Air Force Paramedic Receives New Combat Medal

Medic is second female to be awarded newest commendation


CHARLES D. BRUNT, Albuquerque Journal | | Monday, August 2, 2010

A year ago, Sarah Hodgkin, a paramedic stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, was one month into her first deployment to Afghanistan, an assignment for which she eagerly volunteered.

Last week, the 24-year-old Air Force staff sergeant received one of the Air Force's newest combat medals after surviving a firefight in the volatile hills of eastern Afghanistan. She's the second woman at Kirtland to receive the medal, first awarded by the Air Force in June 2007.

Hodgkin, in an interview Thursday, said that her first few months working in at a medical clinic at Forward Operating Base Hughie in Jalalabad, a provincial capital in eastern Afghanistan, were uneventful.

Six days before her unit was scheduled to return to the United States, she volunteered for one of the routine convoys the Afghan National Army conducts to supply outlying military bases.

The 16 -vehicle convoy included military vehicles and civilian "jingle trucks," so-named for the bright decorations with which the Afghan contractors adorn their flatbed semis.

About daybreak on Dec. 7, the convoy left for Forward Operating Base Blessing and points in between to drop off supplies and vehicles - a fiveto six-hour mission.

"Having been up there two other times with nothing happening, we didn't think anything would happen this time," Hodgkin said.

At 8:15 a.m., as the convoy moved through the Pech Valley, it was attacked by 15 to 20 Taliban fighters.

"All of a sudden, we hear this big explosion, and our gunner started yelling out 'Contact, contact, contact!' " said Hodgkin, who was in an armored Humvee toward the front of the column.

"I'm thinking, 'Really? This is happening now, when we only have a few days left?' " she said.

Her thoughts ricocheted from her family back home to the supplies in her medic bags to the types of wounds she would likely be treating.

"We had mountains off to the left of us, and there was a river off to the right. They were hitting us from both sides," she said.

"You could see muzzle flashes from the mountains, and you could actually see them (attackers) in the riverbed. They were pretty close," she said with a nervous chuckle.

But the Afghan soldiers "weren't leaving until they had control," she said.

"They weren't the type that, if they get fired at, they just keep on going. They want to stop, they want to stop the firing and they want to shoot back. They're all gung ho about it," she said

The convoy, which included about 25 Afghans and about that many U.S. troops, quickly ground to a halt.

"We couldn't go anywhere because the ANA (Afghan National Army soldiers) were in front of us and they weren't going anywhere," she said.

The firefight ended as abruptly as it had begun. Amazingly, no one in the convoy was injured. The military said four Taliban fighters were killed and three to five were wounded.

After an overnight stay at Forward Operations Blessing, the convoy made an uneventful return along the same route.

A week later, Hodgkin was on her way back to the United States, having survived what was her first and, she hopes her last, time being shot at.

Last week, Hodgkin, a graduate of Kirtland's rigorous six-month pararescuman training, was awarded the Air Force Combat Action Medal. Airmen who have been in direct combat and in imminent danger of losing their lives are eligible for the award.

In the past year, Kirtland officials have presented seven of the awards. Two have gone to women.

"It's a huge honor," Hodgkin said about receiving the medal. "We were told so many times that it was impossible to get, and that you pretty much had to be shot and have bullet wounds to get it. ...So when I found out that I had gotten it, that was pretty awesome."

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