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Medic, FET Airman recalls horrors, triumphs of Afghanistan

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Kevin Wallace
  • 366th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
A deafening explosion ripped through the air at a remote forward operating base in Zabul Province, Afghanistan.

Shuttering and shaken by the blast, one medic recalled being in a monotonous state of performing routine medical care when the thunder of chaos stunned her that April 6, 2013 morning at FOB Smart.

Life seemingly changed when a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated, killing three American Soldiers, a U.S. Diplomat and Afghan civilians right outside the FOB entry point.

Nearly three months later, still with a shaking voice, Senior Airman Karley Karlson, a 366th Surgical Operations Squadron Aerospace Medical Services technician, deployed as a Female Engagement Team member at the Zabul Provincial Reconstruction Team, recalled the terror.

"My (physician's assistant) was out on a mission and I was at our small clinic with another technician, when all of a sudden we heard a horrific explosion that sounded like it was right outside," said 22-year-old Karlson, from Cambridge, N.Y. "As if in a state of abnormal reality, I remember suddenly being in my room donning body armor, locking and loading my rifle, and heading out to engage whoever was attacking."

Though at remote FOBs and outposts, everyone's a rifleman and sometimes situations warrant all weapons on target, such wasn't the case that day. Karlson's medical expertise was needed in the clinic.

"I remember waiting for the first casualty to come in and wondering how bad it was out there. Then it happened, the first Soldier who was brought through the door was not only American, but a good friend of mine," said Karlson. "It hurt to see him mutilated, but I knew I had a job to do."

The drama didn't stop with just that one Soldier.

"One after another, dead or wounded friends of mine kept coming in as we tried to do everything and anything we could to save them," she said.

Karlson and most servicemembers know serving in the armed forces is a particularly dangerous job. The risk of dying is known with all enlistees or commissioned officers.

In a press statement from Washington, D.C., Secretary of State John Kerry commented on the fallen diplomat and Soldiers April 6.

"I wish everyone in our country could see first-hand the devotion, loyalty, and amazingly hard and hazardous work our diplomats do on the front lines in the world's most dangerous places," said Kerry.

Reuters reported the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

"It's hard being over there and seeing good people trying tirelessly to make a life for themselves while others continue to terrorize and brutalize them," said Karlson, whose FET duties often exposed her to women and sometimes girls, who fell victim to oppressors and abusers.

FETs are comprised of female servicemembers from various service branches and units, whom all bring a variety of skill sets to the team. Karlson most frequently worked with an Army civil affairs officer.

Gathering information, communicating and assisting women with Afghan female-related issues was Karlson's primary mission, and she also executed her primary skillset of a medic in the FOB clinic.

Both duties instilled confidence that she could make a difference in the war-torn land, said Karlson. But, it was the FET duties that often took her outside the wire to interact with the population.

Karlson said she reveled in each chance to engage locals.

In one extreme case, Karlson remembers one woman who was raped, and then later forced to marry the man who raped her, so her family could save face.

In most Afghan households, only a woman's close relatives, a father, brother or husband can see her face or speak to her, putting women at a serious disadvantage to male counterparts when it comes to improving impoverished areas and enhancing commerce and education.

"Zabul is a very traditional area and women have very little rights there," said Karlson. "To help bolster them in society, we tried establishing female radio broadcasts, launched a gardening project, hosted female career days and actively sought other avenues to help women establish themselves in society."

According to Karlson, Afghans want a better tomorrow, they want to help; they just need their voice to be heard.

"Women would come from far away to meet with us, it was humbling and I'll forever be grateful that not only have I possibly impacted them in some small way, they've changed me monumentally," said Karlson, who admits adjusting to her return to Mountain Home Air Force Base has been hard because in comparison to the horrific problems Afghan women face, what she sees here is comparatively small.

The provincial governor, Dr. Amin Rafiullah, agreed.

"If you don't have females contributing to the society and the economy, then that society and economy is doomed to never succeed," said Rafiullah.

With a glisten in her eye, Karlson said her experience in Afghanistan, though extremely troubling in some ways, was the most fruitful experience she's ever had, and will forever be thankful for being given the chance to help.

Still, the horrors of war are never far from mind.

Karlson keeps in regular touch with her security detail, a team of U.S. Army scouts from the 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga., who are scheduled to return to Georgia in July 2013.

"Those guys are like family, there's really no way to quantify the emotions and bonds that develop at war and in the face of tragedy," said Karlson. "What I do know is this; we lost some great men - great Americans - real-life heroes over there. But they didn't die in vain. What we did there meant something and the world will see that someday."

About Senior Airman Karley Karlson:

Senior Airman Karley Karlson is an Aerospace Medical Services technician assigned to the 366th Surgical Operations Squadron, 366th Medical Group, 366th Fighter Wing, Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The 366th MDG provides medical services to support about 24,000 military beneficiaries, and enables sustained combat capability for the 366th FW, home to the most diverse operations group in Air Combat Command. The 366th Operations Group consists of three fighter squadrons, and F-15E and F-15SG fighter aircraft and supports multi-national interests. Karlson's daily duties ensure combat readiness for short-notice worldwide Air Expeditionary Force deployments and contingency operations.

Mountain Home Air Force Base is Karlson's first permanent duty station and she's been assigned here three years. She hails from Cambridge, N.Y., and graduated from Cambridge High School in 2008. Karlson plans to become an allergy technician and eventually go into aeromedical evacuations, where she can, once again, support contingency operations in hostile environments.