By Army Spc. George Welcome
Special to American Forces Press Service
July 25, 2008 - Every morning, the soldiers of 1st Platoon, C Company, 6th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, make their way across a scorching flight line to the platoon's three UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. Pilots, crew chiefs and medics all take part in the ritual checks to make sure medical equipment is prepared. They perform pre-flight inspections and power up the helicopters.
As the medical platoon attached to Task Force Out Front, they are responsible for conducting medical evacuation missions at a moment's notice.
"Twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year, we have two ships available to pick up urgent and urgent-surgical patients," Army Capt. Ben Seipel, 1st Platoon leader, said. "We also pick up casualties on the battlefield or Afghan civilians." The platoon serves Nurestan, Nangarhar, Konar and Laghman provinces.
The time between calls is filled with a quiet anxiety; the crews can never completely let their guard down. Waiting becomes a constant in the life of medevac soldiers. It's a peculiar situation to be in -- none of the soldiers wants anything bad to happen, but at the same time, doing the job is the only real way to stop the waiting. To pass the time between missions, some of the soldiers take college courses by correspondence.
When a call comes, the soldiers race to their aircraft, get their gear on and are ready for takeoff within minutes. This is critical; every minute counts when life hangs in the balance.
"Our average response time [from receiving a mission to wheels up] is down to about 12 minutes, which is a significant reduction from the previous unit that was here," Seipel said. "Our goal is to never be the weakest link. I never want the process to be waiting on us to get ready for takeoff; our goal is to be ready and waiting for launch authority."
Expecting the unexpected is critical to being able to operate in an environment where hardly anything is routine. Soldiers don't know what time a call will come, and the medical report they receive prior to takeoff doesn't always provide a full view of what they will face.
Early in the morning of July 13, the platoon tactical operations center received a medevac request to respond to the village of Wanat, where a small outpost was under attack by enemy forces. In the battle, nine soldiers from 173rd Airborne Brigade were killed, and 15 others were wounded.
Most of the time, things can be really quiet, with absolutely nothing going on, Army Spc. Saturnino Crespo, 1st Platoon aviation operations specialist, said. But at other times, he said, things can be really hectic. Crespo recalled the day of the Wanat attack.
"When we got the call responding to the attack, things were happening really fast," he said. "Things were more sudden and hectic than usual. I was tracking all the aircraft as they went to the different [forward operating bases] and outposts to pick up patients. We launched all three aircraft, which is pretty unusual. We had to launch before the usual morning shift change, so some of the crews were pulling overtime."
Most of the soldiers were still asleep when the medevac request came over the radio, Crespo said. They responded as their training has conditioned them to: by having their gear on and the helicopters spun up for launch within minutes.
The attack started early in the morning, Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Kinney, a flight medic who was part of the mission, recalled.
"We got off the ground really quick," he said. "Once we got there, we flew over the mountainside directly on top of FOB Blessing, which was firing artillery on the outskirts of Wanat. [Close-air support] was on station dropping bombs, and the enemy was being pushed back away from the wire."
The medevac helicopters had to wait until the bombs hit their targets before they were the OK to enter. The battle was still going on when they landed.
"As soon as the bombs were dropped, our Apaches came to the area," Kinney said. "The first medevac aircraft landed on the base and picked up six patients. Our aircraft was called into the [observation post] right next to it. We were originally going to use the hoist, but the pilots determined that we had a big enough area to put the aircraft down on the side of a terrace."
Once the helicopter touched down, Kinney exited the aircraft and climbed down the hillside. He had to breach the outpost's concertina wire to begin treating patients and preparing them to board the aircraft.
"After you've been doing this for a while, you don't really think about what's going on," Kinney said. "Its second nature, and you keep moving through all the steps. When we got called in, there was still shooting going on. The Apaches were firing rockets at a house about 50 to 80 meters to our left. The ground guys were firing on a house that we were taking fire from. I then determined that many of [the ground forces we] thought were wounded were actually [killed in action]."
By keeping their composure under fire, the soldiers of the medevac platoon were able to safely extract their wounded comrades and undoubtedly save their lives.
"It was pretty hard," Seipel said about the Wanat mission. "All my crews saw quite a bit down there on the ground. It's never fun, going somewhere and knowing you're going to see fallen Americans on the ground, especially in that situation, where there's utter chaos."
The medevac crews handled the situation phenomenally and knew exactly what they needed to do, Seipel said.
"There was no hesitation at all; the crews hit the ground and reacted instinctively," he explained. "They did what they were trained to do, and I am extremely proud of them for handling the situation as professionally as possible."
While every mission isn't as intense as the Wanat incident, all calls warrant the same quick response. Persons in danger of losing life, limb or eyesight are the highest priority, but the crews also provide routine patient transport.
Even while on call to conduct life-saving missions, the platoon conducts training exercises that provide soldiers a chance to hone their skills. Pilots practice intricate landing techniques and test the winds above and between the mountains. Crew chiefs get to improve their aircraft guiding skills and their use of equipment in the helicopter's cargo area. The medics often get to practice exiting the aircraft on the hoist, a machine that is used to reach patients when the helicopter is unable to land.
The combination of actual missions and training flights make for long days, but the soldiers say it helps to keep them sharp.
"At the end of the day, a successful mission is a saved life," Seipel said. "There are a lot of things that go on, contingencies that come up and decisions that get made along the way, but if we can save a life, then we have had success."
(Army Spc. George Welcome serves with 101st Combat Aviation Brigade.)