Doctor returns to Coachella Valley from tour of duty in Afghanistan
RANCHO MIRAGE, February 3, 2014 — After a four-month tour of duty in Afghanistan where he was responsible for the health and well-being of 2,000 people from 40 different countries, U.S. Navy Reserve Capt. Stephen Steele has returned to the desert to treat patients here.
The Eisenhower Medical Center physician had served as senior medical officer at headquarters for the International Security Assistance Force (a NATO base) in Kabul.
As base doctor, Steele — a family physician trained in sports medicine — primarily treated colds, flu, respiratory problems common from the poor air quality, as well as general injuries.
Sports medicine-type injuries — contusions, sprains and broken bones, mostly from weight lifting, volleyball and basketball — also were plentiful.
“There was a lot of gastrointestinal illness because of the food and the food preparers,” he told The Desert Sun.
The base, located in the Green Zone near Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s palace and the American Embassy, was about a half a square mile in size.
Steele’s potential patients included 36 generals, 125 colonels, doctors, liaisons to the minister of health, and liaisons to the hospital system. That included U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Commander, ISAF and United States Forces-Afghanistan.
“I didn’t deal with trauma unless it happened on the base,” Steele said. “You never know if your clinic will be destroyed in an attack, so we had alternate treatment sites created, like the gym and main recreation facility, and we created ten different lockers around the base with first aid, tourniquets, bandages, airways, stretchers.”
While the base never took a direct hit while Steele was there — his tour ran from July through November — the threat always existed.
Dr. Stephen Steele, right, with Gen. Joseph F. Dunford. / courtesy of Dr. Stephen Steele
“Daily, there were six to ten attacks around Afghanistan,” he said. “We had (rocket-propelled grenades) that were attempted to be lobbed into the base, there were truck bombs trying to get to the base. ... When I first got there, I was very uncomfortable. You just never know when something is going to happen.”
The always-on-heightened-alert-mode took a toll on the personnel, and Steele said they prescribed sleep and anxiety medicines to patients “all the way to the top, top management.”
“When the night came on, it was a little eerie walking around ... I wasn’t hungry, I wasn’t eating well — the food was bad anyway, so that was OK — I ate my dried chicken or vegetable and salad and then I couldn’t fall asleep,” Steele said.
“As soon as I got home, I’m hungry, I’m sleeping like a baby. Over there, I’d read and read and read and wait and wait. That was how I manifested stress.”
Steele shared his expertise with his Afghan counterparts, including the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police.
“The Afghan doctors are fairly well trained,” Steele added. “They can go on Google and search and know exactly what I know. They want to be good. They just don’t have the infrastructure and the money.”
A day in the life
Steele would meet each morning with a base support group, including the base commander, to discuss security concerns or incidents that occurred around Kabul during the night.
He’d see patients until noon, have lunch, then see patients until 4 p.m. Afterward, Steele would workout, read or hang out and have “espresso with my Italian major buddy,” he said laughing.
Friday nights were marked by what Steele called “a special meal” of steak and lobster, although U.S. military personnel were not allowed to drink alcohol.
Steele described moving on-and-off the base as a nerve-wracking experience. Because of the necessary checks for improvised explosive devices, a 10-mile drive could take 10 minutes or it could take almost an hour.
“If I had to go to the hospital for a meeting, I was the package that the convoy would be delivering,” he said. “I would meet the convoy — there would be three, up-armored vans — they’d all be young Army guys trained in the convoy ops and they would give me a brief before they left, ‘OK, put your helmet on, load your rifle ... sir, if you see anything suspicious, call it out,’ and the minute we got out of the base, everything looked suspicious.
“There’s bicycles trying to cut through, people cutting across the street ... There are no rules on the road. Everything looked suspicious. I just shut up.”
A doctor of osteopathic medicine, Steele is part of Eisenhower’s Primary Care 365 group and works out of the Argyros Health Center in La Quinta.
Steele credited Eisenhower and his family for providing the support he needed during what was his longest absence from his home.
The family used the iPhone’s Facetime feature to communicate, where wife Lynanne “would recap the trials and tribulations of home life.”
“I always dreamt about taking my daughter to college and I missed that,” he said of daughter Elle, now a freshman at Indiana University.
His son, Alec is a junior at La Quinta High School.
Steele went into the U.S. Navy after graduating from medical school in 1986, and served as a flight surgeon, taking care of pilots and air crews, until 1990.
“I really enjoyed my time — I got out because it wasn’t part of my life plan — but it was so much fun I stayed in the reserves.”
He was activated in 2003, at the start of the Iraq War, and assigned to Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton.
“They took all the active duty doctors and sent them to Iraq and back-filled with reservists,” he said.
Steele, 55, said he’ll retire from the reserves when he turns 59, but for now, he’s enjoying his time in uniform.
“It was a really neat, multicultural experience with all of these countries and the people. This mission was really neat. It’s the NATO mission to try to help Afghanistan become an independent country and a successful national government.”
Thank you to The Desert Sun and reporter Denise Goolsby for permission to reprint this article "Doctor returns to Coachella Valley from tour of duty in Afghanistan" which published on February 3, 2014.