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Welcome home Katrina!

She’s been in North Dakota for more than a month but after serving with the U.S. military in a hostile country, the phrase “welcome back,” may never get old.

12/09/14 (Tue)

Home for the holidays... Kenmare native Katrina Mickelsen has her photo taken with Santa Claus in Kenmare Nov. 28. Mickelsen returned home to North Dakota Nov. 2 after serving a year-long mission with the North Dakota National Guard in Afghanistan.

By Marvin Baker

She’s been in North Dakota for more than a month but after serving with the U.S. military in a hostile country, the phrase “welcome back,” may never get old.

Katrina Mickelsen, 29, Bismarck, returned to North Dakota Nov. 2 after serving a year-long mission in Afghanistan with the Bismarck-based 814th Medical Supply Company.

Since coming home, she spent some time with her parents Barb and Jerry Mickelsen in her hometown, Kenmare, and took part in the Light Up the Night activities Nov. 28.

She was giddy to be back on her home turf and to be herself in a safe and friendly environment.

“It is very good to be back,” she said. “You do what you want, eat what you want, go on the Internet when you want. You can just pick up the phone and call. And the food is amazing.”

Food and other luxuries we take for granted can sometimes be the bare minimum in a hostile area, something the 814th dealt with during the second half of their deployment.

They also bargained to get sporadic conversations with family members. The Soldiers were sometimes allowed to call home, but as Barb Mickelsen explained, she couldn’t call Afghanistan, Katrina had to call home.

Sometimes calls would come late at night, sometimes early in the morning. Barb Mickelsen said they tried to set up a Skype communications link but it didn’t materialize.

She’s grateful, however, that she was able to communicate with her daughter occasionally.

Katrina Mickelsen, a staff sergeant who works full time for the North Dakota National Guard, was the administrative clerk for the 814th. Trained in administration, she learned a lot about military medicine since joining the unit in February.

“I do all the paperwork but everyone has a medical job and takes medical supply training,” Mickelsen said. “I documented treatment on the patients, which helps get them better care.”

This was Mickelsen’s first combat mission but was actually her second tour overseas. In 2005, she was part of a water purification unit involved in Operation Bright Star, a joint effort held in Egypt between the United States and Egypt to strengthen ties between the two countries.

This mission, however, took Mickelsen first to Camp Phoenix, a fortified base inside the city of Kabul. Following that, it was Bagram Airfield, which is about 25 miles northeast of Kabul.

Mickelsen did considerable travel between the two bases and two other minor posts because her job sometimes required her to have one-on-one conversations with Soldiers, as well as her training other administrative personnel.

“So we did travel, but it was by helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft,” she said. “Seldom did we travel by convoy.”

As a result, what she saw of the Afghan capital city was from the air or from a guard tower.

“I can’t describe it. I have to show it in pictures,” she said of Kabul. “It’s a little westernized in the city center, but not much.”

She added that Kabul is a huge city with no suburbs and has a population of 3.3 million, about the same population as Los Angeles.

She talked about Camp Phoenix and Bagram and how different the two posts are.

Mickelsen described Camp Phoenix as that of a small town Kenmare kind of feel, but Bagram was quite different. She was stationed at Camp Phoenix from February into early August, then was transferred to Bagram from early August until the end of October. The 814th returned to U.S. soil in late October, demobilizing in Texas.

“I talk a lot so I got to know everyone (at Camp Phoenix),” she said. “The locals were happy to see us, they showed us their culture. They just wanted to talk.”

When she arrived at Bagram, she didn’t know how to react.

“It was like I was going from Kenmare to New York City overnight,” she said. “People kept to themselves and the locals were cold toward Americans and coalition Soldiers. The local community liked us at Camp Phoenix but we just didn’t have a relationship with the locals at Bagram. There were so many people on base, it just didn’t feel like a hometown.”

Still, the Americans distributed medical supplies, clothing, toys and school supplies to aid local children.

What may have torqued some of the local nationals as they are called, is that security personnel scanned the retinas of the eyes of up to 5,000 locals who worked on the western post.

A retina scan is much like fingerprinting. It is unique to each individual.

“It’s the best way to keep track of them,” she said. “Some gates didn’t do that and you could have 500 local nationals on post who could be anybody.”

The troops received mortars but were never hit at Camp Phoenix. Also, a car bomb blew up outside the base, but the suicide bomber(s) did it wrong and the explosion only hit the perimeter wall, instead taking out an auto salvage yard across the street. Mickelsen said God was on their side that day.

“At Bagram they got hit two to three times a month,” she said of the airfield before she arrived there. “It picked up to seven to 10 times in August and progressively got worse and was happening almost daily in October.”

