Local Doctor Spends the Summer in Afghanistan

by Mike Bellah

It’s a place of contrasts: lush, green valleys giving way to vast stretches of barren sand outlined by jagged mountain peaks, the hushed stillness of a desert overwhelmed with the whop-whop-whop of low flying Chinook, Blackhawk and Apache helicopters, loud speakers blaring a Muslim call to prayer set alongside a Christian church service where armed soldiers sing Amazing Grace and hear the Beatitudes of Jesus. 

Welcome to Afghanistan, The United States’ first foreign battlefield in the war on terror and, for most of this summer, home for Canyon’s Scott Burner, an emergency medicine doctor at Northwest Texas Hospital and a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army. 

“I have now seen the war on terror and the battle for freedom and can say that it is worth doing and that we are doing it well,” says Burner who recently returned from a 90-day tour of duty. Col. Burner served as the Senior EMT doctor at the U.S. Army Hospital in Bagram. 

Burner says his optimism is based on the caliber of the troops he observed. “I’ve been in the army since 1968, and the army we have now is the best army we’ve ever had—by a long shot.” While he was still in Afghanistan, Burner’s wife asked him by phone if he felt safe. Says Burner, “I told her, ‘how could I not feel safe with all these armed teenagers around me?’”

Burner and the other doctors treated everyone from U.S. soldiers to Afghan civilians, who suffered everything from common colds and allergies to typhoid, malaria, influenza and heart attacks. The doctors also treated war-related injuries, many the result of IED’s (improvised explosive devises) and land mines. Seriously sick or injured U.S. soldiers were stabilized and sent to the Army hospital in Landstuhl, Germany. Afghan nationals were hospitalized at Burner’s facility. 

Burner says he was proud of the camaraderie of his peers. He points to a time near the first of his tour when he admitted a number of Afghan police with life-threatening injuries. Whether on duty or not, all the hospital personnel showed up to help. “They’re all just hanging around saying what do you want me to do,” says Burner. “No one was backing off or hanging back. Everyone was in this together and everybody was doing everything they could.” 

Burner says he will not forget the children of Afghanistan, especially a 14-year-old Afghan girl who had been blind for 10 years due to a childhood illness. Lieutenant Colonel Dik Cheung, an American ophthalmologist, got on the Internet and found a cornea for the girl in Ohio, which was then flown by military transport to Bagram. Chung conducted a successful transplant, and by the next morning the girl was all smiles. “She kept looking at her hands and trying to count her fingers,” says Burner.

Burner treated many Afghan children during his stay. One 13-year-old boy had fallen out of a tree and broken his right leg and both wrists. “It must have been the only tree in Afghanistan,” says a grinning Burner. Burner was impressed with the way these Afghan children responded to pain. “He never cried out or wept,” says Burner.

Though most of the injured Afghans recovered from their wounds, not all Burner’s stories have happy endings. A young husband and wife received burns over most of their bodies, and after doing what they could to relieve the pain, the doctors had to tell relatives that the couple’s death was imminent. “Sometimes medicine is hard,” says Burner.

Some of the Afghans Burner treated were not friends of the coalition. He tells of two male burn victims with injuries to their faces and hands. They claimed to be street workers who had driven over an unexploded bomb. “The story made no sense,” says Burner, “until our interpreters found out it was a powder that blew up. Which meant they were making a bomb against us. Of course, they still received good care,” says Burner.

Burner and his co-workers were the targets of somewhat infrequent rocket attacks on their position. No one on the compound was injured by any of these, but Burner and the others did make a number of trips to bunkers wearing their helmets and body armor. In all of this, Burner dismisses his own heroism.

“I was a basic rear echelon person,” he says. “There are guys who are out there on the sharp end who are risking things. I mean I didn’t really risk anything. There are young kids out there who are doing dangerous work. And they’re doing it not just for the thrill but because they think they’re doing something right.”

Burner says that, despite the hospital’s construction (mostly tents), his working conditions were not that bad. His “B-hut” (a 20-by-40 foot insulated plywood shelter with room for six doctors) was comfortable, and the food was both good and plentiful (every Friday the staff served steak and seafood). Burner says the Afghan weather was often hot, well over 100 degrees, and the dust was “ubiquitous.” “It felt like home,” he says with a grin. 

The Afghan terrain is famous for its rugged beauty, something Burner experienced firsthand. On a flight aboard a UH-60 Blackhawk  to a remote Army hospital near the Pakistan border, Burner says he saw “some incredibly varied terrain, mountains steeper than the Rockies, high vacant desert, nomads and herds of goats in unlikely and inhospitable places and one white camel high up on a ridgeline just gazing peacefully at us. You could not invent terrain like this,” says Burner. “It’s just too unlikely.” 

Out of 4,000 retired Army Reserve Doctors asked last winter to return for a stint of active duty, 54-year-old Burner was one of 200 who agreed to go and one of 100 who took the physical and qualified. Colonel Burner is a West Point graduate with Special Forces training. He says he served on active duty for 17 years before he retired to make his home in Canyon in 1992 and begin his practice at NWTH.

Burner sees his decision to go to Afghanistan as his contribution to the war on terror. “There’s no heroics in it,” he says. “It’s more answering a call to duty.” Burner’s wife, Bonnie, herself a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Nurse Corp, urged him to follow that sense of calling, telling him that she would take care of things at home during his absence. The Burners, who are members of the First United Methodist Church in Canyon, are devout Christians, and Bonnie says she had “a peace” about his going.

Burner says he might return to Afghanistan someday for a similar job. “This has been the most professionally satisfying experience of my medical and military careers,” he says. He points to the fact that, despite threats by leftover Taliban terrorists, 10 million Afghans have registered to vote in the coming election, and 40 percent of them are women.

And Burner remembers the words of a young Afghan boy who was offered candy by an army chaplain. “The boy said he didn’t need candy,” says Burner. “The Americans had given him freedom.”

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