Work in a war zone

2014-05-27 00:00

JACK Haskins Jnr’s steel bedroom in Afghanistan shakes every day — from fighter jets taking off; from Taliban rockets landing nearby; from car bombs outside the fence.

Having already saved dozens of lives as a chopper paramedic in Durban and Pietermaritzburg in his young career, Haskins has spent the past two months as a “medical mercenary”, treating war wounds at an American-run Nato air force base in Kandahar.

Haskins (28) is one of six South African medics deployed to treat Nato and Afghan soldiers — as well as the occasional Taliban fighter — by the global “hostile locations” medical service RMSI. South African medics are preferred for the hotspots, he said, “because we’re used to dealing with serious trauma”.

Teased with the nickname “Half-Jack” — as the son of legendary Maritzburg search-and-rescue Lieutenant Jack Haskins senior — Haskins’s desert deployment is moving him out from his father’s shadow fast.

In December — when the 15 000-strong air base closes down in Kandahar, following U.S. President Barack Obama’s withdrawal order — Haskins expects to be manning medevac helicopters in Iraq.

But before the giant base closes “we’re expecting a farewell present from the Taliban — lots of action as the base winds down”.

The flight paramedic is back in KZN for a 10-day rest period before returning to Afghanistan this weekend.

“It’s been really exciting; I’ve learnt a lot,” he said.

Having followed his father and his dog on search-and-rescue operations as a teenager, Haskins worked on Netcare’s medical choppers in Durban before switching to a similar role with ER24.

He admits to having been attracted to the hard currency earnings of a global war zone paramedic, as well as the key experience.

Haskins said he was “lucky” to be housed in his own shipping container, near the airfield and the base hospital: a steel box with a bed, a fridge and, “most importantly”: an airconditioning unit.

“Summer is just starting, and its going to get pretty close to 55 degrees,” he said. “The Tornados, F-16s and F-15s take off from pretty close by, and the whole container shakes.”

A typical day?

“Well, I remember being in the DFAC [mess hall] when the sirens went off, with a recorded message repeating ‘Rocket attack! Rocket attack!’,” he said. “So we dived under the table and just had our chow there.”

Haskins said base medics had to don ballistic helmets and bulletproof vests during frequent rocket attacks — “the rockets often overshoot the whole base” — and when transferring patients from civilian Kandahar ambulances, “which are like morgue vans in South Africa — no equipment in there except a tray for the guy to lie on. We often found Afghan gunshot patients who had had no treatment at all.”

In additional to acting as the base ambulance service, their primary job, he said, was to collect wounded soldiers and civilians from Black Hawk helicopters or local ambulances; to assess and stabilise them; and to transport them to the base hospital, known as “Role-3”.

But that hospital, he said, was “like nothing you’ve ever seen: in addition to the ICU beds, there are five trauma beds in casualty, and each bed has its own neuro surgeon; general surgeon; thoracic surgeon; anaesthetist and nurses.

“The Americans don’t mess around when it comes to resources — if I needed some piece of equipment, they’d sort me out with a replacement within the week.”

He said the RMSI team had “certainly saved a few lives” during the spring.

“There’s an abundance of trauma — IED bomb blasts; gunshots to head and to limbs. We didn’t see gun shots to the chest because everyone wears body armour. On one occasion we were told to meet two Black Hawks with two red code patients, but when they arrived there were five red codes — you have to adjust pretty fast.

“Mainly, we’re checking the patient’s airway; their vital signs and that there is no active bleeding.”

Fresh from recovering two glider pilots’ bodies and rescuing an injured Drakensberg hiker this weekend, Jack Haskins Snr said: “He can handle himself, but I’m pretty proud.”

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