Native Astorian shines in war zone


Ron Smith jokes that his "stoic Finnish upbringing" won't allow him to crow over his Bronze Star.

The medal is one of the highest honors for bravery given to U.S. Army soldiers, but to Smith, a major in the Oregon National Guard, it's just "part of what you sign up for."

The physician assistant from Portland was given the award, with a special designation for valor, last December, for treating a number of Canadian soldiers under fire during a battle in southern Afghanistan.

Smith, an Astoria native and 1980 graduate of Astoria High School, is one of more than 950 Oregon National Guard members serving in Afghanistan as part of Task Force Phoenix. He's stationed in Kandahar Airfield in the country's barren southeast, where the temperatures climb above 130 in the summer, the air is full of dust and clouds of flies, and insurgents frequently launch rockets into the sprawling compound.

Smith has worked in hospital emergency rooms and in private practice. He joined the National Guard in 1998, both to give back to his country and help pay for schooling. He also saw the military as a "way to practice medicine with a lot of autonomy."

"You're the sole provider in a lot of ways," he said.

Without a large number of doctors, the National Guard relies heavily on physician assistants to handle its medical needs. Task Force Phoenix is charged with training the new Afghan National Army, and Smith and other medical personnel have been tasked with helping train army personnel in combat medicine.

Smith came to Afghanistan last summer as part of a "forward logistics element," and soon found that he wouldn't be spending his days seeing patients in a comfortable office, as he originally thought. The local commander brought the physician assistants together in one group and tapped Smith as the senior medical provider for the entire corps.

"When I got here there were five or six of us, and we were running around sticking our finger in the dike," he said.

With so few personnel, Smith signed up to go out on missions with the Afghan National Army and Coalition forces. He was on one such mission last fall, accompanying a group of Canadian and Special Forces troops and Afghan soldiers taking part in a NATO-led operation in troubled Kandahar province.

The unit was performing what was supposed to be a clearing operation when it was ambushed by a large number of Taliban fighters. Several Canadians were hit with rifle fire, and one of the unit's armored vehicles was struck with a rocket, leaving several of the occupants wounded. With men yelling for a medic, Smith left his vehicle and dashed across an open field to the spot where many of the wounded lay, as bullets flew past him.

"You could hear it zipping around your body easily," he said.

He worked on several wounded soldiers, although some were too badly hurt to be saved, he said. Others were dead when he arrived. Less than an hour later, the group was hit again and suffered more dead and wounded. A plane called in for support dropped a 500-pound bomb that landed in the middle of the unit, but fortunately failed to explode.

The group pulled out and Smith helped deal with the dead and injured at a casualty collection point.

What enables a person to dash across an open field as bullets fly past?

"You get focused on what's going on 2 feet in front of you," Smith said. "I truly didn't think about all the other stuff going on until I got back in the vehicle."

From his work in emergency rooms Smith said he learned to determine almost immediately who could be saved and who couldn't. That was the case on the battlefield last fall, but other considerations came into play.

"The worst thing was seeing a couple guys, they were obviously mortally wounded, and there was nothing I could do. But their buddies were standing around them and yelling encouragement to them to hold on," he said. "You do as much as you can, but it's as much for the other guys up there; you can't explain to people when their best friend is lying there."

The incident was traumatic for everyone involved, he said.

"The friends left at the end of the day &

there were a lot of guys with a lot of blank looks on their faces. I wasn't alone; a lot of those guys had not been in anything like this either," he said, adding that the same ill-fated company suffered again the next day when an accidental attack by an American warplane left dozens more wounded.

As more medical personnel have joined the mission, Smith's job has come to focus more and more on administrative duties and less on field work. Many of the American line medics he oversees, however, "are out living in the dirt a lot of the time" with their Afghan units, chopping firewood for their meals and enduring all the other hardships.

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