Airmen in Afghanistan heal wounded with food, smiles

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Rachel Martinez
  • 455th Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
For many people, food can be a comfort. The staff at the nutritional medicine flight at the Craig Joint Theater Hospital on Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan believes it can also be healing. 

"Food brings a smile to everyone's face," said Capt. Jennifer Bradley, nutritional medicine flight chief. "Just bringing a smile on a person's face can do wonders for a person's healing." 

Doing their part to help the healing, the five Airmen in the nutritional medicine flight serve approximately 1,700 meals a week to the patients and staff at the hospital. 

While the food comes from a military contractor, the staff is responsible for accommodating any dietary needs and preparing supplemental items such as gelatin and protein-packed combat shakes. They also create home recipes for patients requiring tube feeding. The focus is on patient meals, but the nutritional medicine staff also prepares meals for the rest of the hospital staff who are unable to leave the hospital. 

"We're providing a basic need," said Master Sgt. Ken Pagano, noncommissioned officer in charge of nutritional medicine. "In a deployed environment it's realized even more how important that is. 

"That cup of coffee is that much more important in the morning," he continued. "I've had surgeons thank me for the services we're providing. If I did something that helped that surgeon, then I'm making it happen. It's extremely rewarding." 

The reward comes in giving the staff, and particularly the patients, what they want. 

"The Afghans love American junk food, bananas and apples," Captain Bradley said. "Going through, talking to the patients and giving them the food they want to eat is rewarding." The job doesn't come without its challenges, however. 

"We are in a hospital, but we are food service," said Sergeant Pagano, deployed from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. "The in-your-face reality of trauma and injuries -- we're not used to that." 

Meal service is only part of what the nutritional medicine staff does. They also offer outpatient services such as weight loss and tobacco cessation counseling. Unofficially, the staff aims to boost morale for both patients and staff by offering their diner as a morale room. They hold weekly movie nights and recently hosted a card game night. The staff takes the most joy in boosting the morale of the young Afghan patients, however. 

"We walk the patients around outside," said Captain Bradley, deployed from Misawa Air Base, Japan. "The other day we took the kids outside and played catch with them. They had such a good time and were all smiles." 

The medical staff provides quality care, but it's the little things like a hot meal and a smile from the nutritional medicine staff that elevate the care to the next level.