Dry freezing temperatures and a whole lot of snow.
Dressed in full battle rattle—an armored protective vest, M4 semiautomatic rifle, a Beretta M9 semiautomatic pistol at the side, a Kevlar battle helmet, ballistic eyewear, strap cutters, tourniquets and several magazines in clear reach.
For U. S. Navy Reservist, Lt. Cmdr. Luís Nuñez Jr., that was last Christmas in Afghanistan.
It was at a spring administrative retreat training when Nuñez, director of the Medical Lab Technician (MLT) program at the National City HEC, received a phone call from his captain with news that he was “tagged” to go to Afghanistan. With less than eight weeks to prepare, he began to get his affairs in order, both at home and at the college.
“I was in shock,” Nuñez said. “I knew I would eventually be tagged. My orders came in the first week of June with a reporting date of active duty in July.”
Before he knew it he found himself in a hot, sticky Louisiana summer at Fort Polk for 10 weeks of rigorous combat training.
“We would qualify in weapons training then go into simulations out in the field,” he said. “We had IED training with simulated explosions. They had towns set up like in Afghanistan as they threw scenarios at us. They observed how we handled it, how we fired, when we called in for troops. They even had helicopters come in for evacuation drills, dealing with casualties, combat.”
Following active duty for 14 years, both as enlisted then as an officer, Nuñez began reserve duty in 2008. His background includes service as a Navy corpsman lab technician and Medical Service Corps lab officer. He said he had basic combat training as a former corpsman and a lab technician, but the intense combat training was more than he expected.
“I did fairly well with the transition to full combat readiness,” he said. “But the training they had there goes above and beyond what I would normally go through, or what a doctor or nurse would.”
Nuñez said his first stop was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where his team split up. He soon was bound for Kabul. He said the capital of Afghanistan, with a population of about 4 million, was biblical at first sight.
“I saw so much poverty it was a shock,” he said. “People were herding sheep through the city, dirt everywhere, and dust and mud holes. The level of poverty they lived in was nothing I had seen before. I realize that there are different levels of poverty throughout the world, but I think it is more so in Kabul.”
Nuñez worked with the Medical Training Advisory Group in a mentorship program at the National Military Hospital of Kabul, a 400-bed facility built in the late 1970s by the Russians.
Nuñez said working in full body armor and being armed at all times was rigorous. Even the 400 meters to and from the compound to the hospital was dangerous. A force protection team comprised of the National Guard escorted them.
“They were all over the compound and in constant communications with the teams and there were several times we had to evacuate,” he said. “When threats were coming in, or gunfire in the background, unsure of where it was coming from, we would have to get out of the building and back to base.”
Nuñez went out on several convoys as part of the NATO team that took him to the opposite side of the city.
“We had to keep our combat skills up with quick reaction drills,” he said. “Or we would go to the large NATO base and meet with our leadership team. We didn’t mingle with the Afghans out in the streets, only with members of the Afghan National Army.”
His entire team was medical professionals. Americans, Canadians and Greeks worked together training Afghan professionals in every aspect of medical care and procedures. Interpreters translated everything into Dari, including documents. Nuñez said the Afghans had the knowledge, but as a population did not believe much in written procedure.
Teams trained and developed written procedures for the operation of all parts of the medical field, holding all hospitals accountable to a higher standard in procedures.
Col. Quadir, Nuñez’s Afghan counterpart, had 30 years of military service and worked with several previous American mentors. Led by Americans, the U.S. created a validation team of medical professional experts that traveled to the five regional hospitals with a standardized checklist for each part of the hospital. They would grade the hospitals on a number scale, determining if they could operate facilities without NATO support.
Nuñez said after six months of intense training they were able to start turning responsibilities over to their Afghan counterparts.
“The U.S. is pulling out in 2013,” he said. “And the training group grew smaller and smaller. At the height of my arrival, we had a large team of about 60 and when I left, it was cut in half. Most of this was the work done by the American teams. As the departments became independent we would send someone back early and not send in a replacement.”
Nuñez said he did a great amount of online training in the weeks before departure, got his family affairs in order and had to be sure the MLT program continued in his absence. Myrna Bryant, a clinical chemistry instructor, said he brought two professors from Balboa Naval Hospital to fill in as director. She said the program is independent and Nuñez’s experience was central to its status as one of just two accredited MLT programs in California.
“We run a tight ship here,” she said. “We missed him and were always happy to hear he was safe as he kept in touch. We knew he would do a great job in helping the people of Afghanistan.”
Former student Alejandro Tolentino, hired by Rady Children’s Hospital to operate a small lab at a local clinic in Chula Vista before his graduation, said Nuñez models hard work, high standards and leadership as a teacher.
“He is motivated, poised, structured, methodical and on point,” he said. “When he was in Afghanistan I was honored to be class president and share his motivation and dedication to future students as well as the community. Though he was back east, we all succeeded with a 100 percent pass rate for the entire class.”
Victor La Fond, a certified MLT and former student, said when Nuñez went to Afghanistan everyone worried. He said he first met him with his 3-month-old daughter as he was deciding whether to take the program. A stringent program, Nuñez warned him it would be difficult for a young family man. La Fond said he looked at his daughter and told him, “I’ve got to do something for her.” Nuñez let him in the program.
“I’ve been in his debt from that day on,” said La Fond. “Everything in my life that I have now is because of him.”
La Fond said Nuñez challenged him to do things he never thought he could and without his thorough process, starting the program and getting it accredited, things would not be as solid for his students in the workforce.
“Professionally and personally, Luís is a great guy,” he said. “I’m buying a house thanks to my education. A nice four bedroom in a great neighborhood near an elementary school my kids will go to. I think that about sums it up.”
Nuñez said the MLT program offers an Associate’s degree for graduates as technicians in clinical hospitals.
“It is a great paying job,” he said. “Between $24 and $26 upon graduation, take a national certification exam, get a state license and 95 percent of the program’s graduates have been hired.”
After a year-long active duty tour, missing Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year, his anniversary and his daughter’s sweet 16 birthday, Nuñez said June 25 has new meaning.
“I’ll never forget that day I got back,” said Nuñez. “The sacrifices we made over there, being away from our family, I don’t know how we did it. I just spent my first Thanksgiving in two years with my family. I was so thankful to sit down and break bread with them, enjoy the moment and look forward to the Christmas break.”