Deployment Stories: Friends, countrymen, and shared history

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Grace Thomson
  • 911th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

Sharing deployment stories can be an essential way for young Airmen to get a feel for what deployments will be like. The 911th Aeromedical Staging Squadron set up several presentations over Unit Training Assemblies for recently deployed Airmen to share their deployment stories. Some were done individually and others were done as a group.

Airmen assigned to the 911th ASTS shared their collective story because they deployed together. They had people from their home base to depend on and talk to, and they created a shared history together. The deployment was still not easy, but they said having people there they were familiar with made the hardships easier to manage.

Many of the Airmen volunteered for the deployment and were excited to have the opportunity to use their training and skills.

Capt. Geoffrey Abner, 911th ASTS clinical nurse, said “I think for me, it was mainly I was nervous and excited at the same time. Nervous because it's going to be a new experience for me, because this one is my first deployment, so I didn't really know what to expect.”

This was also the first deployment for Staff Sgt. Savanna Scholl, medical technician with the 911th ASTS, and with everything that happened, it was quite a whirlwind.

Others had been deployed before, so they were more prepared and able to help the first-timers with the transition.

Master Sgt. Nathan Hand, medical technician with the 911th ASTS, said, “I had been to Afghanistan before, and that's actually where I was hoping we were going to go.”

While for some it was a familiar place, they could not prepare for the challenges that the Afghanistan drawdown presented.

History was made when President Joe Biden officially announced on April 14, 2021, the drawdown of all 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan beginning May 1, 2021, and concluding by Sept. 11, 2021. This was all happening during their deployment, making it go from a regular deployment to one filled with things their training could not have prepared them for.

After plane rides and quarantine due to Covid-19 restrictions, the group was in their location and ready to work. They had plans and procedures ready to go, but three weeks in, all of that was thrown out the window when refugees started coming in well over the expected limits.

Lt. Col Eric Baldwin, 911th ASTS Aeromedical Staging Flight commander, said, “Nobody here expected any of this to happen. They were actually planning for this [the drawdown] when we were coming in. The very first plane that came in, I ended up getting whisked off to the wing.” He was needed in the Emergency Operations Center to help with coordination and was not able to help in the way they originally planned.

“The first day, [over] one thousand people just showed up on our doorstep,” said Baldwin. “We've got nowhere to put them, no way to feed them, no way to do anything. The next day, we're getting a couple thousand more, and then the next day and a couple thousand more and it built and built and built until one point we had 17,000 Afghans on hand.”

There were more people than they had room for, but somehow they made it work. They were doing all they could to ensure everyone was fed, hydrated, and medically cared for before being transferred to the next step on their journey.

While the Afghan refugees needed help, the medical personnel could not forget about their fellow military members also coming back with injuries and needs.

“While all of this was going on, people were still getting hurt, people were still getting sick, American soldiers still needed to be medically evacuated,” said Hand. “It was tough trying to balance because we all wanted to be down where the excitement was, but unfortunately we couldn't always be down there.”

It was not just the excitement of being in the middle of history that made them go above and beyond to take care of these displaced people; they also felt proud that they were able to give this care to those who needed it most.

At one point, Staff Sgt. Samantha Matoney, medical technician with the 911th ASTS, told a story of how a mother left her child in the chair behind her and walked out, leaving the Airmen to care for the child until the mother could come back. The mother thanked them for taking care of her child and went on her way.

“It's kind of humbling how trusting they are of us,” Matoney said. “But it was a nice experience during all the chaos.”

Chaos was not in short supply during this deployment, but the 911th Airlift Wing Steel Airmen are built to withstand more than most.

“This was 28 days straight of 10 to 15 hour work days that we didn't get a single day off,” said Matoney. “We were all exhausted, and we just did stuff to help each other out.”

Many of the Airmen said that it was that camaraderie that truly made those 10 to 15 hour days doable. After the initial chaos died down and it went back to a relatively normal deployment, they began to have more downtime and were able to unwind after everything they had been through together.

Matoney said “There are a lot of things over in Qatar, there's education, there's fitness, there's so many different volunteer opportunities over there.”

Once they were able to do so, many of them decided to run in the bi-monthly 5 kilometer races, learn new skills, take college classes, achieve fitness goals, and much more. They cheered each other on and helped each other get across the finish line.

Some used the time to reevaluate their civilian life and what they wanted when they got home.

“I was very unhappy with my civilian career,” Hand said, “Prior to [this deployment], I was an emergency room nurse during Covid-19. I didn’t really like being a nurse to begin with; I just chose that path because it was familiar. I’m much happier than I was before.”

While they had their fellow Steel Airmen to fall back on, that did not stop them from making new friends along the way.

“I know a lot of us have made connections with friends,” said Matoney. “I've already had opportunities to go do things with them on orders because I've made connections.”

Matoney had some final words during their joint presentation.

“The point of all this is, even though it’s hard and we did go through some crazy things, you will learn to have fun and you still find things to do to make connections,” she said. “It’s just so worth it and I’ve had the best time of my life over there.”