women over there don't have basic knowledge about how to wash their hands or clean their water or treat their children when they have diarrhea," Curtis said.

"And because of that, the infant and female mortality rate is very high. So if you are able to just give them some very basic skills, they can really go a long way."

Curtis said the work she did on her deployment was some of the most fulfilling of her life. But it was also some of the most dangerous.

When Curtis arrived at the fire base, which is in the mountains on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, she quickly realized her deployment wouldn't exactly be a walk in the park.

As her helicopter tried to land on the day of her arrival, it was targeted by hundreds of mortar rounds.

Curtis and her crew escaped the attack unharmed, but she was now extra wary of the dangers that seemed to lurk around every corner.

"Needless to say, it was pretty scary," she said. "It was kind of my initiation. It was kind of like, 'OK, welcome to your new home.' "

One evening a few months into Curtis' deployment, enemy forces fired rockets at her encampment.

"When it happened, I could actually physically feel the impact," Curtis said. "Then I looked outside and saw all kinds of debris and smoke. I knew something was seriously wrong."

Because the camp was on lockdown, Curtis was the only medic available for the first 20 minutes of the attack.

She rapidly identified six troops who had shrapnel wounds or had sustained concussions from the blasts and dragged them into the medical facility, where she began lifesaving medical care until other medics arrived.

Once the patients were stabilized, they were evacuated to a trauma center at Bagram Airfield.

During the attack, Curtis said, she let go of her emotions and let her training take over.

"It was hard because these people who were unconscious and not breathing were all of my friends," she said.

"But you have to get into a mode where you don't see faces anymore and you just look at injuries and prioritize what needs to be done. You don't start dealing with the emotions until after the fact."

The attack wasn't the only time Curtis faced grave danger in Afghanistan.

Throughout her deployment, Curtis accompanied Special Forces teams 62 times as they visited Afghan villages.

The teams were engaged by small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades during 11 of those missions.

During one mission, a soldier suffered shrapnel wounds from an RPG and Curtis quickly began emergency care to stop the bleeding from his leg. Simultaneously, she was alerted that a local woman was having a heart attack.

After performing a quick assessment of the patient, who was with her family on the side of the road, Curtis stabilized her and administered care.

For her actions during the deployment, Curtis was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Force Combat Action Medal.

"The whole mission was such a team effort," Curtis said. "I can't emphasize that enough.

"We really were family over there. I will never forget it."

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