Tuesday, December 8, 2009
FLIGHT Sergeant Tony Kyle’s first shift on his maiden tour to Afghanistan is one he will never forget.
The Bishop Auckland-born nurse had been in Helmand Province only a matter of hours when he was faced with a major incident.
The 38-year-old arrived in Camp Bastion at the start of last month, but was almost instantly plunged into an emergency.
Multiple injuries were reported to the Medical Emergency Response Team (Mert) and once he had flown via Chinook helicopter out to the scene, miles outside of Camp Bastion, he discovered four patients – all with legs severed and bleeding heavily, more victims of improvised explosive devices – the Taliban’s deadliest weapon.
It was the Mert’s job to pull them out of trouble, treat them and make sure they arrived at the medical centre, at Camp Bastion, in the best possible condition. All the patients survived – it was the mother of all baptisms for Flt Sgt Kyle.
Back at the Mert’s camp, sitting on a large wooden table, covered with graffiti and names carved into the grain, Flt Sgt Kyle explains that it is something that he would soon get used to.
The former Parkside School student, from Oakenshaw, near Willington, County Durham is currently off duty, having completed a 24-hour shift – the norm for the Mert.
The team camp has been well personalised – a Mert sign, scrawled with marker on a piece of wood hangs above the door, just next a joke bag of blood.
They even have their own pets – a ginger kitten playfully attacks flies in the warm afternoon sun at the door to the canvas tent. Many camps will use vaccinated cats to control vermin.
Flt Sgt Kyle started his medical career in St John Ambulance before gaining a nursing qualification at Bishop Auckland College and going on to practise at Freeman Hospital, in Newcastle.
He joined the RAF, gaining an emergency nurse degree and worked in Portsmouth and Birmingham before being posted to Afghanistan this autumn.
His 24-hour shifts start at 10am with a briefing before the team, normally made up of a doctor, two paramedics and a nurse, heads to the helicopter to prepare equipment should a call come.
After that it is just a case of waiting. There’s admin work and other tasks to be done, but everything is immediately dropped if a casualty needs treatement. It’s not always as serious as Flt Sgt Kyle’s first shift.
“Sometimes it’s as simple as appendicitis or a high temperature, but that still means we fly out to the front line,”
says Flt Sgt Kyle.
Every trip comes with its dangers – the vital role of the Mert doesn’t go unnoticed by Taliban fighters.
“We have been shot at and had rounds go through the cabin because they want to take the helicopter down.
“One of my colleagues was in the front of the helicopter when a round just missed his head and it was only afterwards that you realise how close he came.
“When it is happening the adrenaline is pumping and you just don’t have time to think.”
Flt Sgt Kyle said he regularly speaks to his parents Norma and George, who live in Oakenshaw, but rarely goes into detail about his job.
“My mum and dad are petrified for me, so I try to keep as much from them as possible.
“I have had to treat Afghan children and it is at times like that you start reflecting on things back home,” said Flt Sgt Kyle, who has one son and another child on the way.
As part of the Geneva Convention, Flt Sgt Kyle is required to treat an injured member of the Taliban with the same care and attention that he would give to a British soldier. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that two men who hours earlier had been involved in a gun battle against each other, could be lying side by side in a hospital bed at Camp Bastion. But Flt Sgt Kyle says giving medical treatment to the enemy is not something that concerns him.
“Patients are patients to us,” he says.
“We are here to save lives and it doesn’t matter if they are Taliban, Afghan or British – it could be anybody.”
Just a few hours before speaking to Flt Sgt Kyle, Camp Bastion had been under a communications lockdown – when there is a ban on outgoing phone calls in the wake of a fatality or serious injury.
This time, it is following an injury to a soldier, but Flt Sgt Kyle says news of a communications lockdown always brings on sadness among soldiers.
“There is a depression that sets in and people do grieve because they know that someone is badly hurt or dead,” he says. “But one thing I have realised is that people here are so professional they get on with their jobs. Even though their best friend might have died, they just carry on.”