By Lt. Col. Pat Dabrowski
314th Operations Group Deputy Commander
On April 27, 2011, an Afghan National Army Colonel entered the Afghan Air Force Air Command and Control Center on the grounds of the Kabul International Airport. He drew his Smith and Wesson 9 millimeter pistol, and shot and killed Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, Maj. David Brodeur, Maj. Jeff Ausborn, Maj. Phil Ambard, Maj. Ray Estelle, Maj. Charles Ransom, and James McLaughlin, all Air Advisors assigned to the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing deployed to Afghanistan. Master Sgt. Tara Brown was also shot but survived until she reached the NATO hospital located nearby on KAIA where she eventually succumbed to her injuries. Capt. Nathan Nylander, who ran to the sound of the gunshots and engaged the renegade shooter with his own weapon, made the ultimate sacrifice after being shot. His bravery earned him the Silver Star (the nation’s third highest combat military decoration) for the bravery he displayed in the face of the enemy. The official investigation reported that, in the end, the Afghan colonel took his own life before coalition or Afghan forces could reach him.
The loss of the “NATC-A Nine” (NATO Air Training Command – Afghanistan), as they would come to be called, was devastating to the families back home as well as to their fellow air advisors. Part of the confusion came from the fact that these Afghans were not thought to be the enemy. The advisors were deployed to assist the Afghans in standing up their own Air Force. Unfortunately, in a lesson that has been relearned over and over again in Afghanistan, it was realized too late that the problem does not always come from where you expect it, nor the enemy from outside-the-wire.
In the days that followed, leadership directed significant changes to the rules of engagement the Air Advisors would use with their Afghan counterparts, and extensive help was made available at KAIA to those who had lost roommates, friends and coworkers in the attack. The help that the U.S. military amassed and made available was extensive, well-utilized, and provided initial healing to many who had never experienced such a traumatic event. Despite initial and ongoing care throughout the remainder of many Advisors’ deployments, there was still a need for assistance before their redeployment to home station.
Now, flashback to just over one year earlier. During Corona South in early 2010, senior Air Force leadership, led by former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz, proposed a program that would address resiliency issues that “outside-the-wire” Airmen were facing upon redeployment to home station. Gen. Roger Brady, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, offered up Ramstein Air Base, Germany as the best location based partly on its centralized location between the Central Command area of responsibility and the United States. While Security Forces and Air Force Office of Special Investigations Airmen had previously developed and executed their own internal resiliency programs, this vision was for a program that would aid other career fields, at large, with related experiences, and was initially designed for Security Forces, Air Transporters engaged in convoy operations, and Explosive Ordnance Disposal Airmen. The 86th Airlift Wing at Ramstein took on the effort with assistance that stretched from Air Mobility Command HQ, through the Pentagon all of the way to the Central Command AOR. Air Force leadership’s vision was eventually realized on July 2, 2010, when 31 EOD redeployers arrived at the Deployment Transition Center for the inaugural four-day program. Since its inception, over 4,000 personnel have attended the DTC which has expanded its services to include Tactical Air Control Party and RED HORSE Airmen, U.S. Marines, and U.S. Navy EOD.
In the wake of the April 2010 attack in Kabul, more than two dozen Air Advisors were added to the number of DTC attendees who, despite all of the assistance provided to them in theater, still required additional help en route back to home station before they could call their deployment complete. Most of these Airmen were first responders, somehow involved in the recovery of the fallen, or closely related to the trauma inflicted by the shooter. In some cases these men and women volunteered to attend the program. In other instances, individuals were directed by their supervisors or leadership to take advantage of the tools that the DTC had to offer. Ongoing assessment of the resiliency program Ramstein offers has been overwhelmingly positive as the USAF attempts to help its own, and it falls alongside a multitude of opportunities for Airmen to seek help that have been in existence for decades.
Back in Kabul, on April 12, 2012, nine flag-draped caskets were carried aboard a waiting C-130H by 72 Airmen, Sailors, and contractors past hundreds of NATO troops that attended the dignified transfer, as the nine fallen started their final trip home.
And, the healing began.
We have all faced a time in our lives when we have been overwhelmed by circumstances surrounding us whether they are financial difficulties, relationship problems, work stress, or some type of trauma. Faced with a choice, we can continue to remain mired in the problem or, if it’s beyond our capability to deal with, we can seek help from a myriad of sources made available to all Airmen.
For those in the 438 AEW, that day they experienced varying levels of trauma that none expected and very few were fully prepared to cope with. As professional help arrived, and as the Air Advisors turned to each other for consolation and therapy, many realized that tools have been and are available for those times and circumstances when Airmen feel overwhelmed by events occurring to them and around them. These resources are as established as the Medical Group’s Mental Health experts, the Airman & Family Readiness Center’s Military and Family Life Consultants, or the base Chaplains. For some redeployers, help came on their trip home through newer and innovative means like the Deployment Transition Center at Ramstein. For others, they realized that help is even available at home through the Military One Source website (http://www.militaryonesouce.mil) or 24-hour help line (1-800-342-9647). For those who need it, help can be as close as a coworker or supervisor, a family member or afriend. For many assigned to KAIA on that life-changing day, they were willing to seek help that is readily available to every Airman.
I had the privilege of working and living next to a real hero, Capt. Nate Nylander, the Silver Star recipient from that day. Immediately after his death I was confronted with transporting his body to the NATO hospital on his way to the morgue. In the end, I had the honor of carrying his casket into the cargo compartment of the C-130H aircraft waiting at the Kabul International Airport to fly his final journey home. After this unexpected, overwhelming, and life-changing experience I was willing to ask for and receive the professional care available to all Airmen. It has made a difference. I just had to ask for help.
Primary source – I have first-hand experience with the events discussed above.
I was an Air Advisor at the Kabul International Airport on the day of the shootings (April 27, 2011) reference in the article. I personally transported Capt. Nathan J. Nylander’s body to the NATO hospital and unloaded Master Sgt. Tara Brown before she passed, and later the remaining bodies into the morgue when they arrived. I was one of eight casket bearers for Nylander during the dignified transfer the day after the shootings. I was a witness in the investigation and quoted in the third reference below.
Additionally, along with Chief Master Sgt. John Western (the first DTC/CCC), I led the team at Ramstein that established the Deployment Transition Center and was the first DTC Commander under the 86 AW and 86 MSG.
Air Force Print News Today. 7/1/2010 – Available online at the following link: http://www.af.mil/news/story_print.asp?id=123211909. Accessed Aug. 12, 2012.
Air Force Print News Today. 7/16/2010 – Available online at the following link: http://www.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123213622. Accessed Aug. 12, 2012.
Air Force Office of Special Investigations Report of Investigation (redacted). File No: 2405-C-118-B—15882111171250. 04 September 2011 – Available online at the following link: http://www.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-120111-051.pdf. Accessed Aug. 12, 2012.
DTC Background Paper – Available online on the Air Force Deployment Transition Center webpage: http://www.ramstein.af.mil/deploymenttransitioncenter.asp. Accessed Aug. 12, 2012.
Military One Source – Available online at the following link: http://www.militaryonesource.mil. Accessed Aug. 13, 2012.