Air Force Medical Student Called to Work as Translator for Afghan Evacuees

Kristen Bishop USAF

Story by Ian Neligh.

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU) medical school student Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop was doing clinical rotations at the Naval Medical Center Portsmouth when she was asked to change her rotations to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for a special side assignment.

In late August 2021, efforts began to airlift nearly 130,000 people out of Afghanistan as part of the U.S. forces drawdown. The operation was among the largest mass evacuation of noncombatants in U.S. history. It wasn’t long before evacuees arrived at Walter Reed needing medical assistance.

Bishop was an Air Force airborne linguist before she attended medical school at USU. She flew on a Boeing RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft, where she said she analyzed intelligence in foreign languages. Fluent in several languages, including Persian Farsi and Dari, Bishop’s skills were suddenly in demand and she was asked to assist as a translator.
“I was notified about everything that was happening at Walter Reed — we were getting a lot of Afghan travelers,” Bishop says. “At that time, they didn’t have any in-person translators.” So, she left Portsmouth and returned to Bethesda.

“It was great,” she says, “because I got to see whole families of patients; patients who needed surgery, as well as patients on the internal medicine side. I also saw them in pediatrics and it was very rewarding.”

Bishop, who is now in her third year of medical school at USU after initially completing the university’s two-year Enlisted to Medical Degree Preparatory Program (EMDP2), says she believes her pathway to medical school and choice of medical schools helped give her this unique opportunity.

Bishop describes her experience as a translator for evacuees as “profound.”

“It feels like the culmination of my efforts and everything thus far in my life, because I was able to do what I love – help people and specifically use the skills that I have – to serve,” says Bishop. “… It is a very direct application of what I have to offer and I am truly grateful I was given that opportunity.”

She says every patient’s reaction to her was different, however, she found that largely people had feelings
of immense gratitude, not only towards her, but to the rest of the medical team as well.
“There were multiple times that people expressed that they were very thankful that they had received care and that they were receiving better care than they would have gotten had they not been evacuated – so that was also very humbling to me,” Bishop says.

Many of those with whom she spoke were surprised that, as a woman, she was in uniform and could also speak and write in multiple languages as well as pursue a career in medicine.

“I heard more than one person say, ‘Oh, so you’re a woman and you do all these things?’ And I said, ‘Yes, those are the opportunities that we have here,” Bishop says.

In one instance, while working in pediatrics, Bishop met with a young Afghan girl.

“She found out that I spoke Dari and she was so excited. She wanted to talk to me about how I learned and ‘do I go to school?’” Bishop says. “And she took my uniform cover, she put it on her head and she told me she was pretending to be me when she grows up. It was heartwarming that she gets to see women who are not held back by their gender, and that she gets to see people who are role models.”

Bishop’s linguistic background and passion for medicine helped give her the unique opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those looking for a better future.

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Story by Ian Neligh of the Uniformed Services University was originally published on the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service on January 19, 2022. DVIDS provides content for the public domain.

Photo: Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop is fluent in speaking several languages, including Persian Farsi and Dari, which she used during her rotations at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Bishop is seen here assisting during an orthopedic surgery in October. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Air Force 2nd Lt. Kristen Bishop)