Military surgeon had job to do

Capt. Jason Sapp's worst moment in Afghanistan? The afternoon of Aug. 25, when he first learned a roadside bomb had detonated under a vehicle carrying soldiers returning from a humanitarian mission.

The soldiers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment were responding to a cholera outbreak in the Shah Wali Kot district of southern Afghanistan. The bomb exploded on their way back to battalion headquarters, killing four people.

They were some of Sapp’s closest friends in the battalion.

“The deployment was tough at times,” said Sapp, a Madigan Army Medical Center doctor who deployed as the 1-17 Infantry’s battalion surgeon. “You see people you work with, people you take care of, get killed or get injured. (The Aug. 25 attack) was the worst, though.”

As the battalion surgeon, Sapp oversaw all medical issues for the 1-17 Infantry – the hardest-hit battalion during the Afghanistan war. The unit, part of the larger 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, has lost a reported 22 soldiers since it deployed in July, out of 35 deaths brigade-wide.

Another 79 soldiers in the battalion have been wounded in action – the largest number for the brigade, which has seen 229 soldiers listed as wounded.

Sapp deployed for six months as part of the Army Medical Department’s Professional Filler System, which sends soldiers assigned to hospitals and medical facilities to hook up with deploying medical units.

The 31-year-old Lacey resident returned home in January and is now back at work at Madigan as an internal-medicine doctor and incoming director of intern training at Madigan’s graduate medical office.

In Afghanistan, Sapp ran the aid station at the battalion headquarters in Kandahar province, managed preventive medicine programs, treated NATO and Afghan soldiers and oversaw the performance of the unit’s 30 or so combat medics.

Those medics, Sapp said, were the ones who saw the horrors of war up close.

“The medics had to grow up very quickly,” he said. “Most had never deployed before, and most were pretty green.”

Bombs exploded near vehicles and dogged soldiers on foot patrols, especially early in the deployment. The troops also found themselves caught in small-arms-fire ambushes.

As the deaths and injuries mounted, each medic seemed to adapt differently, Sapp said. He credits the predeployment training, which he said was about as realistic as one could get stateside.

“They were as prepared as they could have been – physically, mentally, training-wise – for this situation,” he said.

But little could prepare him for the attack on Aug. 25 that killed the battalion’s physician’s assistant, the medical platoon sergeant, a company commander and their driver, a young enlisted man from Federal Way.

The battalion had received word that cholera had broken out in some villages in Shah Wali Kot.

The soldiers spent the last hours of their lives gathering information about what they could do to help combat the disease.

According to another soldier in the area that day, insurgents hid a 600- to 800-pound bomb in a culvert under the road. The triggerman was about a mile away and detonated the explosive with a command wire. Killed were Capt. John L. Hallett III, Capt. Cory J. Jenkins, Sgt. 1st Class Ronald W. Sawyer and Spc. Dennis Williams.

At that point, it was the deadliest attack on Lewis-McChord soldiers in more than two years. Sapp said the news hit members of the battalion especially hard; they had just left home a month earlier and had lost only two other soldiers to that point.

The mission, however, went on. A replacement physician’s assistant arrived two or three days later. And the battalion has since lost another 16 soldiers.

“You’ve got a mission to do,” Sapp said. “During the good times and during the bad times, there will always be more work just around the corner.”