MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho – Separation isn’t new to the military.
For hundreds of years, the strength of families has been tested and proven as service members continually deploy to foreign and hostile lands.
For one Idaho-based Air Force family, miles apart hasn’t been an issue at all.
Two Airmen, both medics, deployed simultaneously twice, to geographically-separated Afghan provinces. There, they tackled the atrocities of combat medicine alone, yet returned to heal together.
Some doubt they’d have the vigor to prevail in the face of violence and brutality; others question whether they’d have the willpower to endure without their life partner.
According to these medics, it’s all possible and in doing so, naysayers will probably find a wealth of untapped strength.
Tech. Sgt. Tyler Szymanski, or “Ski,” and Staff Sgt. Maria Szymanski, both 366th Surgical Operations Squadron medical technicians, first deployed together in 2011, and again in 2013.
Ski’s first combat tour was nine months as a combat medic at Provincial Reconstruction Team Lagman in 2010. Ski, a Eugene, Ore., native, facilitated reconstruction, development and economic growth in the province. Then, in 2011, Ski once again boarded a plane to Afghanistan; this time to serve as a medical mentor for Afghan National Army medics, on an embedded training team at Camp Hero, Kandahar Province.
A few months later, Maria, a Pittsburg, Calif., native, got on a very similar plane, headed for Camp Leatherneck, where she supported Marine Corps combat operations in nearby Helmand Province as the medic on a team responsible for convoying equipment to various forward operating bases (FOB) and combat outposts (COP), during surge operations.
The Szymanskis were deployed at locations merely 100 miles apart, yet emotionally, there were days the small distance felt like infinity, Ski said.
“There are days there when a man desperately craves the embrace of his wife and visa-versa, I’m sure,” he said.
Ski and Maria both had many such times.
“The most medically and emotionally challenging day for me naturally happened at the worst possible time,” recounted Ski, reflecting on when his PRT’s doctor and nurse visited another FOB for a medical meeting, leaving only him and another junior medic behind.
A major battle ensued on the outskirts of the village, leaving 32 ANA soldiers wounded and several dead. Ski and his partner had to receive the carnage, triage the patients, and provide what medical care they could, given the horrific circumstances.
“People literally kept pouring in and I don’t mean the ‘walking wounded’ Soldiers with gunshot wounds and shrapnel I normally cared for. I’m talking about ANA who had multiple high-caliber gunshot wounds, missing appendages and guys who were barely holding on to any hint of life,” said Ski. “It was the worst day of my life.”
With the help of his fellow medic and many American Soldiers, who utilized their combat lifesaver skills to help stop bleeding and sustain lives, Ski was able to save some of the ANA, but others were lost in the defense of their homeland.
Merely a province away, Maria was dealing with a different type of stressors. While Ski and his team typically patrolled by foot, Maria was a convoy medic, and despite the protection armored vehicles provide, the constant threat of improvised explosive devices kept her and the Marines on high alert.
A day of peace finally came to the Szymanskis when they met face-to-face, on what came as a completely surprise visit to Maria.
“I heard we had an ambulance going to Maria’s base, so I literally begged a ride, cleared it with leadership, and rode over,” said Ski, who said he felt so thankful to spend an afternoon with his wife.
Then, it was back to the mission for both medics, and they both knew their teams counted on them.
The Szymanskis returned to Idaho at relatively the same time, and enjoyed a few months with each other and helped one another emotionally as they got back to their normal lives.
Normalcy didn’t last long and they were soon jolted when deployment orders dropped again – for both of them.
This time Maria was to deploy to Bagram Airfield (BAF) and performed retrograde missions, convoying out to various FOBs and COPs scheduled to close as part of the draw-down. Her team returned similar equipment to what she delivered a year earlier back to the Army supply system.
Ski was assigned to a Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha, which was composed of 12 men, each with separate military specialties, supporting U.S. Army Green Beret and ANA Commando operations.
Ski spent roughly six months in Regional Command-North’s Kanduz Province and his final few months in RC-East’s Kunar Province at FOB Asadabad.
Ski and Maria flew into Afghanistan together and were located on opposite sides of BAF, until Ski forward-deployed to Kanduz.
“When you get into country, you just want to get to your unit and dive into the mission,” said Ski. “But, due to bad weather, I got stuck at Bagram for about a week. I felt like it was driving me crazy – I just wanted to get to work. Now, with 20-20 hindsight, we were damn lucky to be on Bagram together, where I could just walk a few miles across base and see her.”
Maria called the circumstances, “blissful.”
Heightened alertness, insurgent attacks and combat medic duties quickly eroded that bliss, as the Szymanskis quickly found themselves in the thick of it again.
Ski frequently found himself embedded with small, eight- to 10-man Special Forces teams, and would launch into insurgent clearing operations a few days ahead of infantry units. Once inserted onto a battlefield, Ski’s job was to set up a forward surgical team on location.
“Sometimes I’d set up an FST out in a field, and other times we’d borrow a small ANA facility in the area, utilize uninhabited mud huts, or whatever we needed to make sure I had a place, near the fight, to treat Coalition or ANA forces,” said Ski.
Ski said the role of an Air Force medic has shifted a lot since he joined the Air Force 12 years ago. Pre-deployment and battlefield medicine training has increased, and the likelihood of a medic working hand-in-hand with a combat unit on the ground is very real.
