Nurse back from Afghanistan settles in to work, life at home

(SacBee.com) Her grandson’s third-grade classmates wanted to know about the tanks.

“I had to write back to them to let them know that in Afghanistan, because of the rugged territory, the military doesn’t use tanks,” said Wendie Skala, 57, a registered nurse and major in the Air Force Reserve’s 349th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron – and a grandmother of four.

She returned a month ago to Sacramento from her fourth deployment as a flight nurse in Afghanistan, helping stabilize and transport wounded service members from forward operating bases to Bagram Air Force Base, then on to treatment at military medical centers in Germany and the United States.

Now that she’s back at home, Skala said she sees more gunshot victims in her job at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento, where she serves as trauma prevention coordinator, than she did in Afghanistan.

“Violence here has not changed,” she said.

In part, that’s because the conflict in Afghanistan revolves not around the use of guns and other conventional weapons but rather improvised explosive devices, booby traps that leave civilians and soldiers alike horribly maimed and wounded.

And it’s also because the home front remains violent. While crime as a whole has declined inSacramento County, 2011 saw a gradual increase in the number of homicides both in the county and city, according to law enforcement statistics – and almost 70 percent of those homicides involved guns.

The Meadowview and Parkway neighborhoods near Kaiser South were among the city’s most violent.

“When you’re in the intensive care unit with a serious wound, that’s the time to make the decision to change your life,” said Skala, a veteran nurse who joined the Air Force Reserve in 1999. She serves on a community task force on violence prevention.

“The kids with gunshot wounds to the leg aren’t ready. They come to the emergency department to get sewn up. It has to be more serious. And unfortunately, that’s a 17-year-old who’ll be paralyzed the rest of his life.”

In Afghanistan, the most horribly injured service members and civilians faced what she calls “unbelievable damage” from explosions.

“You see multiple amputations,” she said. “And think of the toll on society of a group of young people coming home with the lasting effects of these injuries as well as the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress from seeing things that people should not see.

“They see their buddy blown up, or they see a child on the street blown up. That’s outside our experience as humans. It affects you whether you’re a soldier or not. It affects your family and your employer.”

Re-entry into civilian and work life – catching up with the life that’s continued at home while she was away – brings its own stress.

But Skala, previously profiled in The Bee on Jan. 2 shortly before she deployed, seeks help when necessary, and she relies on her daughter and grandsons, ages 2, 4, 6 and 8.

“The fun part has been their swim teams this summer,” she said. “Just spending that time with them. I gather so much love from that.”

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