by Trey Early, CRNA, MSN
Former Army Nurse Corps Officer
42nd Field Hospital from Fort Knox, Ky.
Deactivated upon return from Somalia
In 1993, I boarded a Blackhawk helicopter for a short ride from the former U.S. embassy in Somalia to an airfield that was once Mogadishu International Airport. I was thrilled to be returning home. In my rapid departure I was leaving with few personal items, mostly standard Army issued equipment: protective vest, Kevlar helmet, and uniforms that showed the stress of living in a desert for only 14 weeks.
I looked down at the former U.S. embassy compound and its heavily guarded perimeter. There were military units from many countries: Morocco, Germany, Turkey, Pakistan, Denmark, Egypt, and England. They were all living and working for one purpose: to help distribute food and institute some peace in a country plagued with famine, war, and disease.
In the beginning of the deployment, life was slow and filled with boredom. The 42nd Field Hospital replaced a Combat Support Hospital from Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and they left us the portable medical facility and all the living quarters. We spent much time reading, talking, and searching for anything of entertainment value.
We made numerous trips throughout the city for healthcare missions or to deliver donations to those in need, which was just about anyone living in Somalia. The people had so little that they valued anything that was given to them. The Somalis were survivors of famine and war. Many homes were made with branches and plastic. Some Somalis lived in single room cement buildings with broken walls. Furnishings included one or two blankets and maybe a single wooden chair. Everything they needed was in low supply, including drinking water.
One small school was located outside our heavily guarded main gate. The children sat on the ground as an adult gave instruction. I saw several boys with infected wounds to legs, arms, and heads. The flies swarmed the open wounds and were not brushed away. Some would bring basic first aid supplies to treat wounds. Others would choose to do nothing, knowing that nobody would return to clean and redress these wounds.
As the helicopter turned south, I could see the main roads that were once safe for the American and coalition soldiers to travel. That ended in the summer of 1993. Any military's personnel would become targets for the drugged Somali gangs. Convoy ambushes and attacks on the military units were frequent. Leaving the compound was dangerous and no longer authorized; neither were the medical missions throughout the city of Mogadishu.
The Somalis were experienced and hardened warriors. Their AK-47 assault rifles were deadly and caused tremendous injuries to soldiers. First, the Pakistani soldiers were slaughtered, then the Italians, followed by the Americans, civilian journalists and American construction workers. The injuries were typical of those inflicted by any high velocity weapon. Unimpressive entrance wounds and large exit wounds left open wounds void of muscle, skin, and soft tissue. The wounds were similar but the cultural reactions to this trauma was different. I viewed the Pakistani soldiers as scared, the Italians emotional, the Americans angry, and Somalis curious.
The 42nd Field Hospital also treated many noncombat related injuries: snake bites, fever of unknown origins, malaria, heart attacks, sports injuries, unplanned pregnancies, and motor vehicle accidents. Patients would move through the hospital system rapidly, usually on air-evac flights within a few days. We would stay busy at times and then struggle with long days of boredom.
My flight out of Mogadishu was on a C-5 cargo plane. As we rolled down the runway I prayed we would have a safe flight and I thanked God I am an American. I will remember the most beautiful cloud-filled skies, the beer we smuggled from the Egyptian PX, poker games, hours of conversation, and all the books read. I will miss the nurses, physicians, and medics and I will see a few again at another assignment.
I arrived on the east coast two days after leaving Somalia and would have to find a commercial flight back to Fort Knox, Kentucky. In the airport, strangers asked me where I had been and what it was like in Somalia. At the time and even to this day, all I could tell them about Somalia was that it was a miserable and sad place.
The 42nd Field Hospital would remain in Somalia for several more weeks prior to redeployment back to Fort Knox. I was redeployed and on my way to Texas to attend anesthesia school in San Antonio. I would closely follow any news from Somalia. I would learn about the killing of the rangers and delta force soldiers. During the next several months I would watch the rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces from Somalia. Ten years later Somalia remains unchanged despite a worldwide effort to make improvements. It remains a dead spot in Africa and a highly hazardous country to travel.
Most agree that short term goals were met, primarily distributing food donations to the Somalis. Operation Restore Hope would be viewed as a success by some, but others see it was only delaying the death of a country and its people. The combat patch was awarded to those deployed to Somalia. Occasionally I meet someone who spent time in country. Most are healthcare providers who share different opinions than those of the soldiers who had to fight for their lives. Few, if any, have special memories of goodwill and helping people in need. This deployment remains a phase in one's military life that just comes your way and is accepted.