THE SINGAPORE SPIRIT

Military Expert 4 (ME4) Lum E Von
was the first female Singapore Armed
Forces (SAF) personnel to be deployed
to Afghanistan. She recounts her lessons
in professionalism and pride in rugged
Oruzgan province

I was very excited when I learnt in June 2009 that I’d be deployed for four months in Afghanistan. When I broke the news to my parents, their first reaction was fear. That was understandable given the inherent risks involved. I assured them that the SAF had always stressed the importance of safety and that the training I’d undergone prior to my deployment had prepared me well.

At that time, I was a Captain in the SAF Medical Corps. Afghanistan wasn’t my first overseas mission. In December 2003, I was in Banda Aceh, Sumatra, to assist in post-tsunami relief work. Operation Flying Eagle was the SAF’s largest humanitarian aid mission then and I recall how we spent New Year at Banda Aceh. It was probably the most sobering New Year for all of us.
We were scheduled to arrive in Afghanistan in December 2009. Prior to deployment, we underwent rigorous training to hone our skills.

Meanwhile, I continued to prepare my parents. One thing I had to do was to teach my mother how to record her favorite television programs, since I wouldn’t be around to do it for her.
I knew from our experiences in Banda Aceh that every single operational lesson ingrained in us in peace time would be put to the test during a crisis. I learned this same lesson again in Afghanistan. We had to make good decisions fast, and we had to be proficient in our skills.

The 13-man SAF Medical Corps team departed for Kuwait to undergo a week of conditioning training. This enabled us to acclimatize to working in an environment with a higher altitude.

We were based in the Afghan province of Oruzgan, and our camp was on the outskirts of its capital, Tarin Kowt. Oruzgan was a mountainous area, but it was only when the sun rose that we could see the rugged landscape. It was beautiful.

Our life in shipping containers began. We lived in and did everything in them. It was funny watching people knock their heads on the ceiling when they awoke from their bunk beds.
But the inherent risks never left our minds; if we ventured out of camp, we always took our weapons with us. The closest we came to being hurt was when two rockets landed just outside our quarters. This incident shook us initially, but it made our resolve even stronger. We were here for a purpose – to save lives. So we remained steadfast and carried on.
The hospital we worked in was just like any other hospital, except on a much smaller scale. There were X-ray, physiology, dental, intensive care, emergency, surgery, outpatient and ward facilities. About 100 international medical staff operated round the clock on 12-hour shifts.

We worked closely with the Dutch team at Tarin Kowt. Many of our international counterparts didn’t know much about Singapore. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with them, we had to show that our tiny country was capable of dealing with crises. Eventually, all of us from different nationalities bonded and became good friends.

We provided medical care to patients who’d sustained injuries from improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks, and other combat afflictions. Often, to save lives, we had to quickly treat people who were suffering from severe trauma, within what we call the “golden hour”. Once, an Afghan woman was brought in to us. One of her legs had been amputated below the knee, and her leg-bones were shattered from the impact of her wounds. We managed to work within the “golden hour” to save her.

Besides treating patients, our work also included routine hospital duties to make our patients more comfortable, such as cooking and making tea for them.

Through our interactions with the people of Afghanistan, I found them to be pure-hearted and direct. Although few words were exchanged between us due to the language barrier, it was more than enough when they expressed their thanks through small gestures such as smiling. Most importantly, we were very encouraged when they demonstrated their sheer resilience and will to survive, and were able to recover from their wounds.

Operational duties can sometimes become routine. Overcoming these mundane moments was a challenge. It boiled down to self: how could we keep ourselves motivated at work when it became monotonous? I realised that overcoming anything is possible as long as we endure, and put in our best. That’s the Singapore spirit.

We also looked out for one another’s well-being. I paid particular attention to fellow servicemen who attended to injured children, as they’d naturally think of their own kids back home. It was no use keeping painful images in our minds if this affected the lives we could save. So we learnt to unwind each day – we ran, cooked supper and joked a lot with one another.

As we made preparations to return home in April 2010, I reflected on how lucky Singaporeans are. When I was a student nurse, I was trained to discharge patients at 10 am. At Tarin Kowt, we had to discharge them at 7:30 am so that they could make their long journey home on foot, before the sun set.

I’m also convinced that the Singaporean medical personnel who are deployed overseas are as skilful as our international counterparts. I’ve seen how our abilities have been valuable in saving lives. This makes me more motivated to share my experience and knowledge, and to instil greater confidence in our medic trainees.

In May 2010, our team received the Overseas Service Medal during a ceremony at SAF Medical Corps headquarters in Nee Soon Camp. This was a very moving moment for all of us. But the best part for me was that, after all their worrying, my parents were proud of my work, and the fact that I was the first female SAF personnel to be deployed to Afghanistan.

It was, for me, the experience of a lifetime.