North Tahoe grad, now Army medic, returns from tour in Afghanistan
TAHOE CITY – In the nine months Army medic Renée Perona was stationed in Afghanistan, the majority of serious wounds she treated weren’t battle injuries normally sustained by U.S. soldiers fighting Taliban militiamen.
Instead, most people had been injured by land mines laid by the Soviet Union during its 10-year war with Afghanistan, which ended in 1989. Local people, who are not trained to recognize the mines, suffered the most.
Perona told about an 8-year-old boy who unknowingly picked up a land mine – painted with bright colors to appeal to children – and put it in his mouth. In the explosion, the boy lost his lower jaw, which was reconstructed by American doctors at the base.
“It’s a really depressing country. There’s nothing out there; the people have absolutely nothing,” said Perona, 21. “They appreciate us there so much. Kids run after us with their thumbs up just to say hi.”
Perona, a 2000 North Tahoe High School graduate, returned to Tahoe for three weeks after spending almost a year in Bagram, about 50 miles north of Kabul. One of Tahoe’s few female graduates serving in the military, she is also the only local soldier to be deployed to Afghanistan, instead of Iraq.
Perona said the U.S. military is needed in Afghanistan to help people rebuild after decades of conflict.
Perona found out she was being sent to Afghanistan last spring. Though the war in Iraq had started two months earlier, she said she was not surprised she was headed to South Asia, rather than the Persian Gulf. Her unit, the 10th Aviation Brigade, is part of the 10th Mountain Division, one of the first divisions deployed to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Perona’s mother, Patty, says she was relieved her daughter wasn’t being sent to Iraq. At the same time, she said, she worried about terrorist attacks and bombings at the base.
“You live with your heart in your throat,” said Patty Perona. “You do an awful lot of praying. I prayed for the safety of all of them (soldiers). You know they all have moms.”
By the time Perona arrived in Afghanistan last August, most of the local militiamen had been killed or driven across the border to Pakistan. At night, Perona said, she could hear gunfire in the distance, and rockets occasionally fell near the airfield, but for the most part fighting between U.S. troops and the Taliban had waned.
Her scariest moment came around Christmas, she said, when she was awakened in the middle of the night by loudspeakers calling everyone to the bunkers. Rockets landed near the airstrip, but missed the barracks.
“There are still a few bad guys out there who don’t want us to help (the Afghan people),” she said.
The hardest part, recalled Perona, was dealing with boredom and harsh weather. At an aid station for soldiers with general injuries, she mainly treated head colds, back pains and small cuts. She passed the time by learning to crochet or fighting a daily enemy – dust storms.
More rewarding were the medical visits with Afghan women, who could only be seen by female doctors, and rotations at the hospital. The hospital would treat two to three land mine victims a day.
“I don’t understand Iraq so much, but we’ve really helped in Afghanistan,” she said. “A lot of our mission is to help them now because we’ve chased out a lot of the bad guys.”
Perona, who returned to Fort Drum in New York on Friday, has two more years in the Army. She says her time in Afghanistan has given her a new perspective.
“It was hard getting adjusted back to the real world after I saw the way people lived (in Afghanistan). I felt bad about things I took for granted,” she said. “They have nothing and still smile.”