David McCann and Richard Atkin spent much of the last year helping to operate a medical clinic in Afghanistan, where they witnessed the wounds of war.
With five tours of National Guard duty between them, the natives of Rochester and Lockport, respectively, were among 38 members of the National Guard’s Company C, 427th Brigade Support Battalion, charged with caring for the sick and injured, counseling the mentally anguished and generally running one large clinic in Kandahar and a second, smaller one nearby.
Sunday, the unit – its doctors, nurses, medics, mental health specialists and administrators – was honored with a “Freedom Salute” ceremony in the Connecticut Armory to mark its third month since returning from Afghanistan.
The unit was called up last January and deployed in April. During deployment, its members provided care to more than 5,000 patients, mostly American troops and coalition forces as well as civilian contractors. Ten of the unit members also provided care to Afghan prisoners in a detention facility, said 1st Sgt. Gary Darnell.
“We read in the scriptures, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’ And we honor the peacemakers today,” the unit was told during the hourlong ceremony.
After the ceremony, several of the unit members shared some of their experiences with The Buffalo News, talking about the progress American troops have made rebuilding Afghanistan and also how the Afghan insurgency has continued the shooting and bombing that continue to injure and kill American troops and civilian contractors.
“The fighting is spotty,” said Staff Sgt. Atkin. One day, he said, the airfield where the medical clinic is located was subjected to a full day of rocket attacks by insurgents. No one on the airfield was killed, he said.
At 51, Atkin was among the oldest members of his unit. He served in the U.S. Navy before joining the National Guard in 2008. This was his second tour in Afghanistan. He served both times as part of the medical supply support team that orders and distributes medical supplies.
Staff Sgt. McCann had the most National Guard experience of any of the unit members, having served one tour in Iraq and two in Afghanistan. As a civilian, McCann works as a salvage diver. In the National Guard, McCann is a medic, trained to provide patient care.
“I believe in what we are doing,” he said.
Neither McCann nor Atkin would offer an opinion on President Obama’s recent announcement that the United States would accelerate the process of winding down the American presence in Afghanistan, thereby speeding up the time frame to hand security of the country over to the Afghan forces.
“In my opinion, it is his decision to make,” Atkin said.
“If the commander-in-chief thinks it’s a good idea, who am I to say?” added McCann.
Nonetheless, the comments from the two men, and others in their medical unit, said situation in Afghanistan is complex.
America has done a lot of good there, McCann said.
‘We built bridges, and paved roads,” he said. “We are helping them to rebuild.”
Because of American involvement, the Afghan people have more freedom, Atkin said. America also has done a good job training Afghan troops and police to control the country when U.S. troops leave, he added, saying: “They can handle most things.”
But the insurgents in the country want to take over the country and bring the Taliban back to power, he said.
The Afghan people who worked with the unit on the base were very friendly toward American troops – but the insurgents continue planting roadside bombs, added Spc. Ashley Schmitt of Rochester, also in the unit. She served as a patient administration specialist at the medical clinic.
Others in the unit include four Guard members from Buffalo: Sgt. Joseph O’Connor, Sgt. Sarah Lamparelli, Sgt. Pablo Hurtada and Lt. Catherine Deren.
“I loved the job there,” said Hurtada, 26, who studies psychology at Daemen College. He served as a behavioral health officer at the clinic.
“I was doing something for my country,” added Deren, 25, a recent graduate of the University at Buffalo, where she received a degree in exercise science. “There’s a sense of pride.”
Deren, who was a clinic administrator in Afghanistan, said she thinks it’s time for American troops to leave Afghanistan.
“Overall, we’ve been there too long,” she said.
Hurtada didn’t offer an opinion on whether it was time to leave Afghanistan, but did say he noticed the troops he encountered seemed more anxious during this tour of duty than his previous tour.
Nonetheless, like most other unit members interviewed, Hurtada said that if needed, he would return to serve his country and troops.