Forward Surgical Team, Forward Operating Base Apache
Qalat, Zabul province, Afghanistan
Before election day, we spent weeks planning for the arrival of mass casualties at our surgical center. War never fully disappoints. So we did receive both salvageable and unsalvageable victims. Our fears of a massive casualty event did not materialize. Voters actually reached the polls in our smaller town. In Kabul, voters — including women — reached the polls in record numbers. The morning’s Afghan headlines called it a victory over the Taliban. My favorite quote: from a woman who’d voted to “slap the Taliban in the face.” Did any of us really think we would someday read this?
Just after the new year, there were still 11 candidates for president. By the time of the election earlier this month, there were eight. The three who dropped out did so for practical safety. The Taliban was promising voters that they would lose their lives or at least their voting fingers.
It seems that an election here is more of a miracle than a right. But despite dire promises and certain uncertainty, it also seems that something the West could not have effected by simple desire has occurred. Afghans went to the polls — in some cases traveling to several to find one that still had ballots — and voted. The voter percentage turnout not only exceeded estimates, but it also exceeded turnout of a modern U.S. presidential election. Clearly, one election doesn’t solve all problems, but this election illuminates the convictions of Afghans and the desires of Afghan women — and makes soldiers here feel their presence is worth the risk and treasure spent.
After we finished the election trauma cases, our interpreter asked me if I would be interested in attending evening prayer with him at the mosque on base. I was. Of course, I did not understand what was being said in Arabic. But I was reminded by the visit that it is our inability to hear each other that is a primary source of human friction.
In the 1996 movie “Courage Under Fire,” actress Meg Ryan portrays a female Army pilot. The movie has more than one plot line, but I gravitate toward two: uncertainty in chaos/war and courage as a personal choice possessed by everyone. Of course, this story is just that. In real life, few of us will be individually celebrated — let alone be truly courageous. Fortunately, some humans are examples of courage in desperate circumstances. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are notable for giving willingly of themselves for the good of others they would never meet.
One spring day nine years ago, I happened upon an excerpt from a longer speech by former Czech Republic President Václav Havel in which he explained that “hope” was not the simple quality of cheering for the nearly obvious winner, but risking yourself for what you believe to be right, regardless of the outcome. By this measure, it seems to me that the Afghan election — just to have occurred with both genders voting — is representative of enormous national hope and individual courage. Paraphrasing the first President Bush — this election took millions of points of courage.
On the morning of the election, I took a picture at 5 a.m. looking east. In it, a light about 3 miles from the edge of our perimeter can be seen in the hills. Three hours after I took the photo, four members of the Afghan police were caught by an IED. We were able to save the lives and limbs of two of these men, who had been working to keep the road clear for the election. To a degree, they all four succeeded. To a degree, so did we.
Every day, I listen to those around me interpret the same information, newspaper, or human story. Recently, it has struck me that at the very front end of every day we all make a choice. Is the glass half-full? Am I invested in those around me? Or not? This very first choice colors our day, our willingness to go the extra and uncertain mile for another — with no guarantee regarding the outcome. Perhaps that choice is the most important choice we will ever make; it’s not likely that we will be told. But, when it comes, it will be like Robert Frost said: “and that has made all the difference.”
Focus on the mission. Stay alert.
Dr. Matthew D. Putnam is a professor of orthopedics at the University of Minnesota and a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. He is assigned to the 945/934th Forward Surgical Team in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his alone.