Whether in uniform or not, National Guardsmen are “Always Ready, Always There.”
Never was the National Guard’s motto truer than on the steep slopes of Mount Everest, April 25, when a massive earthquake rocked the world’s highest peaks in the Himalaya Mountains near Katmandu, Nepal.
The magnitude 7.8 quake, which triggered an avalanche on Mount Everest and killed more than 9,000 people in the region, was the deadliest day in the fabled mountain’s history and left hundreds of thousands of people homeless in the surrounding villages and cities.
Perhaps some lives were spared thanks to the efforts of a level-headed Wisconsin Air National Guardsmen who put service before self.
Maj. Asif Anwar, a flight surgeon with the Milwaukee-based 128th Air Refueling Wing, was in the right place at the right time to make a difference that day in Nepal. As a civilian, Dr. Anwar practices internal medicine and pulmonary medicine at the United Hospital System in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He also specializes in critical care and sleep medicine.
Having joined the Air Force in 2005, Anwar served as a critical care air transport specialist, where he gained valuable experience in providing critical care and treating trauma patients. He eventually transitioned to a flight surgeon role with the 128th, and put in for an upcoming mission in the Antarctic. When applying for the program, he was told he could use more training and experience doing his job in austere environments and in basic survival and mountaineering. So Anwar sought an opportunity to hone his craft in one of the world’s most harsh environments.
Off he went to Nepal to join other doctors for a several week expedition to Everest Base Camp to gain more experience treating patients in a remote and difficult environment. The course encompassed lectures, extreme weather, survival and high-altitude.
On April 25, Anwar and the team of doctors were approximately 16,000 feet above sea level enroute to Everest Base Camp, which sits approximately 18,600 feet above sea level. On their backs, they carried medicine, portable EKG devices and oxygen measurement tools.
Then, it hit.
“When the earthquake hit, at that point, we did not know what was going on, because the mountain absolutely shook,” he said. “In fact, there were cracks in the ground that we saw.”
Chaos reigned as landslides, smoke and injured climbers defined the scene on the mountain, but Anwar remained calm and assessed what had just happened.
“We saw a lot of folks were injured,” Anwar recalled. “So that was the first thing. The first thing was like a shock to you. It didn’t really shake me at that point, because with the Air Force training, it kind of helped me with situational awareness. What you learn all these years is you need to calm down and evaluate the situation, whatever is going on.”
First, he calmed himself down to ensure he wouldn’t go into shock, then he began assessing himself and the other members of his team, to ensure everyone was safe from threats posed by landslides, avalanches, power structures or buildings.
While he was uninjured, the shock of the quake increased the effects of altitude sickness, and he was developing pulmonary edema — fluid build-up in his lungs. Anwar and the team of doctors were completely exposed to the cold and elements. There was nowhere to take shelter, so the team had to rely on the sleeping bags and other equipment on their backs.
Thankfully, the team, which was made up of doctors with backgrounds in emergency trauma, was well-prepared. After ensuring their own health and safety, the doctors sprang into action, because short of helicopter service, there was no other medical assistance available on the face of the world’s tallest mountain. Anwar and the team broke up into smaller groups and began treating patients and distributing the large stockpile of medications they had carried onto the mountain. Some of the groups climbed higher to reach people stranded at higher elevations, while Anwar, suffering from altitude sickness, stayed at a lower altitude to mitigate its effects.
Everything in their packs — beef jerky, food, water, medication — was distributed to people in need.
He estimates that he and his team treated dozens of people on Everest, but the scene was even worse after he finally caught a helicopter ride back down to Katmandu. After seeing the devastation and the lack of medical care and expertise on the ground, Anwar voluntarily extended his departure date from Nepal by several days to help treat the injured before international relief efforts could arrive.
He slept outside at a hotel where he helped treat hundreds of people suffering from head trauma, crush injuries, fractures and inhalation injuries from breathing in dust and debris. He rendered CPR and comforted patients for several days as aftershocks rocked the city.
His calm response may have made the difference between life and death for countless victims of the quake. But to Anwar, his response was just a natural part of living the military’s core values. The Air Force’s core values of “Service before self” and “Excellence in all we do” are apt descriptions of Anwar’s efforts during those fateful days in late April.
“It’s just like the wingman approach,” he said. “You want to help people. I stayed there because I wanted to help out, because I wanted to make sure that we were there, and I’m there to help and to support. And I can use my skills that I learned in the military so that I can help others. So, basically it’s the execution of core values.”
He thinks that any Airman would have reacted the same way had they been in his shoes.
“It doesn’t really matter where you are or if you’re wearing the uniform or not,” he said. “Basically, it comes down to the character building that we have been through. It helps you. It’s not me. Every one of them would have done the same thing.”
Anwar said the whole ordeal was an invaluable learning experience that he can apply to treating fellow service members and on humanitarian missions.
“I’ll be the first one to volunteer,” he said of opportunities to serve on humanitarian relief missions.
It’s safe to say Anwar gained the requisite training and experience needed for his upcoming mission to Antarctica.