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Woodbury soldier returns home with photos, stories from war in Afghanistan

Sgt. Eric Papp of the Minnesota National Guard attends to the leg wound of a young Afghan girl in March. Photo courtesy of Jim Spiri.

A Woodbury soldier recently returned home from Afghanistan as the subject of a photo he didn't even know had been featured online and in the news.

Minnesota Army National Guard Sgt. Eric Papp was deployed about a year ago and had been serving as a medic in the Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

Halfway through his deployment, the soldiers were ordered to prioritize their resources. They weren't able to treat every injury if it wasn't war related.

The attitude went from "We'll go we'll pick up just about everybody," Papp said, to "Our assets are supposed to take care of our people."

But on March 3, a young Afghani girl was brought into the medevac helicopter with a serious leg injury.

The soldiers didn't know if it was caused by an improvised explosive device (IED) or something else. They weren't sure how she was wounded, but the mission of the day was to attend to her.

The action prompted a blog post by Jim Spiri, who lost his son in the war about 10 years ago and began working with the army to witness some of the missions.

The way the little Afghani girl and her father reacted to her injury was surprising to the soldiers.

"I couldn't believe how calm she was," Papp said. "If it was anyone here, the child would be crying and the parent would be like, 'My poor baby.' ... They're tough people."

As Papp tended to the girl's badly injured leg, Spiri snapped photos that were later posted online and sent to a Twin Cities newspaper.

Although the soldiers were limited on who they could treat, they were able to let the girl and her father in the helicopter as they treated her.

"They've had things implanted in their bodies," he said of explosives implanted in others.

Which is why the process was created, he said. Everyone would go through the forward operating base where they were searched before going to the surgical trauma platoon.

Over the course of the year, Papp flew more than 1,400 missions and treated more than 1,800 patients.

Some places were busier than others and the Forward Operating Base Edinburgh, where the girl was treated, was one of the "hot spots," he said, which is what attracted Spiri to the location.

Although he's ready to get back to civilian life on the St. Paul Fire Department now that his tour is over, Papp said he liked working in Afghanistan.

It was a bittersweet experience, he said, from the down days spent around campfires to the 96-hour shifts

"It was a different way of life," Papp said.

He wonders, though, what will happen when all troops are out of Afghanistan.

"The presence there, it's important," Papp said, adding, "It'd be a shame if we pull out of there like they say we're going to in 2014."

The uphill battle continues for now, he said, as some of the Afghanis are illiterate and it makes him wonder if they're easily manipulated by some of the Islamist extremist and political groups.

"You know what happened 10 years ago," Papp said.

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.