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Women's History Month Highlight: All-women medic team supports mission welcoming Afghan allies

  • Published
  • By Maj. Mary Hook
  • 162nd Wing

In late August 2021, the Department of Defense issued a call for volunteers to support Operation Allies Welcome, the federal government’s effort to safely resettle Afghan refugees. Within a month, three medics from the 162nd Wing’s medical group—all women—answered that call.

“When I heard about it, I had just finished the COVID mission, running all over Arizona. I heard about [OAW] and knew that was something I wanted to do,” said Staff Sgt. Nora Mena.

By October 2021, Mena, Senior Airman Alicea Owen, and Senior Airman Jasmine Brower, were on their way to Holloman AFB, New Mexico, one of eight safe havens offering temporary housing and support for more than 7,000 Afghan citizens, or “guests.” Once the medics arrived, Mena said, “We hit the ground running.”

“It was exciting when I volunteered for it and got the go-ahead, but getting there and seeing the thousands of people was eye opening,” said Owen. “You think you know what you’re getting into, but you don’t truly know until you’re there.”

All three medics were initially assigned to Expeditionary Medical Support (EMEDS), where they treated guests with a range of urgent to emergency care needs. In a short time, they addressed a variety of trauma from burns to heart attacks.

“I wasn’t anticipating to work that many hours and for that long, but being able to cope with that volume of mission and having to take care of that many people just brought into perspective that we are ready,” said Mena.

While the operation differed from a more traditional combat deployment, the airmen found that the logistics and infrastructure resembled an expeditionary environment, allowing them to exercise their skills and readiness.

“We went from a staffed clinic setting like at the base to being all hands on deck right away, which was great because some of us hadn’t had that hands-on experience yet,” said Brower. “Although it was stateside and we were on a base, it still looked like a deployed city.”

Mena eventually moved to an assignment as the non-commissioned officer in charge of the OBGYN unit, overseeing the care of more than 250 pregnant Afghan women. Brower was called upon to assist in a variety of areas, including medical logistics and local COVID response efforts.

“It was nice to say that I was able to move around in this mission and do things outside my [career field] that I wouldn’t normally do,” said Brower. “I even moved from medical logistics to the 49th Medical Group at Holloman during peak COVID season as everyone was getting tested. Several of us went over there and conducted sometimes 200 tests a day. It was non-stop.”

As the mission progressed, medical needs slowed, and guests left their temporary homes on base to resettle in their new communities across the country. The airmen reflected on the experience of helping aid in this transition, not only through their primary medical care roles, but also by personally engaging with guests.

“My favorite part of the experience was being able to see the growth from the guests,” said Brower. “When we got there, it was so busy medical-wise. But later, it was amazing to go to their soccer games and see them play and see them smile and interact in a normal setting as they usually would.”

“A lot of them had anxiety being in a new country and not knowing the language,” Owen added. “We just made it a point to play with the kids, and communicate in ways we could, and to make sure they knew we were there to help them and make them feel safe. Because we are the first impression of the people they’re going to be living around.”

The airmen stayed at Holloman through the end of the mission in January 2022, seeing the last family of guests depart the base for their new homes. While the airmen were proud of the support they offered Afghan citizens, they also recognized their efforts as an act of gratitude.

“Just hearing the stories of these people and what they had been through, you stop and think of how grateful you are for what you have in the states, and being able to welcome them and thank them for what they did for us,” said Mena. “I thought it was just rewarding.”