JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. –
“My entire job is based around the concept ‘so others may live’,” said Staff Sgt. Kennedy Houser, 633d Surgical Operations Squadron, sterile processing non-commissioned officer in charge.
Houser was raised in Alabama and joined the Air Force in 2015. According to Houser, service, whether it be to her country or those in need, has always been a big part of her identity.
After working as a surgical technician for a couple years she was sent to Afghanistan as one of the youngest members in her deployment band.
“During my first deployment I was sent to Bagram, Afghanistan from October 2018 to May 2019,” said Houser. “At that time we were still serving in Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and the U.S. hadn’t signed the treaty with the Taliban yet. During the mission some American military members, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies and members of the Afghan Army were still out in the fight so I was seeing a lot of trauma, IED blasts--you name it, we saw it.”
According to Houser, being in a new, unfamiliar country as a young Airman took some adjusting, but the hardest part of her deployment was operating on fellow comrades and witnessing them succumbing to their injuries.
“We had an American who was shot in the head and ended up brain dead. We flew his wife out to say goodbye--it was eye opening,” said Houser. “These stories are saddening, but that’s what we signed up to do. It’s the sacrifice we make when we raise our right hand.”
Operation Freedom’s Sentinel was the name of the mission that came after Operation Enduring Freedom. According to the Department of Defense, OFS had two complementary missions: the first was the U.S. counterterrorism mission against al Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, and their affiliates in Afghanistan. The second was U.S. participation, with NATO allies and partner nations in the NATO-led Resolute Support mission to develop the capacity of the Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior Affairs and to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces.
“I can recall a time during the mission when three children that had been caught in crossfire were brought into our hospital,” said Houser. “The youngest child was a five-year-old little boy who was on a ventilator due to a gunshot wound to the head; the other two were girls and were severely injured. My team was operating on them, doing everything we could to save them.”
According to Houser, the Taliban demanded they give them their kids back, regardless of their medical status.
“The Taliban was threatening to bomb the hospital if we didn’t give the children back,” said Houser. “The little boy died immediately after unplugging the ventilator. We did our best to heal the girls, gave them as many supplies as we could, and dropped them off in the middle of a town, hoping their people would take care of them.”
As of June 2022, the Department of Defense stated that there were 107 U.S. military casualties during OFS. Seventy seven of those deaths were individuals killed in action. This does not account for civilian or allied casualties.
“Seeing how those kids were impacted and the unknown of what happened to them… I think I will carry their faces with me my entire life,” said Houser.
Houser returned from her first deployment in May of 2019 and found it difficult to readjust to a stateside mission.
“Houser is a hard worker who cares about her Airmen and is extremely passionate about her job,” said Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Torres, 633d Surgical Operations Squadron supply custodian and wife to Houser. “When people don’t have the same level of care and concern it can make her feel frustrated.”
Houser commented that she liked having the responsibility of people relying on her. However, when she first returned home from a deployed environment there were times where she felt like nothing she did mattered.
“When you’re deployed overseas you have a team and you work so closely together- you get used to a routine and people relying on you,” said Houser. ”Your team relies on you, your patients rely on you, and your weapon relies on you. The mindset is different here. The goal is to still save lives, but you fix one patient and move to the next. It created a feeling of uselessness that was difficult to work through.”
According to Torres, the military is a very unique workspace, especially when deployed. When someone comes back from deployment, there are a great deal of adjustments one might find themselves making. For Houser, that meant creating new habits and incorporating new ways of thinking into her daily life.
“My wife definitely helped me readjust,” said Houser. “We had known each other for years, but started dating right after my first deployment. I don’t know where I would have been if it hadn’t been for her being my support system.”
It wasn’t long after that Houser was asked by her leadership if she was willing to go back to Bagram, Afghanistan.
“I was immediately like, ‘let’s go’,” said Houser. “During my second deployment back to Bagram our mission had shifted since it was during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that point, we had signed the peace treaty with the Taliban. We had three quarantine sites and as a surgical technician, I was expected to act as a medic and provide assistance with any ailments they had in regards to COVID-19.”
During her second deployment to Afghanistan, Houser feels she was able to come to terms with what she endured during her first deployment, allowing herself to come home with a sense of closure and greater peace of mind.
“The most rewarding part of my deployments were the people that went home,” said Houser. “In the operating room, seeing the Americans and our allies, who are all there for the same mission, make it out of the operating room, recover and go home to their families was the most rewarding part of everything.”
Since returning from her second deployment in October 2020, Houser’s mental health has progressively improved and she still maintains a continuous drive and passion for work.
“Staff Sgt. Houser is an inspirational leader,” said Torres. “It’s her goal to mentor her Airmen and lead by example. She is one of the few people that truly does the work she expects others to do.”
According to Houser, mental health is by far one of the most important things to maintain in the military, no matter your rank.
“You cannot do your daily mission, no matter where you are, if you are not mentally fit to fight,” said Houser. “Your body will only take you so far and your body won’t take you as far, if you are not mentally right.”
For additional information or support in regards to mental health, the following agencies can be contacted.
Military OneSource at (800) 342-9647
Langley AFB Behavioral Health at (757) 225-7630
Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255