When Lt. Col. Bridget Brozyna of the U.S. Air Force deplaned last Tuesday evening in Bangor, she walked into the warm embrace of family and friends.
On hand to welcome her home from her six-month assignment in Afghanistan were her husband, Kerry, and their three children; a group of co-workers from the veterans health clinic in Bangor, and a contingent of her own big family — Brozyna, a native of Manchester, Maine, is one of seven children.
The 44-year-old Orrington resident and career Air Force officer says her first overseas deployment — likely also her last because of her stateside duties — will stay with her forever.
When she arrived at the Bagram Airfield in northeastern Afghanistan, Brozyna, a nurse practitioner and the administrator of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs clinic on Hancock Street in Bangor, saw she would be caring for critically wounded troops and civilians in a 25-bed tent. The tent — the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility, or CASF — was set up behind the base hospital and in close range to planes arriving and departing the busy base located in one of the hottest zones of the war on terror.
Brozyna’s assignment was to oversee patient care at the CASF, where clinicians got a first look at the incoming wounded, did their best to stabilize them and decided where they need to go next: the hospital emergency room, the operating rooms, or the intensive care unit.
“At first I thought, ‘Seriously, I’m practicing in a tent? Really?’” she recalled. “But then I met my patients.”
And she got over herself, fast.
“The defining injury of this war is traumatic amputation,” she said. “We saw a very high number of patients with one, two or three extremities gone because of improvised explosive devices. We saw several of them, almost every day.”
“Sometimes we would wonder, ‘Why are we trying to save this patient who’s going to go home without three limbs?’” she admitted. But one time, a young service member, who had lost both legs and was being maintained on a breathing machine, indicated he wanted to write a note as he was being loaded into a plane bound for a U.S. hospital.
“He wrote, ‘Thank you,’” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
In other cases, Brozyna said, it was tempting to become complacent about less devastating injuries.
“I found myself thinking, ‘Thank God, it’s just his foot.’ But if that was my foot, or my son’s foot, it would be a huge, big deal,” she said. “It was very tough to keep your bearings, to just keep taking care of our patients the best we could.”
Brozyna recalled caring for a group of Afghan children who had been playing with an IED, thinking it was a ball.
“That was one of the worst days,” she said. “Twelve children got blown up. Two of them died right away. The other 10 got brought in to us.”
She was especially proud of her clinical unit that day, she said.
“Everyone knew exactly what to do; it was phenomenal to watch,” she said. “Our medical folks over there were the best team I’ve ever seen.”
Another day, 20 severely wounded service members were brought in to the CASF after a large-scale offensive. Five of their comrades had been killed in the battle. A few days later, most of the survivors were able to attend the Fallen Comrade ceremony honoring those who had died.
“I will never forget it; there wasn’t a dry eye,” she said. “It was like saying goodbye to a brother or a sister.”
Brozyna, who earned undergraduate and graduate nursing degrees from the University of Maine, has served in the U.S. Air Force since 1989. In her job as the director of the Bangor VA clinic, she reports directly to the chief nursing consultant for the office of the U.S. Surgeon General in Washington, D.C. Her recent deployment at Bagram was her first overseas assignment.
Despite the deeply emotional nature of the experience, Brozyna said she is honored to have served in the war zone.
“Those who have not been there need to remember the sacrifices being made. Young soldiers are serving honorably every day,” she said. “Americans should take a minute to remember them when they say grace at dinner or whenever they say their prayers.”
She expects to return to work at the Bangor VA clinic in a few weeks, after getting caught up with her three children — Lyndsey, 19, Shannon, 17, and Joseph, 14 — and after she and her husband come back from a short vacation in Colorado.
She’ll be just in time to oversee the opening of a new 28,000-square-foot facility near the Maine Veterans’ Home in Bangor, which will replace the crowded Hancock Street clinic.
Most of the patients now being served at the existing clinic in Bangor are veterans of the wars in Vietnam and Korea, but Brozyna expects to treat more veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as time goes on.
“I’m going to see them all differently now,” she said of her patients. “My respect for our veterans has always been high, but now my appreciation for what they have been through is much deeper.”