August 7, 2003


Air Force Captain Brian Barnett caring for a patient on a C-17 transport aircraft somewhere between Kuwait and Germany during his deployment in the Middle East.


After 5 months in Mideast, Air Force medic comes home

After five months in the Southwest Asian desert helping to fight the Iraqi war, local resident Brian Barnett is hesitant to accept recognition for his service.

Since he returned to the U.S. on May 3, he has resumed his roles as husband, father and trauma nurse at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base medical center. But during his deployment in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and another Middle Eastern country from Nov. 25 through May, Barnett, a captain in the Air Force, played an integral part in supporting U.S. troops and helping bring them safely back home.

Barnett worked alongside a physician and a respiratory therapist as part of a three-person critical care unit that transported wounded personnel from Kuwait and to a hospital in Germany. Living at deployment locations in the Middle East, the team responded to a call once every three days, completing a total of six major missions over the six-month period.

The team’s missions varied widely, Barnett said. Once they were called upon to enter the battle theater in Kuwait after the fighting had died down to pick up a soldier with facial wounds from an artillery shell explosion. The next run was to transport a 77-year-old contractor with the U.S. Department of Defense who needed a pacemaker.

“Usually when we show up, the fighting is mostly over,” Barnett said. “But in some situations we were probably in more danger than I like to think about.”

There were two times when Barnett felt really frightened, he said. Upon deployment, he was told he would be issued a weapon, an M-9 Beretta, which is standard issue for officers. For someone who fires a pistol every two years, having the gun was an encumbrance more than anything, he said.

“We tried to have it as far away from us as possible,” he said. “We’re medical people, we’re there to help people.”

It wasn’t until four months later, when the war officially began, that fear took hold again.

He was only scheduled to be deployed for three months, but his stay was extended indefinitely when the conflict in Iraq began to boil over in March. It was a time of high anxiety, Barnett said, because no one knew what was going to happen.

Barnett was not involved at the fighting, and though his team’s missions sometimes took them to the edge of combat, they managed to make it back safely and regroup for their next call.

In between each run, there was a lot of downtime, Barnett recalled. Outside maintaining operational capabilities, keeping vehicles restocked and repairing equipment, activity on the base was very unstructured.

“Basically what you’ve got is a bunch of people sitting around waiting for something to happen,” he said.

Some of the troops participated in intramural sports and other recreation activities. Barnett said he acquired a new-found affinity for the PX on base.

“We’d go there every day and spend 30 minutes walking around just to see if there was something new there,” he said. “The civilian contractors and support troops worked very hard to make the place livable and keep the morale up.”

But Barnett said that he could feel that the local residents of countries whose governments agreed to host American troops did not want Western influences. The bases were located on vacant properties at the edge of town, as far removed as possible from the center of local activity. Local governments would only allow what are referred to as “third-country nationals,” temporary workers from Bangladesh and India, to work on the base as kitchen, janitorial and maintenance personnel, he said.

Troops were discouraged from leaving the base for anything but mission essential duties, Barnett said. And when they did leave, they were expected to blend into the local culture as much as they could by covering their arms and legs and being respectful of local customs.

While he was deployed, Barnett made one purchase in Oman.

“I bought two wool-on-cotton rugs, that was the sum total of my purchases,” he said.

He likened the experience to buying a used car. The merchant invited him to sit down and discuss the deal over a cup of tea. He told Barnett to try the rug, feel the rug, walk on the rug. After waffling on several prices and leaving Barnett so that he could “go talk to my manager,” the merchant agreed to the sale.

“I think I got some nice rugs,” he said.

Barnett made some other purchases on the Internet for his family at Christmas time.

He had phone or e-mail contact almost every day with his wife, Susan, and their two children. But Barnett said that his deployment was more difficult for Susan than he had originally thought. Suddenly becoming a single parent and doing things around the house that are normally done by two was a challenge for her, he said.

Though Susan worried about her husband, at times not knowing any more about the situation than what the TV news provided, she said she received strong support from the community.

Both Mills Lawn School, which her children attend, and her own school in Springfield, where she teaches physical education, seemed to be understanding of the family’s hardship. And though the family has only been in Yellow Springs for a year, neighbors helped them through the snowy winter, and members of the Yellow Springs Methodist Church made them feel like they had someone to call on if trouble arose, Susan Barnett said.

“But I was always a little bit worried the whole time, when they’re all the way over on the other side of the planet,” she said.

When Brian Barnett returned home he had several weeks to spend with his family, attending sports games and school concerts and fixing up the family home. He has gone back to work at Wright-Patt since then, sometimes taking 12-hour night shifts to accommodate personnel on training missions.

Like he did when his 90-day deployment was extended two months, Barnett accommodates his team when the circumstances change because, he said, it’s his duty.

He joined the Air Force six years ago to get his graduate degree in nursing, but he stayed because he believes in what he does, he said.

“I believe in my country, and I can support my country by being in the military,” Barnett said. “I like believing my labor is going to something worthwhile.”

—Lauren Heaton