Dear Sooners ...
Former Oklahoma standout Caton Hill following alma mater's success from Afghanistan
Late last year, Army Capt. Caton Hill, a flight surgeon, was deployed to Afghanistan. Hill is one of two prominent former Oklahoma women's hoops players serving overseas as military medical professionals. Her fellow Army captain Phylesha Whaley, the 2000 Big 12 player of the year, is a critical-care nurse who deployed to Iraq earlier this year.
Hill's and Whaley's OU careers overlapped one season: Hill was a freshman when Whaley was a senior. The two started all 33 games together in a 1999-2000 season in which the Sooners shared the Big 12 regular-season title just three years removed from finishing last in the league.
Recently, by e-mail, I contacted Hill to ask some questions about her experiences overseas, how much she can follow women's basketball and her memories of her team's trip to the 2002 Final Four in San Antonio.
Despite the fact that she and one physician's assistant are covering the health care of 500 soldiers, she has had two days off in the past five months, her Internet service is not always compliant and -- lest we somehow forget -- she's in the midst of a combat zone, Hill still found some time to answer the questions and e-mailed back on the eve of the Sooners' advancing to the Final Four, which is again in San Antonio.
Hill serves with "Task Force Brawler" (Combat Aviation Brigade, 4th Battalion, 3rd Aviation Regiment), and her deployment is scheduled to last a year.
Here is her response from Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan, not far from the Pakistan border:
FOB Shank, where I am stationed, has turned out to be one of the more remote FOBs. It is the highest in elevation and sits in a bowl surrounded by peaks of white-capped mountains. Sand dunes line the bottom of the mountains that now are being peppered with sprigs of grass. Very few trees are visible.
The easiest way to describe it is like looking at the top-most peaks of the Rockies, the ones where the bowls and basins are, where the trees do not grow. Then place, in front of the peaks, sand dunes of the desert, and that is what FOB Shank looks like. After flying around this area of Afghanistan, I can't deny that it is beautiful. The sunrises and sunsets on clear days are picturesque, along with a full moon setting.
I don't know what I expected of deployment, but it has its ups and downs just like any day. It sometimes can seem like a broken record, due to the fact that the [physician's assistant] and I work 12-hour shifts that just run into each other, one after another. We are the medical providers for our unit of 500 people, and we also cover MEDEVAC.
The weekends come and go, along with holidays. Care packages are a huge morale-booster. Little things like popcorn seasoning, dark chocolate, and good coffee are coveted. I dream of the day that I get to taste hummus with fresh pita bread and red wine! This is all said with the acknowledgement that there are soldiers who are much further forward -- they sleep in cots, and eat MRE (meal ready to eat), and to get a hot shower or fresh food is a treat for them.
As far as the medical side of being here, I have been fortunate enough to be very involved with MEDEVAC and fly with all the crews on many missions. The MEDEVAC unit attached to TF BRAWLER has been a great asset. I have been able to fly and see so much outside the wire and have developed a great respect for the pilots, medics and entire crew.
They are on 48-hour on-call duty and carry radios everywhere they go. On every urgent mission, the words "MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC" scream over the airways, and everyone on duty sprints out to the aircraft and flies to wherever they are needed.
They do all of this within 15 minutes of the call and it is intense, stressful and extremely rewarding. It is reactive medicine and is truly a team effort. I guess I just was attracted to that component.
Along with MEDEVAC, I have been able to get embedded with my unit and the soldiers through seeing them in clinic, in meetings, in the gym and in the chow hall. I mentioned 500 people, but if you think about it, that is like a middle-sized high school. It is very easy to get used to everyone, and once everyone got used to my demeanor and personality, I have been able to establish a type of rapport with my soldiers.
I follow women's basketball as much as I can. It is not carried over here on AFN (Armed Forces Network) much. But when I can get the Internet, I try to check scores, especially OU's. As I write this they are about to play for a Final Four berth. I hope they get to go!!! Nothing is like that feeling of knowing you are going to the Final Four!
My memories of San Antonio are these: I remember arriving at the hotel to a Mariachi band. (We stayed at the Sheraton Gunter Hotel.) I remember the awesome tournament gifts that we got, in particular a Nike black hoodie that I actually gave to a woman one summer after her house burnt down from a fire. (Assistant coach) Jan Ross then gave me hers because of how much I loved that hoodie.
I remember just the energy of San Antonio. The buzz on the Riverwalk, the excitement of our team, the nerves in the Alamodome were like static electricity. I remember how cohesive our team was for that time. We were confident and knew who we were. We truly enjoyed each other and that time.
I remember all the funny dynamics of our team -- from Steph Luce being LaNeishea Caufield's designated roommate, to Stacey Dales and I goofing off, to Lil' De (Dionnah Jackson) and Antoinette Wadsworth sitting in the back with Rosalind Ross and Shannon Selmon.
When we lost to UConn, it was sad because that year was over, and all of us would change. The seniors would leave, and it would never be the same. At least for me, that was why it was sad. UConn was a better team, and we played our guts out and lost. Playing as long as I had, I knew that there were a lot worse ways to feel than losing to an unbelievable team, giving them a run for their money, being exhausted after leaving your ass on the floor, and being the No. 2 team in the country. The game was what it was. But I remember the feel of the Final Four the most and how fun it was.
Those are the ramblings of a doc on call at 03:26 in the AM in Afghanistan, about a time that was eight years ago.
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.
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