Most of that can be attributed to what American Soldiers call the “miracle minute.” That’s when the enemy fires all their weapons in a barrage before the ground freezes, then they basically disappear for the winter, many of whom cross the border into Pakistan. Mickelsen said the Taliban hide their weapons in the ground and when the ground freezes, they can’t get access so they simply use up their ammunition.

Even though the Taliban appear to be well armed, Mickelsen said they waste a lot of rounds and often miss the target.

But, she said five times there were injuries from blasts during her tour, another mortar hit between barracks and Mickelsen and others watched a mortar round fly past a hospital window and hit the adjacent airfield.

Her unit was never attacked with small arms fire.

“Fortunately, these guys can’t aim,” she said.

There were other numerous scares during Mickelsen’s time overseas. She said coalition Soldiers were always looking for homemade bombs at checkpoints since local nationals would try to smuggle them in with supplies.

In one of two smaller bases that Mickelsen visited called the New Kabul Campground, an explosion killed three and injured nine others.

“It was the worst base attack while I was there,” she said. “And the medics from my unit ran the show.”

In another incident, a local national was severely wounded and Mickelsen was in the emergency room when the patient was brought in. She said she bagged his clothes and documented the procedure. She also radioed in what is called a 9-line medevac, essentially a call of the highest priority to have the patient transferred to another hospital.

“That’s about the worst thing I ever did,” she said.

Mickelsen also worked with numerous coalition troops and called that a great experience. However, sometimes communication was as big a hurdle as getting through the front gate.

“The United States ran everything at Camp Phoenix so everyone spoke at least a little English,” she said. “KAIA is a French NATO base. I was sent there and it was really hard. Communication was hard.”

She said the British and Australian Soldiers were the most laid back she had ever met. They were so calm all the time, even during threats and attacks.

“I worked with them in the clinic and with some Czechs and Bulgarians. They were very welcoming,” Mickelsen said. “The Canadian troops teased me. They said, ‘We’ll take you, you sound just like us.’ It was worldly experience with these people. It was just amazing.”

Others were eager to learn about the United States, especially since females are not allowed to serve in the military in some countries.

She said that curiosity alone is beginning to break down those barriers and she was mostly well received as a female Soldier serving in the United States military.

“Females were hated in the Egypt military,” she said. “So it’s good to see how far they’ve come.”

The Afghans the Americans worked with daily were OK with American women because they are used to it. But local women aren’t so liberated, as Mickelsen describes.

“Women had to be covered up outside the home,” she said. “If they were shopping, they had to have a male accompany them. The merchant will talk to the male with her and he then tells the female. Only the male can talk to women.”

She said females were allowed onto the bases on the first Friday of each month to sell their crafts. They were completely covered and it was often the children who did the marketing.

“It’s really interesting talking with these women, even with their poor English,” Mickelsen said. “Only recently females have been allowed in school. Our job isn’t equality, but I think the U.S. presence helps.”

Otherwise, she said many girls are married by the time they are 14 and if they aren’t married by age 18, they are considered a lower class and are essentially stuck doing meaningless jobs in their local village.

“I could never imagine growing up in a country without the freedoms I have in the United States,” Mickelsen said.

The 814th includes more than 80 soldiers including doctors and physicians assistants. Forty-six were mobilized for the Afghan mission. The unit included two other area females, Kirsten Nelson and Patricia Knoll, both from Minot.

She said the unit was absolutely amazing throughout the deployment since it actually carried out three separate missions.

1.) At Bagram the mission was one of evacuation. Members of the 814th worked with Air Force personnel, the local fire department, the military police and gate guards. They taught a lot of classes about medical response. She said others were practically begging the 814th not to go when their tour of duty was up.

2.) The 814th ran an emergency response and sick call clinic.

3.) The 814th operated a clinic and emergency room for U.S. and coalition forces and Afghan nationals.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to work with,” Mickelsen said. “I joined the unit in February 2014 and got to see the unit grow in leadership and medical knowledge. I got to see our guys step into leadership roles. It was amazing watching everyone grow.”

And a lot of that relates to the North Dakota work ethic. Mickelsen said a number of units from elsewhere in the United States did the minimum they had to in order to stay under the radar of Army leadership.

“We’re from North Dakota and that’s not how we do things,” Mickelsen said. “We took on extra tasks outside of medical. We donated medical supplies after some mudslides. We worked so well with everyone they didn’t want to let us go. It was a great feeling.”

Despite this past year, Mickelsen intends to stay in the National Guard to complete a 20-year career. In March, she will have completed 13 years, so it’s all downhill from here... Read EVERY WORD on EVERY PAGE of The Kenmare News by subscribing--online or in print!