Can't I Just Call 9-1-1?

  • Published
  • 510th Fighter Squadron
Living overseas is often one of the greatest opportunities the military offers. The experience of living and learning in a different culture is a chance many people never have. Yet, with all the benefits of such an assignment comes a good amount of adjustment. The language, transportation, living conditions and everyday routines are usually very different from what we know. As a result, we must put some extra thought and planning in preparation for many situations that we may have taken for granted back home -- a lesson that took a frightful night for me to learn. 

My wife and I enjoyed living in our off-base apartment during our last overseas assignment. While we didn't have all the amenities and conveniences of back home, we liked living among the local culture. Having lived there about 10 months, we were quite comfortable with our surroundings and figured we knew as much as we needed to go about our daily lives. That's at least what I thought until one January night. 

The night started well with my wife and me joining some squadron friends downtown at one of the local restaurants for dinner. After the meal, we returned home and went to bed, with only one more workday remaining before going on leave. While I slept soundly, my wife woke up several times with an upset stomach. Each time she ventured to the guest bathroom at the far end of the apartment so that she wouldn't wake me up. Sometime around 2 a.m., she fainted leaving the bathroom, most likely from dehydration. The first I knew of this was a faint cry of my name coming from the other end of the apartment. 

I approached the guest bathroom to a sight I hope to never see again. My wife was sitting up with matted blood woven throughout her hair and pooled up beside her. Thankfully she wasn't bleeding heavily at this point, and while in much pain, she was still fully conscious. Fearing that I would make the wound worse by moving her hair and starting the bleeding once again, I decided not to try finding the cut on her head. I wrapped a towel around her head and ran to get her more covering for the winter night, knowing the only help I could get her was 10 minutes away on base. As I ran back with the keys, our IDs, and our cell phone, I thought of how in the States I could easily call 911 -- but what could I do now?
Without really thinking through the implications, I tried dialing the local equivalent of 911, hoping that they would speak English. However, since I had never considered how to dial that from our pre-pay cell phone in an already complicated phone number system, I wasn't too surprised when the call didn't go through. My only chance for help was to get her on base myself. I also realized we'd be passing a local fire rescue station on the way, yet one thought of my inability to explain anything in another language kept me driving toward the base. 

The next obstacle arose after Security Forces let us quickly through the gate. The dense fog common during the winter mornings had already arrived. Thankfully for us, at 3 a.m., the roads were quiet. The fog was so dense I missed the hospital emergency room entrance twice before finally pulling up next to the ambulances and running inside. Finally, my wife was in the hands of the ER professionals. Thanks to some great care, we returned home about three hours later with my wife having four staples and a big headache to show for an accident that could have been much worse. 

What did I learn from this incident? First, I should have written down specific phone numbers for dialing the base emergency room from an off-base cell phone. I also should have known how to dial the local offbase emergency services number in case the situation warranted immediate care, which leads to the second lesson learned. I failed to remember what the local restrictions were for emergency care off-base according to the Status of Forces Agreement. The ER staff informed me that even if I had called, they couldn't have responded off-base. The best they could have done under the SOFA was to meet us at the gate. Therefore, if my wife's injuries had been worse, perhaps by her being unconscious or a suspected spinal injury where I couldn't move her, I would have had to initially rely on the local off-base emergency services. Third, given the limited access to U.S. emergency services off-base, I should have had a substantial first aid kit ready at our apartment in order to make sure we had at least some capability for care before making the trip on base. 

The first two lessons were factors I never had to think about during our previous stateside assignments. As for the third lesson, we always had first aid items in our stateside homes, but I failed to consider the need for more extensive supplies with emergency care being less accessible overseas. Therefore, if you find yourself overseas and living off-base, make sure you understand the limits of the care the base can provide, and check into the capabilities of the local emergency services. I'm thankful that my lack of preparation didn't cause any more harm that winter night. My job now is to make sure we're ready if the need ever arises again.