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Reports from Battle: clinical social worker returns to Pope

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Mindy Bloem
  • 43rd Airlift Wing Public Affairs Office
Editor's note: This is part one of a four-week series, profiling Pope members who are currently deployed or have recently returned from deployment. 

It has oft been said that deployment changes a person, and one Pope member who recently returned from her first deployment in 22 years of service can now appreciate the value of that statement. 

When Lt. Col. Karen Smith, a Pope clinical social worker, received a call saying, "pack your bags; you're leaving," she didn't quite know what to think. 

Initially, she figured she was taking part in a manning assist: a temporary duty assignment that lends a member from one base to provide assistance to another undermanned base. 

However, this call was not for a manning assist and she soon received orders to Afghanistan. 

Rather than retire in the summer of 2009 as was her original intent, Colonel Smith decided to stay in to get some first-hand insight into the world of deployments. 

"I was weighing the pros and cons and decided I wanted to go ahead and deploy and have that experience before I retired," the colonel said. "I didn't want someone going in my place. I knew it was the right thing to do, and I'm glad I did it." 

While at Bagram Air Field, Colonel Smith was the Combat Stress Control Detachment Commander, responsible for nine CSC teams made up of 25 personnel who were forward deployed across Afghanistan. 

She was also responsible for providing mental health care to BAF servicemembers, primarily Army Soldiers. While at BAF and at the other nine CSC locations, she performed walkabouts where she asked how people were doing and checked on their concerns. The majority of issues she dealt with were combat exposure stressors and homefront issues. 

"It definitely made you realize the importance of the services we offer. I don't think people realize the value of the mental health care we offer, but in a deployed environment, people are more willing to seek it out because of the emotional survival need they have."
She also responded to numerous traumatic events that impacted Soldiers and their units, such as people killed in action, rocket attacks and identification of remains. An aspect of the job the colonel did not relish but understood the value, nonetheless.
"It was a very humbling experience," Colonel Smith said. "I feel very thankful I had that opportunity." 

She recalled a couple of rocket attacks, resulting in fatalities. One particular incident resulted in the death of a Soldier who was deployed with his fellow Soldier wife. A rocket landed in the B-hut the couple was sharing, and the husband was killed.
Colonel Smith met with the wife later that evening. 

"Seeing the emotional impact that had on her was not easy," she said "Then she (the wife) was the one who had to tell the four kids their dad was dead. It was unfortunate, and it's my job to be there for them and try to help them cope." 

Another rocket attack involved two tower guards working side by side. The rocket killed one of the guards, leaving the other to watch the attack but was helpless to intervene.
"Those are the kinds of things you never forget," Colonel Smith said. "I was not out on the front lines, but seeing people recall those graphic visions was the closest I got to being there." 

The colonel said that besides the friendships she made, which were powerful and special due to the unique set of circumstances under which they were formed, the support she received from back home was unparalleled. 

"One thing we appreciated more than anything was the support we received from the Americans," she said. "We were just inundated with care packages, mail and free stuff from people and various groups and organizations back in the States. It's great to know the love, care and prayers people are sending your way. It makes a huge difference."
Colonel Smith said she would not have traded her deployment because it was a life changing event for her. 

"There is a real connection you feel with people who are or have deployed. You can better relate to the whole process, how it impacts them and their loved ones and just everything they're going through." 

Colonel Smith knows she has gained something irreplaceable because of her deployment and now looks at certain things with a different perspective. 

"When I look at an American flag, it means something different to me," she said. "I appreciate the sacrifices our servicemembers make every day. I have a better understanding of what our mission is all about. 

"I'm a better person, a better professional and a better officer for it."