Senior Airman Chris Willis/U.S. Air Force
When the sun rises at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. John Silvia is waiting at the gates of the compound for the arrival of up to 500 Afghan locals in need of medical care and support.
It is not the sort of assignment most people envision for U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, but this is the job of the 455th Expeditionary Security Forces Group and Silvia, a Bayfield native who is based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada.
Each day, he rises at 5 a.m. and makes his way to the hospital, which he helps clean and prepare for the arrival of the hundreds of local Afghans who pour through each day. The clinic is meant to treat a wide variety of medical needs, from the common cold to gunshot wounds.
“This is very abnormal for security services as a whole. Most people think of war in Afghanistan as fighting in a war, but that’s not what we’re focused on,” Silvia said. However, this facility is rare: There is only one other Air Force base in the country.
Serving his second tour in Afghanistan, Silvia says this is not a job he ever would have imagined himself doing, but it is one he enjoys and values. He works security at the entry points, monitoring those who come through to make sure they are safe. It is not something he takes lightly.
“You never know who is coming through the gate – it is very important for me to see that I’m getting kids inside the gate and getting (them) to treatment they’re not going to receive anywhere else,” he said.
To ensure the hundreds receiving care each day are safe, Silvia and other troops scan each person’s eyes and fingers with high-tech biometric scanners that provide access to individual information.
“We want to make sure every person coming is clear, and that they are good people,” Silvia said.
Providing security is not Silvia’s only role. As one of the first people the local Afghan people come in contact with, a major part of his job is as an ambassador for the United States.
“We are the first base they see,” Silvia said. “We want to show that we care about them, and that we’re there for them,” he said.
The clinic is not run only by U.S. forces, but rather with the cooperation of many different countries. Korean medical staff run treatment in the hospital with the Republic of Korea Army and national Afghan people assisting in security.
“We all integrate, and all find a way to communicate with each other,” Silvia said. “Every job we do is different, and every job is very important. There are all kinds of countries making a difference.”
He said the primary focus is to make a difference on their compound by helping local people receive care and remain calm.
Those coming through, however, are seeking not only medical care. The clinic also offers various vocational programs for Afghan people. The training center gives 150 people the opportunity to come and learn life trades each day, while the “Cat in the Hat” program offers schooling for 40 children up to 13 years old. The program focuses on teaching students how to read and write in English.
Silvia, who himself has two children, says helping children is one of the best parts of his assignment. It gives him the chance to do something productive, to help people, which is an opportunity he would not have anywhere else.
“I just feel like I’m making a difference every day and showing them what America is all about,” he said. “This mission is something we take a lot of pride in.”