Hill’s resilient chief nurse serves in a resilient country

HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Resilience is a term today’s Airmen hear often. One Hill Air Force Base nurse has lived a life full of resilience and put it to use in a country in great need of the same.

Lt. Col. Kristin Carlson, 75th Medical Group chief nurse, recently returned from a short-notice deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan, where she was a team lead and senior medical adviser at New Kabul Compound. She worked with the Afghan National Army and Ministry of Defense to generate a strategic vision for Afghan troops’ medical care.

Her preparation began long before she put on a uniform or went to combat-skills training.

Carlson grew up in a postcard-perfect fishing village in southern Maine. Her father, who made his living on the water, was gone often. Watching her parents taught her that hard work and determination are a necessity in life. At age 10, she started setting her own lobster traps to earn money.

With her father out fishing on the North Atlantic Ocean, Carlson and her mother set off for the water six mornings a week during the summer. They pushed her skiff into the calm waters of the small harbor and set out to her check her traps. They sold the lobsters to the New Harbor Co-Op and replenished their bait and fuel for the next morning. 

“Everyone worked hard, no one was rich,” she said.

Her parents were adamant about Carlson attending college, and they sent her at age 18 to the University of Miami, where she majored in engineering. Like most teenagers away from home, she was “having a good time.” Studies came second. A year later, she was married and back in Maine.

She didn’t stop working toward her future. She enrolled in a four-year nursing program at Husson University in Bangor, Maine. Staying afloat was tough. Her first husband didn’t support her.

She drove down to New Harbor on the weekends. While her mother watched her newborn son, she waited tables Friday, pulled a double shift on Saturday and another shift on Sunday, then back to schoolwork and nursing clinicals on Monday.

After she graduated, she couldn’t find work. She was being held back by the steady undertow of: “can’t get a job without experience, can’t get experience without a job.”

After a short stint working in a nursing home, she knew elder care wasn’t her calling. She decided to join the military, and the Air Force was her best option.

Two decades later, the remarried mother of six was facing her first deployment, one filled with uncertainties. New Kabul Compound is as far from New Harbor, Maine, as nursing is from lobstering. But, life takes you places you’d never expect. 

When she landed in Afghanistan, her medical team met her at the airport in two up-armored commercial SUVs — all medical personnel, all carrying weapons. They served as their own protection.

“It was a bit overwhelming. I’d never been in a Third World country before. Here I am in a convoy being led by a medical admin troop, and our driver is a kidney doctor. It takes a while to adjust to the crowds, the garbage, the goats,” Carlson said.

One member of their team measured the progress of public health education by the amount of feces measured in the air. It had dropped an encouraging 13 percent since 2006. 

At NKC, which was located outside the embassy green zone, Carlson worked seven days a week. The team would venture “outside the wire” four to five times a week, traveling throughout the city to meetings with government and military officials.

“We did a lot of sitting and talking and listening to stories. Then we would get a chance to advise on implementing strategies for recruiting the right people, sustaining the force, training and improving their medical logistics system,” Carlson said.

While she worked closely with the directors of the Afghan National Army and National Police, her husband scoured outlets for news coverage from Afghanistan. It seemed like the war was forgotten.

“There were times when we wondered if we were making a difference, but being able to talk through and reflect often put things in perspective. Most of the time, it wasn’t the major accomplishments, but the small, sometimes personal impacts we made and could see in the faces of the Afghans,” said Lt. Col. Dawn Brooks, who was deployed with Carlson and knew her from their days in training at Keesler AFB, Mississippi.

Their work was important. The medical care has been vital this year, as the Afghan National Army and police forces have suffered record casualties in the first months of 2015 in their fight against the Taliban.

The frequent trips outside the wire put the entire team in danger. IEDs were common. One member of the New Kabul Compound team was killed when his throat was slashed while he was outside his vehicle directing traffic. It was tense.

“The Taliban was really good at hiding and operating in the urban environment. The more people they could kill, civilian or not, they gained notoriety and press,” Carlson said.

One morning, Carlson woke up after a fitful night’s sleep. She had a strange feeling and wrote this note to her husband, whom she calls her best friend, in a green notebook she carried with her: “I love you. I love the kids.”

She was scheduled to convoy across Kabul to a warehouse with an eight-person medical team. Minutes before they left, a member of her team had to run back inside and look for his lost wedding ring in the gym. They waited.

Right outside the gates, a blast shook the compound. A pillar of dark smoke rose into the sky. Two Americans and one Polish soldier were killed, and more than 20 troops and civilians were wounded when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb into another convoy right in front of NKC.

Immediately, the team went into action, helping the wounded. Carlson was part of the secondary care team, treating concussions, cuts and bruises.

“I found it surreal how strong people can be and how much they can handle when they come together for a common cause and the greater good for others,” Brooks said.

Medics handled the more severely wounded; others gathered body parts.

“It really reinforced what is still going on in Afghanistan. I don’t think people understand the dangers that are still there for coalition forces and Afghan civilians,” Carlson said.

By the time her deployment was over, Carlson had developed a faith in the Afghan people. She said the relationships she developed were based on trust and collaboration. The nurse, whose early life had taught her how to work hard and rebuild, saw kindred spirits.

“The country has a long way to go, but if you want to see determination and resilience, look at the Afghans I worked with over there. They care about their country,” Carlson said.

Lt. Col. Carlson was awarded the Bronze Star for her work in Afghanistan and has been selected for promotion to colonel.

“Kristin is an amazingly smart, strong and hilarious lady. Her energy is endless,” Brooks said.

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