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Final Days in Afghanistan: Lab Techs Stepped Up to Support Withdrawal

Image of Final Days in Afghanistan Lab Techs Stepped Up to Support Withdrawal. David Grant Medical Group Air Force lab techs deployed to Afghanistan in 2021 to support Operation Allies Refuge.

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It was a hot summer afternoon last year in Kabul, Afghanistan, when Air Force Master Sgt. Grace Hodge, lab services section chief at David Grant Air Force Medical Center, in Fairfield, California, heeded an emergency call for all hands on deck.

Hodge had deployed to Bagram Air Base, just north of Kabul, in April, as the lab team’s noncommissioned officer in charge. She and her team were providing COVID-19 and trauma support while also closing down the medical treatment facility at Bagram to support the final withdrawal of U.S. forces.

As the events in Afghanistan grew increasingly chaotic, Hodge forward deployed in June to a hospital at the international airport outside Kabul.

There, she and her colleagues continued to process COVID-19 tests, blood work, and other routine lab tests as U.S. forces continued the troop drawdown and provided airlift support during the final days of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan.

Hodge also led the Blood Product Distribution Center for American efforts in Kabul, working directly with the U.S. Central Command’s Blood Transshipment Center in Qatar to provide whole blood products to treat wounded patients and service members.

ISIS Bomb Attack

On the afternoon of Aug. 26, 2021, Hodge was one of only two lab techs working alternate 24-hour shifts.

“I think I was the one on duty at that time,” she recalled.

The situation at the airport grew chaotic as the Taliban took over the area and thousands of Afghans, in their desperation to flee the Taliban, flocked to the airport to make it onto an outbound flight before the Aug. 31 deadline for the U.S. troop departure.

Confusion and chaos turned into horror as a suicide bomber attacked the crowds, setting off an explosion that killed more than 150 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members.

The attack forced troops to adapt their drawdown plans and respond to the mass casualty.

“Prior to the attack, teams were preparing to leave the area,” Hodge said. “Suddenly, everything changed, and our main goal shifted from COVID-19 support to blood supply and triage.”

She remembers the sound of pagers as everyone received the emergency alert.

“When patients arrived, it didn’t matter who you were,” said Hodge. “We helped anyone who needed it.”

Hodge, along with a team of lab workers from several other NATO countries, supported the trauma cases however they could, even providing toiletries, clothes, snacks, and other supplies the United Service Organizations had sent for the deployed troops.

“We were able to help a lot of people,” she said. “And I'm glad we were there when that happened because if we hadn’t been there, a lot more people would have died.”

A lab tech’s job during a mass casualty incident involves managing traumas, “making sure we have whole blood for the patients that need it, and taking blood samples for testing,” Hodge explained.

Much like the way her team did at Bagram Air Base, they “had to pick and choose” who stayed behind in Afghanistan and what capabilities remained operational.

“Some troops left earlier than us and some troops were retained [including Special Forces] in case anything else happened,” she said.

After the bomb attack, Hodge’s team still had to shut down the hospital at the airport in Kabul.

“We needed to complete the retrograde,” Hodge said, explaining the process that involves destroying patient records and other sensitive documents for safety as part of the evacuation.

Once the hospital was shut down, she boarded an aircraft out of Kabul with two important lessons. Lesson one: “Don’t take for granted what freedoms we have — always remember those service members who paid the ultimate sacrifice to have the freedoms we have.” Lesson two: “Always take training seriously because at any given time your role can change and fill that role to the best of your ability whether you are part of a security or triage team.”

Adrenaline Dump

Air Force Senior Airman Jacob Washington, a lab tech from Hodge’s team from Travis Air Force Base, deployed with Hodge to Afghanistan. 

“We were doing a lot of COVID-19 testing for different NATO countries,” he recalled. “We were processing so many people from so many different countries, fulfilling individual COVID testing requirements so [people] could safely fly back home to their country.” 

Leaving Bagram Air Base behind in June, the team continued their collaboration from different locations. Washington deployed to the U.S. military’s Blood Transshipment Center in Qatar, while Hodge headed to Kabul.

“When the blast occurred, a supervisor woke me up and told me to get to work — so I got to work,” Washington said. 

“Over the next couple of days, we shipped about 256 units [of blood products] into Kabul through various means because the resources were cut off and a lot of the flights were grounded.”

He said they needed to get “real creative with the ways to get blood there” including piggy-backing pallets of blood products on “flights with special operations teams that went in on much smaller planes.”

Troops at the airport in Kabul were in need, he said, and the emergency resulted in the troops assisting anyone who needed it. 

“The blood was going directly to the laboratory in Kabul whether it was for civilians, other services, other countries’ militaries … whoever needed the blood and was being treated as a trauma casualty at that time received the blood,” Washington said.

He recalled his experience in Afghanistan as unique because although he works in a large hospital, it’s not a trauma center. 

“I’m a blood bank specialist,” he said. “I know blood. I know how to give blood. I know who needs blood."

He acknowledged his training that prepared him for emergencies like this one. 

“Doing that was a very eye-opening experience,” he said. “It's really an adrenaline dump like nothing else. You find out exactly who everybody is in that moment.”

“It really makes you see the value of what you do firsthand, and I feel like that is something that I will not forget.”

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