For service members stationed in Afghanistan, the term â€œImprovised Explosive Deviceâ€ is commonly used. Many Soldiers know someone who has been involved in a blast, while many more have experienced it firsthand. But what happens when children are outside playing with their friends and get caught up in an attack?
Four-year-old Elmorad and 6-year-old Parmina, whom the troops have affectionately nicknamed â€œElmo,â€ are in the Recovery Ward at the American Hospital. Elmo, whose little 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 Elmoâ€™s eyes sparkle whenever he receives visitors, who bring everything from coloring books to stuffed animals to Matchbox cars.
Elmoâ€™s favorites are the balloons volunteer Spc. Karla Tyson dutifully blows up for him. He also reaches for the small soccer ball and nods his head in appreciation. His older brother, who stays round-the-clock assisting him, smiles as he takes care of his charge. This is his brotherâ€™s life for the time being and it might be for a long time afterward.
Parmina is blind due to 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 little girl happily constructs a car out of a set of building toys and makes â€œvroomâ€ 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 itâ€™s time to go, Parmina says â€œbye byeâ€ in perfect English and waves several times, her little hands covered in traditional red dye. Her father is there and points at the stack of gifts Parmina has received and smiles.
These two heartbreaking stories highlight the atrocities of war, and shock all those around with the resolve and good humor the children both seem to have. Both are in obvious incredibly amounts of pain, but neither child makes a single complaint.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Marianne Kehoe is the American Hospitalâ€™s chaplain. She serves as the liaison for Senior Master Sgt. Patrick D. Porter, who is responsible for collecting and distributing donations from the folks back home.
â€œI 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,â€ said Porter.
Other donations come from individuals who volunteer at the hospital or from other sources on base.
Between two and 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.
The children arrive at the American Hospital in bad shape and at the beginning are usually pretty indifferent to outside stimuli due to their trauma.
â€œI like seeing their personalities emerge,â€ said Kehoe. For example, â€œwhen Parmina arrived, she was unresponsive and not interactive at all and now she’s â€˜Miss Chatterbox,â€™ which is wonderful.â€
Porter said he got involved with the hospital mission by attending Operation Care meetings.
Operation Care is a not-for-profit, non-denominational, private charitable organization comprised of military and civilian volunteers assigned to the Afghanistan Theater of Operations dedicated to providing goodwill and welfare to the people of Afghanistan and, especially, to its children, said U.S. Navy Lt. Sara Oâ€™Neil, Operation Careâ€™s president.
â€œAt a meeting, someone asked for (a volunteer) to step up and take the program so I grabbed at the chance,â€ said Porter, who added he works with two Army Non-Commissioned Officers exclusively: Sgt. Caroline Roman, and Staff Sgt. Randy Merrill.
â€œBetween the three of us, we get teams together on Friday (afternoons) 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,â€ said Porter.
Kehoe said she regularly monitors the status of the patients, because sometimes they are sleeping or not feeling up for visitors.
â€œI let Master Sgt. Porter know how many kids we have and their conditions so he can prep his volunteers. I also talk with the nursing staff before the visits to see if there are any special care precautions,â€ said Kehoe, who added visitors oftentimes have to wear a mask and gloves in order to protect the kids from germs and infection.
When New Patients Arrive
Porter and his volunteers do not always know what to expect when they arrive, especially if the patient is a new one.
â€œMost of the kids do not speak English and are somewhat apprehensive the first time they see us but are all smiles at the end. Most stay for several weeks, so they see us numerous times,â€ said Porter.
â€œThe parents or guardians seem very appreciative of the visit and the opportunity to talk to folks other than the hospital people. 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.â€