NORTH TONAWANDA – Back home after a five-month stint working as a contract paramedic with the Army in Kabul, Afghanistan, Jeff Abbott had a new appreciation for the sacrifices of the military life and a new plan: found a 5-kilometer running race on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project.
The nonprofit aid organization for injured servicemen and women is a fitting tribute for the people he got to know from May to September of last year as he went out on medical calls that privacy concerns keep him from discussing in detail.
“We convoyed security personnel back and forth from the embassy to our base. When we were on the embassy, we provided care to any emergencies or sick calls on the embassy. It was enlightening. I have a better appreciation, obviously, for what the military does,” said Abbott, 37. “You didn’t go anywhere unless you were in an armored vehicle. It’s a dangerous place. I can’t really elaborate on much of what we did over there. It was humbling for a civilian medic to be integrated into a military, austere, environment.”
Abbott, a father of four, married for the second time when he returned home. His wife doesn’t want him to go on any more dangerous foreign assignments. He appreciates veterans more than he did before. He is more aware of the credit they deserve for the comforts of home, technology and freedom to travel without fear.
In that spirit he has named the race “Gratitude Run.” The Common Council approved the May 25 date and the route – from Mayor’s Park on Sweeney Street to Fisherman’s Park across from the Recreational Warehouse on River Road.
While he is still working out the rest of the details, such as cost and start time, people who are interested should write to him at email@example.com
What is your profession?
I am a man of many hats. I’ve been a paramedic for 13 years. I am also an ironworker at Local 9. Steel structures of buildings: We put those up. A lot of indoor plant work. Structural steel welding. Anything that involves metal really. I am assistant director of emergency management for North Tonawanda.
What was it like in Afghanistan?
Here you take a 911 call and, until events recently, you don’t worry about being shot at. Not to say I was worried about getting shot at. You didn’t go anywhere where you weren’t armed. We always had a weapon. There’s 20 foot jersey barriers everywhere.
A jersey barrier?
You know those concrete dividers on the Thruway? Those, but they’re 20 feet tall. There’s Afghan army everywhere.
You hear about these “green-on-blue” killings …
When the Afghan army would turn around and arbitrarily shoot a soldier … The Afghan army was everywhere. There were checkpoints everywhere. They wear green uniforms …
And “blue”? Meaning Americans?
I think it was the red, white and blue.
I was safe for the most part. They don’t shoot over there. They blow things up. It’s not so much shootings, it’s the explosions.
Was there anything beautiful?
The mountains are beautiful. The sunsets are real nice. It’s a dirty city. They burn fires for heat in the winter. It’s definitely a third world nation. We worked with “Ghurkas,” Nepalese nationals. I picked up some of their language. “Namaste.” It means, “hi” and “goodbye.” They’re happy guys, diligent in their duties. They were guards.
We interacted with a lot of local nationals. They did the cleaning and cooking on our base. Because of the language barrier it was very cordial, but you didn’t get too in-depth with them. They were just people happy to have jobs, I’m assuming.
What else did you see?
They set up a lot of bazaars. I bought a khukuri. It’s a Nepalese knife. You see it in all the depictions of the characters. It’s like that curved blade. They made suits, tailored suits right there. Gems. Lots of gems over there. Rubies. Diamonds. They made their own jewelry. Then they sell high-end watches at discount prices. Antique weapons. Beautiful, beautiful vintage antique rifles. From when the British occupied Afghanistan. They claim there’s still caches of weapons in the mountains. An “enthusiastic” Army colonel told me that, a gun “enthusiast.”
So you don’t think you’ll go back to Afghanistan for work?
The wife has forbidden it. If I wasn’t married and I didn’t have little kids, I’d be over there or somewhere around the world contracting. The money’s great in contracting. The skill set of being a paramedic is a sought-after trade in the contracting world. It’s a team effort, it’s militaristic. You’re part of a team. Everyone has a role.
Is there anything else about your experience that you can talk about?
When you’re deployed and you’re not working, they say all there is to do is work out and eat. So I worked out a lot. I got back in shape. I put on some weight from my knee surgery in 2010. When I came home I thought, “I want to try a 5K.”
I looked around for a 5K in North Tonawanda, I didn’t see one so I thought, “I’ll start my own.” I’m not a runner. I didn’t know the ins and outs of finding them. You see the Turkey Trot and the Shamrock Run. The Shamrock Run seemed a little cold and the Turkey Trot seemed far away. So I thought, “Ah, we’ll do one on Memorial Day.”
I hope we get a good outcome, raise a good amount of money. I would like to get some of our local vets involved.
Working in Afghanistan gave you a new appreciation for the military?
Contracting is mostly ex-military guys. I was humbled to be one of the few civilian medics. I was honored to be working with such experienced and dedicated guys – a lot of young kids that have been to war, that have seen far more and experienced a lot more than a lot of what we consider experienced adults in the civilian world.
The life we live and the life we have in this country is based solely on what the military has done, the sacrifices that they have made.
I met a lot of great guys. I’m confident in my skills and my experience as a paramedic, but I was absolutely mesmerized at the training and knowledge of the Army’s 18 Delta medics. You ever hear of “The Delta Force”? The old Chuck Norris movie? That’s the same thing.
We had nothing on our base. You go over there, you get up and you go to work, you get tight with the guys you’re with. To me it was a culture shock. There were a lot of guys who helped me along and helped me out.
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