FORT CAMPBELL, Ky.--When Spc. Sandra Ewing visits her family in Janesville later this month, don't hesitate to welcome her home.
The Army medic returned in July from a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, where she says the war changed her.
“The experience brought out bravery and mental strength I did not know I had in me,” Ewing said. “At first, I did not want to leave my son, but it was an experience I would never take back. I felt I was doing something meaningful.”
The enemy quickly set a deadly tone.
A week after Ewing arrived in Jalalabad last year, insurgents attacked her aid station with mortars, gunfire and suicide vests.
“They were welcoming a new unit,” she said. “They wanted us to know what we were in for.”
A loud boom awoke her from a sound sleep Dec. 2. She grabbed her gun and ran to the aid station. For two hours, the assault continued.
No one died, but medics cared for 35 casualties. Ewing personally attended three soldiers of the Afghan National Army.
A specialist with the 426th Brigade Support Battalion, Ewing enrolled in the U.S. Army after hearing about the high suicide rate and incidents of post traumatic stress disorder among troops.
“I wanted to do something to help,” the 32-year-old said.
She had been attending UW-Whitewater and was two classes short of a bachelor's degree in psychology.
Her brother had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
After 16 weeks of specialized training to become a medic, Ewing got her deployment orders.
At times, the Janesville native was just lucky.
Earlier this year, the enemy fired a mortar at her living quarters. Four medics got caught in the blast and had to be treated for traumatic brain injuries.
Ewing had been sent to a hospital in Bagram before the attack.
“Naturally, I was glad not to be hurt,” she said. “But I had left my friends, and something bad happened to them while I was gone.”
The bombing brought down the morale of her company for weeks. When she watched contractors fill holes from the mortar fire, she wished it was as easy to repair the human wounds.
“For awhile, people did not want to sleep in their rooms at night,” Ewing said.
The most frightening day of her tour came March 26, when she volunteered to pick up a wounded enemy fighter.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “I consider it the bravest moment of my life.”
Enemy fighters had attacked U.S. Special Forces at a camp, where they were training Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers got through the gates and created havoc.
One of the U.S. troops with a gash in his head ended up in Ewing's care.
“He told me that before he went down he shot one of the insurgents in the head,” Ewing said. “We got a call that the insurgent was being sent to us for care, and someone needed to pick him up.”
Fearful, Ewing prayed and made peace with God.
“The bomb-squad dogs had searched him and didn't find anything,” she said. “But I was afraid he was still wearing explosives.”
When she and the ambulance driver picked up the enemy fighter and put him on a stretcher, Ewing saw an unlikely warrior.
“He was the skinniest, smallest human being I have ever seen, probably 16 years old,” she said. “He was unconscious. I had to hold onto his body because it moved with every bump in the road. I needed to keep him breathing.”
She felt a surge of conflicting emotions.
“I was risking my life to save someone who had awoken in the morning to kill us,” Ewing said.
When the day ended, she called her mother, Maxine Steinmetz of Janesville.
“I told her it was the first time I thought I could definitely die,” Ewing recalled.
The next day only got worse.
Ewing saw her first U.S. soldier die.
A helicopter raced the 25-year-old with a neck wound to the aid station.
When it landed, three medics ran with the man on a stretcher.
“They took him to the surgical unit,” Ewing said. “I waited outside the door listening to them frantically doing everything they could to save him. They called his time of death at 12:48 p.m.”
Later, troops saluted as the man's body was put aboard a plane.
“I wondered if he could see the somber looks on our faces,” Ewing said. “I wondered if he knew he had our ultimate respect. I also wondered if he had seen the boy's face, the one who pierced his neck with a knife. While his truck was stopped, he had been rushed by a crowd of kids.”
She felt the loss deeply.
“This young man would never come down the airport escalator and see his family waiting for him,” Ewing said.
Not all her memories of Afghanistan are tragic.
An 8-year-old Afghan boy, the same age as her son, got his leg crushed by a truck in Jalalabad. After two surgeries, the child was doing well. He was treated at the aid station because he was the son of an Afghan soldier.
“The good news is he healed,” Ewing said. “I was very fond of him. He was a special patient.”
Last month, Ewing returned to Fort Campbell, Ky., where she was reunited with her son and her husband, Robert.
She is applying for officer's school to become a behavioral health specialist.
“I'm good at my medical skills,” Ewing said, “but I want to work with the psychological part of people.”
In retrospect, she is thankful to the troops in her company.
“I would never have made it without them,” she said. “We are family, and that is how you get through these things.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email email@example.com.