Alumni Profile • Bill Houskamp '90 & Bryan Kamps '82
Alumni docs brought together in Afghanistan

Bill Houskamp and Brian Kamps

Bill Houskamp '90 and Bryan Kamps '82

Their friendship was seeded by a simple prayer request e-mailed from Kristy Dykhouse in Calvin’s student life division: “Seminary counselor Dick Houskamp’s son, Bill Houskamp ’90, is a physician who will be going to Afghanistan with the Army Reserves on Sunday, November 16. Please remember the family in prayer during the next few months.

That message found its way to Tara Kamps, a Calvin junior, whose father, Bryan Kamps ’82, had also just received orders for Afghanistan. She let her dad know he wouldn’t be the only Calvin alumni doctor in that country for the three months of his posting.

Kamps found Houskamp on the base at Ft. Benning, Ga., during the week of their orientation and processing. The two compared a few Calvin memories and connections and expected that to be the end of their in-person contact. Houskamp had been assigned to a forward surgical team, a field unit, while Kamps was to report to the combat support hospital at Bagram Airbase, 20 miles north of Kabul.

Somehow, the Army changed its mind. Final orders for both reservists put them together at Bagram, where they worked in the same hospital and prayed in the same Bible study.

Most of those brought to Kamps, an orthopaedic surgeon in Gallup, N.M., and Houskamp, a general surgeon in Holland, Mich., for treatment at the hospital-in-tents were not soldiers with combat-related wounds. Ninety percent of their patients were civilians, and most of these were children.

“We saw a lot of pediatric burns,” Houskamp said. “People have open fire pits inside their houses for cooking and heating, and the kids fall into them.”

Even more numerous than the burn victims were the children wounded by land mines that exploded under them as they played in the fields. Seven to ten million land mines lie just below or on top of the ground’s surface, leftovers of the Russian-Afghan war and feuds between local warlords. Children and adults will sometimes try to pick up an exposed land mine to sell to a warlord, so impoverished are they after decades of war. These victims, too, if lucky, were brought to the doctors at Bagram, as were 11 of the school children injured when a terrorist’s bomb exploded in Kandahar the day after Afghanistan adopted a new constitution.

Both Kamps and Houskamp are fathers. Both said that made the work more difficult. “We did a lot of amputations, including amputations on kids,” Kamps said.

But both doctors have an enduring sense of satisfaction about what they were able to do during their tour of duty. “If you step back and look at the broader picture of what we’re doing in Afghanistan, it can be frustrating,” Houskamp said. “There’s no infrastructure; it’s going to take a long time and a lot of work. But on a daily basis we were all these people had. If we hadn’t operated on them, the majority would have died.”

Three and a half months of military service 7,000 miles from home also heightened both Houskamp and Kamps’ sense of gratitude. “In these faraway places you begin to understand the kind of sacrifices a lot of people are making to serve — it’s incredible,” Kamps said. “I notice that more and thank those people for what they did or are doing in the military.”

Then there’s gratitude for all the people back home who sacrificed in other ways, picking up responsibilities Kamps and Houskamp ordinarily cover — work partners and their families, especially.

Gratitude, too, for the simple richness of life in this country and time to be with family — “just watching the kids grow,” in Houskamp’s words.

Finally, Kamps and Houskamp express deep gratitude for all the people who prayed for them and their families and sent messages of support — including the message and prayers that catalyzed their friendship.