Army medic returns from Afghanistan
Tahoe City woman home for 3 weeks
By Melissa Siig
Tribune News Service
TAHOE CITY – In the nine months Army medic Renée Perona was stationed in Afghanistan, the majority of serious wounds she treated weren’t battle injuries sustained by U.S. soldiers fighting Taliban militiamen. Instead, most people in need of her care had been injured by land mines laid by the Soviet Union during its 10-year war with Afghanistan, which ended in 1989.
It was the local people, not trained to recognize the deadly munitions, who suffered the most.
Perona recounts the story of an 8-year-old boy who unknowingly picked up one of the land mines – painted bright colors by the Soviets to appeal to children – and put it in his mouth. The boy lost his lower jaw in the explosion, which was put back together by American doctors at the base.
“It’s a really depressing country, there’s nothing out there, the people have absolutely nothing,” said Perona, 21. “They appreciate us there so much. Kids run after us with their thumbs up just to say hi.”
Perona, a 2000 North Tahoe High School alumnus, returned home for three weeks after spending nearly a year in Bagram, located about 50 miles north of Kabul. She is not only one of Tahoe’s only female graduates to currently serve in the military, but is also the only local soldier to be deployed to Afghanistan rather than Iraq.
At a time when many Americans are questioning the logic behind attacking and remaining in Iraq, Perona remains confident about the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan. Perona says the U.S. is needed in the country to help the people rebuild after decades of conflict.
Perona found out she was being sent to Afghanistan last spring. Though the war in Iraq had started two months earlier, the 21-year-old said she was not surprised she was headed to South Asia rather than the Persian Gulf. Her unit, the 10th Aviation Brigade, is part of the 10th Mountain Division, which was one of the first divisions deployed to Afghanistan after Sept. 11.
Perona’s mother, Patty, says she was relieved that her daughter wasn’t being sent to Iraq. At the same time, she said, she worried about terrorist attacks and bombings at the base.
“You live with your heart in your throat,” said Patty, fanning herself with an envelope to keep from crying. “You do an awful lot of praying. I prayed for the safety of all of them (soldiers). You know they all have moms.”
By the time Perona arrived in Afghanistan last August, two years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, most of the local militiamen had been killed or driven across the border to Pakistan. At night, Perona said she could hear gunfire in the distance and rockets occasionally fell near the airfield, but for the most part, fighting between US troops and the Taliban had waned.
Her scariest moment came around Christmas, she said, when she was awoken in the middle of the night by loudspeakers calling everyone to the bunkers. Rockets landed near the airstrip but missed the barracks.
“There are still a few bad guys out there who don’t want us to help them (the Afghan people),” she said.
The hardest part, recalled Perona, was fighting the boredom and the harsh weather. Working at an aid station for soldiers with general injuries, Perona mainly treated head colds, back pains and small cuts. She passed the time by learning to crochet or fighting a daily enemy – dust storms.
More rewarding were the medical visits with Afghan women, who could only be seen by female doctors, and rotations at the hospital. According to Perona, the hospital would treat two to three land-mine victims a day.
It was this kind of assistance, along with the dollars spent by soldiers in Afghan markets, that made Perona feel that the U.S. military presence was both wanted and appreciated.
“I don’t understand Iraq so much, but we’ve really helped in Afghanistan,” she said. “A lot of our mission is to help them now because we’ve chased out a lot of the bad guys.”
Perona says she supports the war in Iraq to the point that she would go if sent, but she finds unacceptable the fact that many of her friends stationed there are having their tours of duty extended. Perona, who returned to Fort Drum in New York on Friday, has two more years left in the army. She says her time in Afghanistan has given her a new perspective on life.
“It was hard getting adjusted back to the real world after I saw the way people lived (in Afghanistan), I felt bad about things I took for granted,” she said. “They have nothing and still smile.”