After 18 tense months shepherding Offutt Air Force Base through the unyielding COVID-19 pandemic, Maj. Elaina Wild thought that six months deployed in the desert sounded like just what the doctor ordered.
The Air Force family practice physician left Nebraska on July 15 for half a year as chief medical officer of the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group at Al Udeid Air Force Base in Qatar.
Wild figured that at worst, she might see a few sprained ankles, maybe a broken bone or two, caring for a population made up mostly of healthy airmen in their 20s and 30s.
“I was thinking, ‘How much work could a deployment be?’” Wild said in a telephone interview from Qatar.
A lot, as it turns out.
Four weeks into her assignment, on Aug. 14, an Air Force C-17 landed at Al Udeid, loaded with hundreds of evacuees from Kabul who were fleeing the Taliban after the collapse of the elected government in Afghanistan.
Then another C-17 landed. And another, and another and another. All filled with starving, exhausted, dehydrated and utterly bewildered people, many of them beaten and brutalized on the way to the Kabul airport.
Remember the photo of the interior of the Air Force cargo jet packed wall to wall with more than 800 people, setting a record? Wild’s team treated all of them.
“The medical team was screening pretty much every person, coming off every plane,” Wild said. “We saw everything from diaper rash to traumatic amputations.”
The hundreds of evacuees grew to thousands, and the thousands to tens of thousands. Within 17 days, 57,000 evacuees had passed through — treated and screened by members of a unit whose staff numbered about 150, in a clinic not much larger than that of the fictional 4077th M*A*S*H, from the popular 1970s television show.
“It is a testament to the spirit, character and heart of every member of this coalition team we’ve assembled that, throughout three weeks of unimaginable challenge, they rose to the occasion to meet the needs of this vulnerable population,” Brig. Gen. Gerald Donohue, commander of the 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, said in a statement.
Meeting those needs meant seeing patients round the clock, often with little to no sleep. Wild said medical staffers averaged two to three hours of sleep per day.
“We went to 24/7 operations,” she said. “Some people would curl up and sleep in the ambulance.”
They also treated American service members who were wounded in the Aug. 26 suicide bombing at the Kabul airport gate.
Wild has been a family practice physician at Offutt’s Ehrling Bergquist Clinic for several years, and became a familiar presence to Offutt airmen since the start of the pandemic in early 2020 as the 55th Medical Group’s public health emergency officer.
In that role, Wild recorded videos that updated service members and their families on the COVID-19 situation at Offutt and dispensed advice on masks and vaccines. She led a committee that gave advice to 55th Wing leaders on public health measures at the base.
Wild, 45, traveled a highly unusual path to the Air Force, Offutt and Qatar.
She was born in Zimbabwe, when that southern African nation was still known by its colonial name, Rhodesia. During her early childhood, the nation was riven by a civil war, until a Black nationalist movement dislodged a White minority government in 1980.
Wild became passionate about animals, and about medicine, while still in her teens, volunteering at a wildlife orphanage in the Zimbabwean bush. She helped raise lions, cheetahs, rhinos, painted wolves and other exotic creatures.
“I’ve had multiple snake bites and have been charged by more elephants than I would have liked,” Wild told a military journalist in 2015. “I got my start in human medicine by performing medical trauma treatment for local lion and crocodile attacks on the farms (nearby).”
Wild traveled to the U.S. in 2000 for medical school. She joined the Air Force in 2006 and is a U.S. citizen. She served a tour at Incirlik Air Force Base in Turkey before coming to Offutt’s 55th Medical Group.
The members of her expeditionary unit in Qatar are drawn from across the Air Force, including several from Offutt. Many of the medical staff are reservists, with outside skills that proved useful when the crisis hit. All are qualified to practice emergency medicine.
“The group of people that are here right now are exactly the group of people that we needed when this hit,” Wild said. “I would call it divine providence.”
Soon after they deployed in July, members of the 379th medical group expected some activity because of the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, where one district after another was falling to Taliban forces.
“We had an idea that there would be movement (out of Afghanistan) — just not the scale, or the velocity,” Wild said. “We had a small footprint, contemplating small numbers.”
The medical team had to pivot quickly from routine care for healthy service members to coping with a tsunami of sick and tired evacuees, many of them children.
Many who stepped off the plane into Qatar’s 100-plus-degree midsummer heat had not had anything to eat in hours or even days. Some had been beaten as they waited in the chaotic crowds of people trying to escape the Taliban via the Kabul airport.
“All of the injuries we saw, the vast majority were from running the gantlet” to get to the airport, Wild said.
The crowds included numerous pregnant women. Despite the lack of a delivery room or neonatal intensive care suite, her team delivered nine babies in the emergency room. Wild supervised six of them.
One of the Afghan mothers named her newborn daughter Elaina.
In one memorable case, an Afghan woman had begun to deliver her baby, prematurely, aboard an arriving plane. She was rushed to Al Udeid’s clinic, bleeding badly.
Wild’s team finished the delivery and cut the umbilical cord.
With no incubators available, Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Thompson, a medic deployed from Offutt, swaddled the baby with whatever warm wraps she could find.
“She was sitting in an ambulance bay wrapped in sweaters, warming that baby up against her skin,” Wild said.
“The baby and her mom are now alive and well.”
With the help of the Red Crescent, hundreds of seriously ill patients were sent by ambulance to civilian hospitals in Doha, the capital and only major city in the tiny Persian Gulf monarchy.
“We had preexisting relationships with our Qatari medical partners,” Wild said. “Now they’re forged in steel.”
Within a couple of weeks, reinforcements arrived for the exhausted doctors, nurses and medics of the 379th in the form of the Immediate Relief Group, an Air Force quick-reaction team.
“Within 10 days, we could almost completely take on this mission,” said Chief Master Sgt. Adam Page, 44, the relief unit’s senior enlisted adviser, who is from Offutt. That allowed the 379th’s airmen to return to treating service members.
During September, the evacuees moved on to bases in the U.S. and Europe. Very few remain at Al Udeid.
But the experience of aiding so many people in such desperate need is one that none who lived through it are likely to forget.
Wild has hung onto a broken pair of sunglasses, handed to her by an Afghan medic who was part of the refugee wave. He left Kabul with nothing but the clothes on his back.
“At the end of this, he took my hand and gave me his sunglasses. He said, ‘It’s all I have to give you,’” Wild recalled, tearfully. “He had lost everything, but he wanted to give me something.”
Page was most touched by the young children who looked up to the U.S. service members. He said some of them will likely serve in the U.S. military sometime, too.
“It’s something that’s hard to put into words,” he said. “We’re basically changing their lives, forever.”
Wild is slated to return to Offutt early next year. She has been selected for promotion, and will likely move on to command a medical unit soon after.
But she doubts that anything will match what she’s already been through with her colleagues from the 379th Expeditionary Medical Group.
“It’s no doubt the most incredible thing I’ve ever done in my career,” she said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the medics on my team.”