CAMP LEATHERNECK, Afghanistan -- An Afghan gentleman begged a squad of Marines, out for a routine visit to a village in southern Afghanistan, to come to his nephew’s rescue. They entered the man’s compound and found a 10-year-old boy curled up in pain from severe burns over his back. This was a whole new mission for a group of warriors who normally spend their days training Afghanistan national security forces across the region.
The Marines of 1st Platoon, Bravo Battery, 3rd Low Altitude Air Defense Battalion, had witnessed many injuries to their own unit members because of enemy ambushes with improvised explosive devices, but finding a child in this condition was a much different experience, according to Navy corpsman Seaman Markie Smith, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, who responded to the family’s pleas for help.
"He had third degree burns over his entire back and his right arm," said Smith. "I started treating him, pulling off his bandages. They said they were 20 days old. The bandages were actually inside the scar tissue."
It took ‘Doc’ about 15 minutes to pull the bandages out of the scar tissue. "The skin was deteriorating and puss was weeping from the wounds," he said.
The corpsman worked carefully to undo nearly a month of inadequate medical attention to the boy’s wounds. The child’s father helped console him while Smith worked. The boy was in extreme pain. Doc was too.
"It kind of hit me," said Smith. "But this is my job. I can’t let that get in the way."
Smith applied burn dressing to help kill the major infection that was quickly spreading. According to him, had the villager not asked the Marines to come to the aid of the child, he probably had about two to two and half weeks before the child went into critical condition, and he would have most likely passed away some time after that.
Staff Sgt. Luke Gilliland, the platoon sergeant and Phoenix, Ariz., native, and 1st Lt. Clayton Jarolimek, the platoon commander and Forest River, N.D., native, spoke to the boy’s father through a translator. He told them he was using a fuel can to put gasoline in a motorcycle. Another man from the village walked up next to him with a lit cigarette. The fumes from the can ignited. The father reacted, immediately throwing the can behind him. His son was standing there. The family took the child to a "witch doctor" in Lash Kar Gah. Smith said that is the extent of medical capability for the Afghan villagers there.
The boy’s family was ecstatic that the corpsman and Marines could treat the child’s injuries. But Jarolimek wasn’t about to stop there. The injuries were so serious that the chances for follow-on infections without proper treatment were tremendous. He coordinated for the boy to be flown to the Camp Bastion Hospital for additional treatment, where he ultimately received a skin graft.
Unfortunately, Jarolimek was not able to personally witness the boy’s medical progression. During another patrol in the area, he and one of his junior Marines were hit with an IED. They had to be medically evacuated from the country.
"The lieutenant put a lot of his heart into what we do out here," said Gilliland. "Getting this going and helping the kid to get help was chalked up as a win in his mind. I know in the seven months he spent out here, if that’s all he was able to do, I know he’d go home happy with that."
"And with [the Afghan boy’s] age," Gilliland continued, "he’s kind of on a line where he could either resort to the evil side, the Taliban side, and be influenced by them, or fall to the good side. We won another one over."
It won a lot of people over.
"It helped with the local rapport," said Lance Cpl. Bradley Thornburg, a gunner with the platoon and Dallas, Texas, native, who was also there the day the squad helped the boy, and continues to visit the village. "We’re able to provide things for them they’re unable to do. In return, they’re more open with us."
"They’re starting to realize that we offer a lot more," said Gilliland. "We bring a lot more to the table. We’re actually there to help them. It looks like they’re starting to open up and understand the coalition is there to assist them."
It was a win for a lot of people – everyone but the Taliban. An Afghan child has witnessed the morality of coalition forces and now has a future thanks to their efforts. Another village has witnessed the power of the coalition’s partnership and a friendship continues to build. And, according to the Marines and sailors involved, the entire ANSF and ISAF team won yet another battle over the Taliban as they saved yet another child among the scores of children they save nearly on a daily basis – many due to the Taliban’s IEDs or stray gunfire. In a war where the measure of success seems to be gauged by trust earned with the people of Afghanistan, the coalition here is defeating the Taliban with mere acts of humanity every single day.