WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. -- With a mission to win hearts and minds through pediatrics, he deployed from the 509th Medical Operations Squadron to Afghanistan Dec. 2011 to June 2012.
As a key member of his deployed medical team, Maj. (Dr.) Christopher Wilhelm treated and saved the lives of many severely injured children during his six month-tour in Afghanistan.
"Dr. Wilhelm played a very important yet underestimated role in the overall deployed mission in Southwest Asia," said Capt. Candice R. Holbrook, 509th MDOS. "The value of winning hearts and minds with treatment of children in many ways prevents future injuries in all populations, and as a result it increases cooperation between local civilians and coalition forces."
As a deployed pediatrician, Wilhelm's primary responsibility was to take care of any children from the area who were injured, whether combat-related or not.
"By caring for those children it was my duty to convince the people over there that our military isn't as bad as they think it is," Wilhelm said.
Wilhelm was deployed during the winter months, during which he and other servicemembers endured harsh weather and tough living conditions.
"We lived in rooms that were made with quarter-inch plywood, which makes it rough when there was 12 inches of snow outside," Wilhelm said. "I was freezing, but it made a Spartan out of me!"
As the base's only pediatrician, his day-to-day duties included waking up at 4 a.m. and reporting directly to his base's intensive care unit. After initial situation briefings, he rounded up patients in the ward and worked in the operating room until early afternoon. Toward the end of the day, he recovered patients from surgery or continued to care for them in the ICU.
"Many local nationals don't have electricity or heaters, so they would have a fire in the house to keep warm during winter months," Wilhelm said. "As a result, some children (I treated) would be severely burned."
In addition to the burns, children would also sometimes get in the crossfire between coalition and insurgent forces and would suffer from gunshot wounds. Wilhelm also cared for children who suffered from explosions caused by munitions left over from the Soviet era. The children picked up the munitions because they believed it was scrap metal that they could sell later.
"Two patients in particular picked up munitions that had white phosphorous on it and they both had 60 percent burns all over their bodies," Wilhelm said. "Additionally, our enemy likes to use children that are about 10 or 11 years-old to plant improvised explosive devices to hurt our American soldiers. Sometimes those IEDs blew up on the children making them."
When American soldiers saw this happening, they would pick up the children and bring them to Wilhelm.
Dealing with patients who have been shot or blown up, whether children or U.S. servicemembers, for Wilhelm, was part of ever-day life in Southwest Asia.
"As a pediatrician who has deployed, my experience gives me more credibility with patients and the parents of children I take care of stateside," Wilhelm said.
In addition to his duties as the base pediatrician, Wilhelm was also a member of the medical staff responsible for caring for service members injured in combat.
"When we would have a mass casualty situation, for example when a mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicle hits an IED and six marines get injured, there is nothing more humbling and honorable for a doctor than caring for injured American soldiers -- doing all you can to get them home," Wilhelm said.
The overall experience, along with the lack of many quality-of-life conveniences he normally has, made Wilhelm miss life at home in the U.S.
"What I miss the most about home is probably going to have to be showering without slippers and warm water. We didn't have any warm water while I was over there," Wilhelm said. "We had port-a-potties but the water tanks were stored outside, so being there from December to February ... it was tough, it was tough!"