- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 12, 2008

BAGRAM, Afghanistan - The plastic breathing tube helped keep 1 1/2-year-old Latifa alive after a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near her home during heavy fighting between Taliban insurgents and U.S. forces.

During the battle several weeks ago, shrapnel tore through her skull and damaged her trachea. Complications from surgery followed, but Latifa is expected to survive.

“Thanks be to God,” said her grandfather, Sharaf, an ethnic Pashtun from Kapisa province north of Kabul.

“She is blessed to be here. Everything here is more than what I can imagine doing for her at home - she is like a flower. I´m very poor, and we cannot afford to take her to Pakistan for help. The doctors and nurses here have treated us like family.”

Sharaf, who like many Afghans uses one name, spoke through an impromptu translator, Dr. Walayat Shah, an Afghan physician working alongside U.S. military personnel at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Air Base.

Just then, Sharaf turned toward Latifa with a smile, put her tiny soft hands in the rough fold of his.

“We call her Queen Latifa,” said Capt. Tiffanie Rampley, 36, a registered nurse from Spokane, Wash., who has been a primary care nurse for the little girl. “She´s beautiful.”

Latifa is one of the lucky ones, said Air Force Maj. Phylis Jones, the nurse in charge of the hospital’s intensive care ward.

“For each kid that we see that´s injured like this, there are maybe thousands more that don´t get the same care throughout the country,” she said.

“And it´s not just the children, but U.S. soldiers, Afghan security forces and other villagers from around the country that are treated here,” Maj. Jones said.

With Afghanistan among the world’s poorest countries, the ability of villagers to reach health care providers is many times impossible.

For soldiers on the front lines of the war, the Bagram hospital - which conducts nearly 200 surgeries a month and has about 38 beds - is a “godsend” as well, say medical personnel at the facility.

The new facility for U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force was completed in March 2007, and from the inside, it resembles almost any hospital in the United States.

Beyond the number of children, Tuesday night was no different from any other night. The beds were filled with the injured, both U.S. troops and Afghan soldiers.

Also in intensive care was a child who had burned nearly 40 percent of his body in an accident with a kerosene lamp.

Another child, Mohammed, 7, had just had a lifesaving surgery to remove a large benign tumor from his lung.

Mohammed spent the day watching the movie “Night at the Museum” and playing with his stuffed toy cat, “Pishak.”

Every child was accompanied by a guardian at the hospital, and sometimes, the U.S. military offers jobs to those on base who cannot afford to be without work while their children are seeking treatment, Maj. Jones said.

The three operating rooms, which can turn into six surgical rooms, in the case of a “dire emergency,” are most always in use, said Air Force Col. Charles E. Potter, the hospital´s administrator and deputy command surgeon for Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.

“Originally, the Afghani people had a lot of fear when it came to accepting help from us at the hospital,” Col. Potter said. “Now that these guardians have been here and see the kind of care we take and work we´re doing, they have spread the word through their villages. It is part of reaching out to the hearts and minds. We´ve found a way to come together.”

As Latifa lay recovering from war wounds, so were a number of U.S. soldiers, some of whom preparing to fly to Germany and then to the United States for additional treatment.

There are roughly 200 scheduled medical evacuation flights a month from Bagram carrying battle-injured troops and other troops with serious medical conditions out of the country, Col. Potter said.

The hospital’s Task Force Med consists of a combat surgical staff and the Air Force 455th Expeditionary Medical Group.

Down the hall from Latifa, another victim of a separate rocket-propelled grenade attack, Army Sgt. 1st Class Pablo Cadena, of San Diego, who looked off into the distance as nurses checked the wound on his leg.

On Tuesday, he received the Purple Heart in a ceremony at the hospital. His convoy had been attacked Monday, shortly after he and others stepped outside their vehicle, he said.

Sgt. Cadena still hadn´t informed family members of his injuries.

“I just don´t want to call them yet,” the young soldier told the nurse, who was preparing him for a flight to Germany. “I know I can use the phone, I just don´t want them to worry.”

She complied, respecting his wish not to notify his two brothers. One of his best combat buddies, whose name is withheld pending notification of his family, lay in the intensive care unit just up the hall from him.

His injuries - from the same attack - were so severe that he could only move his eyes.

Sgt. Cadena asked the nurses to take him over to the intensive care unit so that he could speak to his fellow soldier before both were to be air lifted to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, in Ramstein, Germany.

Four nurses rolled his sergeant’s bed to intensive care. They dropped the bedside bars and pushed the two beds together so the soldiers could be close.

Sgt. Cadena took his friend’s hand into his. The gravely wounded soldier opened his eyes when he heard the sergeant’s voice.

“I´m glad to see you man,” Sgt. Cadena said as tears swelled in his eyes. “Just think, we get to go home tomorrow. We´re flying out. … Take care of yourself.”

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