“When I was coming through technical school and got to my first base, all the older NCOs and docs were ‘hospital people,’” said Ski. “I mean, we’re all still hospital people, but there are so many medics out there now who have been in direct combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re a force multiplier and we now have so many experienced and battle-tested medical professionals on all bases, everywhere. It’s overwhelming.”
Between his three deployments, Ski has hundreds of battlefield saves and has performed even more humanitarian surgeries, he said, adding: the battlefield saves are always profound, but some medical dealings with the local Afghans really stick with a man.
“I remember well the time some ANA brought in two young girls with full-circumference burns from their torso to their feet,” said Ski. “I guess their mom was immune to her husband’s beatings so he had to step it up to make an impact when he was angry at her, then dipped his own kids in boiling water. It’s unimaginable … it’s horrible … it’s Afghanistan.”
Meanwhile, Maria, an 8-year Air Force veteran, was executing the retrograde mission on 24- to 36-hour convoys from BAF to remote FOBs and COPs.
“Those days were long, really, really freaking long,” recounted Maria. “We would frequently leave in the evenings and not arrive at our destinations until two mornings later. Then we’d immediately get to work loading reverse logistics gear to bring back. On lucky missions we’d get some time to sleep in a transient tent, or wherever, before getting back on the road. All missions weren’t that lucky, though.” Maria recalled many days, or roughly 70 percent of her deployment, sleeping wherever she could lay her head and eating whatever food was available, mostly meals-ready-to-eat.
As missions progressed and insurgent attacks intensified, Maria’s idea of what was lucky changed, and she eventually found herself and two fellow medics, Senior Airman Taylor Savage and Staff Sgt. Amber Fredrick, making a pact that if anyone’s vehicle should strike an IED on a convoy, they’d take care of each other. After all, they were the only females on the missions and the only Airmen.
That pact would become a reality on May 30, 2013, during a retrograde mission in Wardak Province.
“We were on the road for about 19 hours on May 29, and came up on a FOB,” said Maria. “Our convoy commander was nice and allowed us to stop and get some rest. I got about two hours of sleep, which was really needed.”
The next morning when we were getting ready to leave, Savage and Maria were told to switch trucks. Savage left the FOB riding with three others: truck commander Army Staff Sgt. Joe Nunez, the driver and a turret gunner. Maria moved to the rear vehicle in the convoy.
A few hours into day two of the mission, tragedy struck.
“Savage’s vehicle hit about a 300-pound IED and was flipped over,” said Maria, who’s vehicle rushed forward to deliver the medic to assist. “We got up there as fast as we could but convoys are spaced out so we were quite a ways back. When we got there, (Afghan National Police) were out there and I saw Fredrick on top of a Soldier, performing (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).”
At first, the scene unfolded in slow motion, as if it was merely a movie act. But the real screams, real blood, real pain and unforgettable smell quickly brought Maria to action; she acted quick and sprung to aid.
Nunez, 29, from Pasadena, Calif., was already dead when Maria arrived on scene, so her focus immediately shifted to Savage.
“It’s like before I knew what was going on, I was straddling over Taylor and cutting off her clothes. She was bleeding in multiple places, had a broken her pelvis, pubic bone, a rib, both ankles, her left leg, and she had a large laceration on her face,” said Maria.
Despite being disoriented, Savage recognized Maria, and even smiled. She was moved to a medical evacuation helicopter, and Maria began CPR on another patient.
Soaked in blood and patient urine, Maria performed CPR so intensely she didn’t realize when nine Soldiers picked up the gurney the Soldier was strapped to and moved him to the MEDEVAC helicopter, with Maria still on top resuscitating.
Once the scene was secure and wounded patients were MEDEVACed out, the convoy continued and finished their mission. The rest of the ride was grim, but marked with emotion.
“I didn’t know how to feel, no one did. I felt anger and devastation,” said Maria. “I guess I always had it stuck in my head that ‘I’m a medic, I can’t get hurt because I have to take care of other people.’ That fallacy changed for me real quick, and perhaps no one knows better than (Savage).”
Despite the multitude of challenges, Maria and Ski finished their deployments. Maria returned to Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, in June, and Ski came home in July.
The two are already back at work at the MHAFB surgery clinic, but perhaps carry with them more baggage than they departed with. They said they rely on each other for emotional support, and hope their experiences downrange may benefit other servicemembers.
“You never know when your number will be called or where you’ll deploy to, but every man or woman wearing a uniform ought to never forget that their time could come, so stay ready,” said Ski. “When I say ready, I mean that I never imagined I’d be out patrolling with Green Berets. That could be any one of us. Maria never asked to run convoys with Marines, but that could be any one of us. We’d all better keep our heads in the game and be ready.”
“Taylor and I have been through a lot together, home and downrange,” she said. “Having someone to rely on, or something to anchor you is as important as knowing your job and staying fit. Sometimes I think I couldn’t have done any of this without Ski … but, I’m wrong. I could have. We all will prevail when it’s necessary.”
The time Maria and Ski spend together means so much and is so important to their healing processes, Maria said, stating: “It’s not just the little things that will bring you home from war, it’s everything. It’s everything you do now, do there and do afterward. It all matters.”