Senior Airman Ryan Turvey, 50th Security Forces Squadron, holds an injured Afghan child he encountered while patrolling an area outside Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan, during his recent deployment. Turvey and his fellow 50 SFS airmen routinely provided first aid to the Afghan children they encountered while on patrol. Sadam, the boy who suffered extensive burns to his legs, is not shown.
BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan — Senior Airman Ryan Turvey’s primary duty during his first deployment was to provide and enhance security at Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
Prior to his May 2012 deployment, the 50th Security Forces airman prepared himself to endure the less-than-ideal working conditions presented by Afghanistan’s environment, but he had no idea this assignment would fundamentally change his perspective of the world.
Turvey wasn’t on assignment for a week before he encountered the harsh realities of life in rural Afghanistan. As a gunner on an armored personnel carrier known as an M-ATV, Turvey patrolled an area outside the base for more than four months searching for suspicious activity.
He and his crew of four occasionally found something worth investigating, but much of their time was spent learning their surroundings and interacting with the locals outside the wire.
The actual living conditions of the Afghan population surrounding the base hit Turvey with full force when a local boy approached his patrol vehicle just a few days into his deployment.
“As he approached us, I noticed his legs were badly burned,” Turvey, an Ohio native, said. “By way of simple gestures, broken sentences and the intervention of a few makeshift interpreters, we learned his gruesome predicament.”
The boy, known to security forces members as Sadam, told the story of how he was attempting to steal gasoline from one of the fuel trucks parked in a staging area outside the base.
Hoping to make some money, the boy held a plastic shopping bag under the fuel tap at the back of a truck, turned the spigot and filled up the bag. He had almost finished when a local Afghan truck driver caught him in the act.
Startled, the boy dropped the bag, splashing fuel up to his knees. That’s when the truck driver exacted a swift and brutal punishment. He simply tossed a lit match at the boy, setting both of his legs aflame.
“We’re not sure how much time had passed, but we encountered Sadam later the same day,” Turvey said. “Due to security concerns, we weren’t able to take him on to the base for medical attention, so we did what we could.”
Using self-aid buddy care, Turvey bandaged the boy’s legs with supplies from his vehicle. Upon returning to the base later that evening, he sought guidance from medical personnel.
“It was a difficult situation,” he said. “Those were the worst burns I’ve ever seen. I held little hope for his survival. I did what I could and a lot of people chipped in to provide bandages and disinfectants, but all we could do was keep changing his bandages and hope his injuries didn’t worsen.”
Diligently, he changed Sadam’s bandages every day. Meanwhile, he sought medical advice from a variety of sources.
“My mom works in a hospital stateside and she asked burn doctors there for their best treatment advice,” Turvey said. “The doctors told us the boy’s wounds needed to be kept cleaned and aired out. Well, this kid lives in the dirt. He doesn’t shower. He doesn’t have a change of clothes. We had few options. Our only hope was to keep changing his bandages.”
Tech. Sgt. David Koppenhaver was one of 12 50th SFS airmen who deployed along with Turvey. His primary duty involved inspecting delivery trucks at the Bagram entry control point near the area. Hearing Turvey’s tale, he saw an opportunity to help as well.
“In the truck inspection area, we often found military field kits in the trucks,” he said. “The drivers are not supposed to have them and they’re not allowed to bring them onto the base, so we confiscated them.”
Many of those bandages found their way to Turvey, who used every inch.
“Sadam wasn’t alone,” Turvey said. “The locals are mostly farmers, but the community had set up markets and strip malls along the road leading to the base entry control point. The strip malls aren’t what we think of, they’re more like shanties. And, there are kids everywhere, a lot of them. They get cut up just living and playing, so it seemed like we bandaged a different kid up every day.”
Clearly affected by what they’d witnessed for months in the searing Afghanistan sun, Turvey and his fellow airmen began asking for toys and food in their care packages from home.
“When you first give a kid a soda you expect him to guzzle it down with a smile,” he said. “These kids? They’d take the soda and run off. Later we found out that soda was valuable and that the kids could get a decent price for them even opened.”
Turvey never knew where Sadam went at night or where he slept, but come sunrise, he was always out there with the other kids, looking for a way to make money.
As summer turned to fall, temperatures cooled at night. Some of the children had heavy clothing, but most didn’t have real shoes. Calls went out around Bagram for shoes and winter coats.
Two weeks prior to the end of his deployment, Turvey’s unit’s replacements arrived. The senior airman briefed the new security forces members on the area and introduced some of the locals, including a young boy with scarred legs. Following four months of bandaging and healing, Sadam had survived. Turvey no longer worried about the boy losing his legs.
“He made a miraculous recovery,” Turvey said. “But I don’t think I’ll ever forget the night we had to pour peroxide on his burns. He didn’t even cry. He’s the toughest kid I’ve ever met. That said, I don’t think he would have survived without our help.”
Upon reflection, Turvey admitted he would like to deploy back to Afghanistan, despite the 80-hour work weeks, extreme temperatures and barracks-style living arrangements.
“There’s something to be said for doing the job,” he said. “The entire deployment I woke up, put on my uniform, went to work, came home, ate, showered, slept and did it all over again.”
The idea of making a real difference in people’s lives went unmentioned, but he hopes that through his actions, he’s helped win a few hearts and minds.
“I like to think they like us,” he said. “That the food and shoes and winter clothes we gave them made a difference. Maybe one day when they have a decision to make, they’ll remember us.”