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BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 25, 2008 – Wounded by improvised explosive devices, 4-year-old Elmorad -- who the troops have affectionately nicknamed “Elmo” -- and 6-year-old Parmina are in the recovery ward at the American Hospital here.
Elmo, whose body is covered in blisters and burns, has had several skin grafts and is awaiting more. His bottom lip is so swollen he cannot close it. Bandages cover spots where the skin has yet to heal. But his eyes sparkle whenever he receives visitors who bring him gifts.
His favorites are the balloons Army Spc. Karla Tyson, who volunteers her time, dutifully blows up for him. He also reaches for the small soccer ball and nods his head in appreciation. His older brother, who stays around the clock assisting him, smiles. This is his brother’s life for the time being, and it might be for a long time afterward.
Parmina is blind from an IED blast, but that has not dampened her spirits. Lying on her bed in a purple sweatshirt covered in embroidered flowers, she has clear goggles to protect her eyes and is talking and singing a mile a minute. The giggly girl happily constructs a car out of a set of building toys and makes “vroom” noises and sings to it. She clutches the fuzzy duck a volunteer handed to her and tells her father she loves how soft it is.
When it’s time to go, Parmina says “bye bye” in perfect English and waves several times, her little hands covered in traditional red dye. Her father points at the stack of gifts Parmina has received and smiles.
The children are heartbreaking examples of war’s innocent victims, yet they shock all those around them with the resolve and good humor they both seem to have. Despite the incredible pain they endure, neither child makes a single complaint.
Air Force Capt. Marianne Kehoe is the American Hospital’s chaplain. She serves as the liaison for Senior Master Sgt. Patrick D. Porter, who is responsible for collecting and distributing donations from folks back home.
“I have some friends in the states, Master Sgt. Barry Haan and Master Sgt. Henry Hayes, who did a toy drive and sent four large boxes of toys here,” Porter said. Other donations come from individuals who volunteer at the hospital or from other sources on base.
Two or three children are sent to the American Hospital per month, Kehoe said. The kids come from outlying forward operating bases or the Egyptian Hospital, also located here. They arrive at the American Hospital in bad shape, and at the beginning are usually indifferent to outside stimuli due to their trauma.
“I like seeing their personalities emerge,” Kehoe said. “When Parmina arrived, she was unresponsive and not interactive at all, and now she's ‘Miss Chatterbox,’ which is wonderful.”
Porter said he got involved with the hospital mission by attending Operation Care meetings.
Operation Care is a not-for-profit, nondenominational, private charitable organization made up of military and civilian volunteers dedicated to providing goodwill and welfare to the people of Afghanistan and, especially, to its children, said Navy Lt. Sara O’Neil, Operation Care’s president.
“At a meeting, someone asked for (a volunteer) to step up and take the program, so I grabbed at the chance,” said Porter, who added he works with two Army noncommissioned officers exclusively: Sgt. Caroline Roman, and Staff Sgt. Randy Merrill.
“We get teams together on Friday and go to the hospital to meet up with Chaplain Kehoe, who lets us know how many kids we have and what rooms and limitations they may have,” Porter said.
Kehoe said she regularly monitors the patients’ status, because sometimes they are sleeping or not feeling up for visitors.
“I let Master Sergeant Porter know how many kids we have and their conditions, so he can prep his volunteers,” Kehoe said. “I also talk with the nursing staff before the visits to see if there are any special care precautions.” Visitors often have to wear a mask and gloves to protect the kids from germs and infection.
Porter and his volunteers do not always know what to expect when they arrive, especially if the patient is a new one.
“Most of the kids do not speak English and are somewhat apprehensive the first time they see us, but are all smiles at the end,” he said. “Most stay for several weeks, so they see us numerous times.
“The parents or guardians seem very appreciative of the visit and the opportunity to talk to folks other than the hospital people,” Porter continued. “It is an opportunity to give back to people who have nothing. It is awkward at first, but you get used to the kids quickly, and smiles are the universal language everyone understands.”
(From a Combined Joint Task Force 82 news release.)