Special to American Forces Press Service
Dec. 31, 2007 - Days after deploying here, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Stephen Thackery saw firsthand the cost of the Taliban's war on the Afghan people and responded as he was trained -- by saving lives. On Oct. 13, about a week after his arrival, the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron medic and Hamilton, Va., native was on alert when the call came. A suicide bombing had resulted in a large number of casualties. While two other squadron medics, Air Force Tech. Sgts. David Denton and Nicholas Falcon, flew out to the scene on Army CH-47 Chinook helicopters, Thackery flew out on one of the squadron's HH-60 Pave Hawks.
"I treated four patients in the course of two missions; all were critical," he said. "We had everything from fractures and shrapnel wounds to cardiac arrests."
Since February 2006, Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters, like those assigned to the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, have been flying alongside Army aircraft to help provide medical evacuation throughout Afghanistan. Although it's a new mission for the Air Force, the skills of airmen like Thackery have made them critical to its success.
"During a mission, my training sets in, and I start doing triage in my head. I work on one patient while I'm thinking about how I'll treat the other," said Thackery, who deployed from the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. "I don't think about what I've been through until afterward."
For medics like Thackery, whose experiences are with the Air Force's aeromedical evacuation mission, medevac is something entirely new. While medevac missions move patients via helicopter from the point of injury, where they are often in critical condition, to a nearby medical facility, aeromedical evacuation missions usually fly stabilized patients aboard fixed-wing aircraft from a medical facility to a higher level of care.
Typical aeromedical evacuation missions can have anywhere from one to three nurses and between two and four medical technicians. If a patient is in critical condition, with burns or breathing trouble, a critical-care transport team is added to the flight. Such teams usually consist of a doctor, a nurse and a respiratory technician. Things are far different on medevac missions.
"On our missions, we are the only medical provider on the aircraft," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. William Crain, a Riverview, Fla., native deployed to the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron from the 622nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, MacDill Air Force Base, Fla. "Between us and the rest of the crew, we are the critical care team for the patient, and we can make the difference whether the patient makes it to the next level of care or dies."
Crain, a firefighter/paramedic with the Hillsborough County, Fla., Fire Rescue Department, said the nature of the mission -- sometimes flying directly into harm's way to pick up patients from the battlefield -- means additional responsibilities for the medics.
"We're not just medics; we're part of the crew," Crain said. "We're always alert for danger and looking around until we get to the scene."
That shared responsibility and interaction among the entire crew -- medics, pilots, flight engineer, aerial gunners and the maintainers back at the base -- is just one part of what Thackery calls "the wheel," in which each person is a spoke that helps ensure the entire mission turns properly.
"For a lot of our maintainers, it's a race to see who can get out to the helicopter first when the call to launch comes," said Air Force Master Sgt. Sean Siegal, the squadron's maintenance production superintendent, a Moreno Valley, Calif., native, deployed from the 718th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Kadena Air Base, Japan. "The person who launches it gets to paint a green foot on the door representing the 'save' when it returns."
Despite the dusty Kandahar weather, which makes maintaining the Pave Hawks a tough job, Siegal said, he and his maintainers are glad to be part of the mission. "We work hard, but you don't hear many complaints. When we look back, we'll be proud of what we did here."
Although the medevac mission is still fairly recent for the Air Force, most among the 33rd Expeditionary Rescue Squadron find the challenges rewarding. "Most of the missions are very challenging because of the terrain, weather and low illumination," flight engineer Staff Sgt. Zachary Gyokeres, a Farmington Hills, Mich., native who deployed with the squadron from its home station at Kadena Air Base, said, noting many missions are flown at night. "Every time you go out, it is something different, but it's rewarding to help someone who's injured and needs your help."
Despite the rewards, the nature of the mission means that airmen often are exposed to the harsh results of the Taliban's violent extremism, both against coalition forces and the Afghan people. However, the camaraderie shared by this close-knit unit helps them keep a balanced perspective and maintain their focus on the mission.
"It's part of our daily life," Thackery said. "But we talk about it among ourselves, and it helps. The people we work with are extremely professional, and our motivation is to help get patients safely back to their families. It's a noble thing, and it is the high point of my career."
(Air Force Capt. Michael Meridith is assigned to 455th Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs.)