Columbus–His shower was a bucket of water he poured over his head every morning as he prepared for another day of work as an Air Force psychologist assigned to a remote field hospital in Turkestan on the Afghanistan border.
Maj. Steven J. Byrnes, Psy.D., speaking at the annual convention of the Ohio Psychological Association, described the stark conditions he worked under for 184 straight days in terms that made the tent compound in the television show “MASH” look positively luxurious.
Working in temperatures that regularly fell below zero at 6,000 feet, Byrnes worked with other medical staff to identify troops brought to the hospital with signs of stress and behavioral problems following daily fire fights as part of the United States’ effort to eradicate elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“They never stopped coming,” said Byrnes whose original 90-day assignment stretched to seven months between November 2002 and last June.
Despite the primitive conditions that the staff worked under at the 50-bed tent field hospital, quality care was provided to more than 4,000 people brought there during his assignment, including many locals who were unable to obtain care at local hospitals.
In addition to attending to the mental health needs of soldiers brought to the hospital, Byrnes said he also had to be alert to the needs of fellow officers in the medical corps and military officials when they showed signs of stress brought on by too much work in an area that offered no television, radio or other diversions.
“You can only watch the same movie so many times,” Byrnes explained. The library consisted of books staff had brought with them and left behind when they had finished reading them.
Byrnes said that medical doctors sought his advice on what psychotropic medications certain patients needed and once served as a dental technician when the regular reported in ill.
“When you are the only show in town, you learn to do a lot of things that you never thought you would,” he said.
During heavy snowfalls, the staff would take turns getting up every two hours to sweep snow off the roofs of tents that were designed to withstand the weight of a mere three inches of the white stuff. The area had 50 inches of snow during his time there, Byrnes said.
Boredom and homesickness were the biggest enemies of morale, he said, although there were constant threats of chemical and biological attacks during which the treating staff had to wear heavy protective clothing and gas masks.
Once, he said, the whole hospital and had to evacuated to an area three miles away while a bomb disposal unit disarmed weapons in a truck that had been driven into the compound.
“People in this part of the world hate Americans. Being there is like having a target painted on your back,” he said.
Byrnes said that despite the hardships and the seven-month absence from his family, he’s glad he went and thinks he learned a thing or two about himself in the process.
“I discovered that I have a higher stress level than I thought,” he said. Ordinary inconveniences no longer bother him, he added.
“If ny house is too cold, I remember the nights of below zero temperatures when we didn’t have any heat. If my car doesn’t start in the morning, I don’t worry about it. I just get it fixed.”
Byrnes is assigned to the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where he is chief of integrated primary services.