Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Small Canadian medic takes on big role in Afghanistan

SPERWAN GHAR, Afghanistan — Master Cpl. Mike Cuevas caught sight of his company's new combat medic, and he had doubts.

He'd fought in Afghanistan's heat, climbed over head-high mud walls, leaped water-filled ditches, scrambled to firing positions under incoming rounds, all carrying upwards of 40 kilograms of gear.

The woman standing in front of him stood five feet, one-half-inch. She weighed about the same as his battle kit.

Cpl. Marnie Musson had turned up in Shilo, Man., in 2008 for training exercises with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry — fresh off the boat after almost five years posted to the Canadian navy.

Cuevas knew that as a medic on patrol in Afghanistan, she'd be bearing nearly her own weight through extreme terrain and temperatures.

"Normally I don't judge people, but . . . I thought she was really tiny for her job," Cuevas says. "She looks like a little kid."

Charlie Company's commander had similar qualms. "When I met her I thought her equipment would weigh more than she would and I was somewhat concerned," says Maj. Wade Rutland.

Musson, 26, says she herself had doubts she'd be selected to work as a medic attached to the "dismounted" foot patrols usually made up of strapping young men.

"I was very shocked when I got the job. I'm not your typical dismount," Musson says.

Musson was born in Winnipeg, and while growing up, also lived in North Bay, Ont.; Lahr, Germany; and Edmonton, moving when her father, who was also in the Canadian Forces.

At first, Musson seemed unsure of herself, Cuevas recalls. When ordered to give first-aid training to company troops, "She just kind of looked at me like a lost puppy."

Then he watched her research every aspect of her new job.

By the time the company was to deploy to Afghanistan, she'd earned the position of lead company medic, which carried a tour-specific promotion to master corporal.

Charlie Company arrived this fall at the fortified Canadian outpost of Sperwan Ghar, and any lingering doubts about Musson's capabilities vanished in the surrounding villages, fields and desert of the infamously violent Panjwaii district.

"Where she started to really prove herself was when we got on the ground here and she started going out on patrols," says Cuevas, 37.

Wearing a flak vest with heavy armour plates front and back, carrying her assault rifle and five spare magazines, plus a rucksack and tactical vest filled with medical supplies, Musson must keep pace for up to 15 hours at a time.

On overnight operations, she adds a sleeping bag, pad, ration packs, and as much as seven kilograms of water.

Combat-effectiveness standards dictate that a soldier should carry a maximum of 33 per cent of body weight, Rutland says. "She's carrying about 80 (per cent), and she's still effective."

Musson, though she rounds up her height to five-foot-one, is quick to admit that her size poses challenges when crossing Panjwaii's countless mud walls and the ditches called "wadis" that are often full of filthy water. "I'll look at the wadi and I'll be like, 'Am I going to make this?' " says Musson. "It sucks falling in."

Two months after arriving, her patrol ran into an ambush near a graveyard a few hundred metres from the base. Insurgents opened up with AK-47s. Musson stood behind a grapevine berm and joined her comrades in returning fire. The war was becoming ever more real.

Already, she had treated grievous injuries inflicted by the Taliban's most prevalent weapon, the improvised-explosive device. A soldier had stepped on an IED near the base. One leg was gone below the knee, the other lower leg blasted to "mush," Musson recalls. Two months later, the troops at Sperwan Ghar heard an explosion on a base-access road. When she reached the scene, she saw the victim was a soldier she'd known for a year. His skull was fractured, and the field medic had put a tourniquet on his arm, which was blown open above the elbow, with shrapnel wounds in the forearm. She credits the other medic with doing the important work: she just had to cut away flesh to clean up the wound.

Musson says she doesn't feel traumatized by those incidents. "On both occasions the casualties were awake and talking, so I think that made it . . . easier to handle."

In her routine work at the base clinic, she mostly treats infections, though she worries about one of the soldiers' favourite activities: catching and playing with the venomous creatures found on the base, including spiders, scorpions and deadly vipers. One soldier was bitten on the hand by a viper, but flung the snake off before it could inject venom.

On patrols, she draws attention from village kids who have never seen a woman carrying a gun. The girls flock to her, Rutland says. "Here's someone that's a great example for these young ladies, a strong female figure that's out doing a great job."

And Cuevas, who once had doubts about Musson, has nothing but admiration for the woman who has become one of his closest friends. "She's stubborn enough not to quit, and that's what counts," Cuevas says. "She's got a good heart."

courtesy of Canwest News Service


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