Downrange: Academy NCO cares for locals, warfighters

  • Published
  • By Butch Wehry
  • Academy Spirit staff writer
A surgical services technician with the 10th Medical Group didn't know what to expect when she deployed with the 655th Forward Surgery Team in Afghanistan two months ago. However, she quickly learned that at least some of the local population harbors no love for Americans in the country.

During Staff Sgt. Shante Lopez's first month downrange, her team's quarters took a hit from a rocket attack and burned to the ground.

"There were 17 of us who were left homeless for about a week," the Las Vegas native said. "Thank God the people who live in the middle of the hut, including me, were out, because otherwise I don't think I'd be sitting here answering these questions." The four people who were in the building at the time escaped without incident, but a rocket attack two weeks earlier injured one person when it hit the forward operating base's chapel.

Sergeant Lopez's deployment to Afghanistan is her first. As the NCO in charge of operating room supplies and equipment, she orders supplies, takes patients to and from the aeromedical evacuation areas, helps run labs and assists with blood drives.

"I've learned how to use the x-ray machine and draw blood. As a tech here, you have to learn how to do everything," she said.

She generally calls her family and works out in the gym before her team starts work by meeting in the mornings. Work times vary for operations security reasons.

"Once we have the meeting, we disperse to our different sections to make sure we are ready if there happens to be a trauma that day," Sergeant Lopez said.

She said the most satisfying part of her job is working with children.

"We provide them with the best care possible," she said. "They always seem to leave in better spirits than when they arrived."

The hardest part of her job is going to the FOB gate to pick up patients due to the chaos generally surrounding a patient's arrival at the gate, she said.

Sergeant Lopez's team gets to interact occasionally with locals on base, including the operators of an Indian restaurant that provides an alternative to dining facility food and guards who invite Sergeant Lopez and her team to share lunch.

"The food, which usually has rice, some type of meat and bread, is always delicious," she said. "They (the guards) are always extremely nice."

While Sergeant Lopez is deployed, her husband, Staff Sgt. Jorge Lopez, juggles his job as NCO in charge of acquisitions management for the 10th Medical Support Squadron's Medical Logistics Flight with his role as father for the NCOs' two children: Trinity, age 4, and Jayda, age 1.

"I think he's become more of an independent parent, with having to make all the decisions pertaining to our girls," the Air Force wife and mother said. "He's doing a great job."

However, communicating with her family has become more difficult since the rocket attack destroyed her laptop computer, and she's had to learn to sometimes let things be.

"There are so many things we cannot change, and this experience has taught me to not sweat the small things," she said. "Work hard, but make sure you find time for yourself, or you will get burned out too quickly."

She also had advice for military parents who will deploy: work on personal goals and focus on yourself.

"Just think of it as a time to get yourself together," Sergeant Lopez said. "I take it day by day, and it does get easier, but you're going to have those days when all you want is to be with your family. I always think that there are thousands of other mothers who left their families, and I know that if they can do it, so can I."

Few couples outside the military face the challenges that the Lopez family works through.

"I think military couples all over the world are going through the same things we are," said the sergeant, "especially one spouse deploying and the other spouse having to leave during their deployment or even right after they have returned home. It can be taxing on a relationship."

But the challenges, she added, can bring couples closer together, as it has done for them.