Thursday, July 30, 2009

Visiting the Troops in Landstuhl Medical Center

Although I've lived here for three years already, there's always something new to experience, even if it has to do with my own country. On July 18, I went down to Kaiserslautern with some fellow members of the Democrats Abroad to visit the soldiers in the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. We wanted to do it to show them our appreciation for their sacrifices and hard work that they've done, plus it's always fun to spend the day with some fellow Americans.

Nine of us went down and I was the only one who had ever been on an American base before (I found this strange, but then again, I never know what to expect from people anymore). I think it might've came as a surprise that security is so tight even for American civilians trying to get on base. Our guide, Staff Sergeant Griffin, had been on call because a plane full of soldiers had arrived earlier in the morning at 1 a.m. By the time we got to the base at around 1:30 p.m, she was obviously exhausted but nonetheless cheerful and informative.

We got a basic but in-depth introduction from a Navy Sergeant Griffin (no relation to our guide) who informed us of the inner workings of the Landstuhl Medical Center. To my astonishment, the majority of soldiers are not there due to "battle injuries" (gun shot wounds, being burned after an explosion, etc.), but because they got sick on their deployment or because they have regular every day injuries (breaking an arm playing football, dropping a pan of hot oil or something while cooking, etc.). Landstuhl is also the first stop for anyone "down range," that is, in Iraq or Afghanistan, though people stationed in other parts of the world (the Balkans, eastern Europe, Africa) may also end up there. If soldiers are well enough to be transferred, they won't stay in Landstuhl long; the majority only stay for two or three days up to fourteen days and then are brought to hospitals in the States. If they recover (from illness, for example), however, they will be sent back to their place of deployment.

We then got a tour of the facility itself and it's no different from any other hospital you would see in the U.S. They even have a maternity ward! OK, maybe there were a few obvious differences, like the fact that many of the people walking around have some sort of camouflage clothing on. Even some of the doctors and nurses worked in camo-scrubs. Additionally, there were some signs that were in both German and English, but for the most part, it's not super noticeable. The hospital also didn't have a very hospital-y smell to it and frankly I don't know why that is. But the cafeteria served American food, there was a convenience store with American goods, even the vending machines only accepted dollars. (We actually had to ask Staff Sergeant Griffin if she had any extra dollar bills since none of us had any on us and some people were dying to get to the Reese's Pieces.)

The highlight though was being able to talk to some of the patients. I had the opportunity to speak with two soldiers: an older man suffering from pancreatitis and a young 19-year-old suffering from pneumonia. Both had been stationed in Afghanistan; the former had been in Landstuhl only a few days and could barely get any sort of food or water in his system and the latter had just arrived the morning we got there. What was really interesting was that both soldiers were really sad, even disappointed, that they couldn't be in Afghanistan. They felt that they were actually helping the people there and making a difference. The first soldier's job was to help locals get electricity (I think) and the second searched for improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Though the jobs were quite different, both soldiers believed that they were helping improve lives in Afghanistan little by little and that the media's portrayal of the situation focused too heavily on the negative. And they're right: why couldn't the media focus more on the positive aspects? The obvious answer is that nobody cares about good news and that it doesn't sell; however, I think it would really give people a different perspective of things if we got these personal stories out there.

The soldiers seemed to be appreciative of our visit and bringing them (German) chocolate and toiletries seemed to brighten them up a little bit. We also thanked the nursing staff for all that they do and they were really excited to get some chocolate as well. It was truly a perspective-changing experience to know that soldiers aren't going there for mostly battle wounds at the moment; the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are not nearly as bad as we think they are. The soldiers were also just glad to know that there were people in the outside world thinking of them and that they haven't just been forgotten (especially since the withdrawl of American troops from Iraqi cities). I think it's really important for their morale to know that and it's quite obvious from the fact that everyone who was there when President Obama visited in June was completely pumped to talk about the experience. It wasn't even when he had been in Germany when he went to Buchenwald with Angela Merkel; it was a separate visit with no media, no cameras, not even the remotest hint of planning. It was simply just to visit the troops and say thanks. And because of the way it happened, I think it really made an impact on the soldiers.

Besides visiting soldiers who were confined to the wards, we also had the opportunity to visit a little building run by the USO. There, soldiers who could move around and get around on their own could watch movies, play on XBoxes or Wiis, play cards, cook, check their email, video record themselves reading a book to their children, read books, or call home. Essentially, it's to make the soldiers feel a little closer to home while being away. We donated a poker set and the volunteers were so excited because they could now hold a Texas Hold 'Em tournament with more people. It was really wonderful to see what the USO does for our troops to make them as comfortable as possible, so if you want to do something for our troops, check what the USO needs...they always could use something!

The last thing I want to say about the Landstuhl visit is that it really did change a lot of our perspectives. The wars (missions, jobs, whatever you want to call it) in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from over and there's a lot of work still to be done. Though the events don't make really big headlines like they used to, we can't forget that people are still over there risking their lives trying to improve the lives of others. Normally I don't like being super political with my blog, but I think it's something we really need to be more aware of.


Elise said...

Your hair is so long!!

Have you checked out some of Friedman's/Kristof's recent pieces on nytimes? Friedman has been writing about the situation on the ground esp. in Afghanistan, traveling around with Mike Mullen. His last piece was pretty optimistic, esp. about how the military has changed tactics to "hearts and minds" and what that has meant in a concrete fashion.

Tracie said...

Thanks for posting this to your blog - like you said, the situation for American soldiers abroad is not always accurately represented in the mainstream media. it's a refreshing change of pace and great to get a different perspective.