By Army Sgt. Travis Zielinski
Special to American Forces Press Service
June 24, 2009 - The phone rings, and silence fills the room. All eyes and ears become focused on the soldier answering. The word "urgent" is uttered, and the sequence begins. Aircrews scramble as shouts of "Mission!" echo through the hallway. A once-quiet building now is filled with the commotion of a well-organized and practiced procedure.
Depending on the type of call, the 1st Cavalry Division medical evacuation aircrews of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, have time limits from when they receive a call to when they leave the ground en route to the point of injury. During an urgent call, the aircrews have just minutes to leave the ground.
"Once the 'nine-line' medevac [request] is received, the crew chief and a pilot will grab their gear, head out to the aircraft and prep it up to the point of engine start," said Army Capt. Alek Finley, the company's medevac detachment officer in charge.
During that process, the pilot in command checks grid coordinates and plans the route to the pick-up while the medic gets follow-up information from the unit about the patient, Finley said.
"As soon as the pilot in command hits the seat, the engines are started and the aircraft taxis out," he said. "If it is an urgent medevac, we will let the tower know, and they will pretty much clear up all the airspace for us."
The short time period before take-off is critical for the medics to learn as much as possible about the situation.
"Right off the bat, I go into [operations] and find out where we are going, what the unit's call sign is, what the nature of the injury is and any additional equipment that we need to bring with us," said Sgt. Karen Henson, a flight medic.
Being a medic in a flight company, she added, it is important to make the most of the available time. With the short flight time between areas, she explained, medics have to be prepared to deal with whatever situation comes their way.
"When we get three to four minutes out, I will give them a call -- one, to let them know that we are inbound so they can get the soldier packaged, just so we can spend the least amount of time on the ground, and two, to get a patient update," Henson said.
For this mission, the medic said, all she knew was that the situation was urgent and the patient had taken shrapnel to the hands and legs. "So getting an update on this one gets me in the mindset of what I need to be prepared for," Henson said, "and I waste the least amount of time possible once the patient is in my care."
The medevac pilots have a great deal of experience, and they never take their role lightly, Finley said.
"Once we are a minute inbound, all the talking and all the chatter stops," he said. "It is like game time – it's time to focus on what's going on.
"Typically, you do some type of recon," he continued. "You will fly over the [landing zone], especially if it is some place you have never been to before. It is just to try and give everyone as much situational awareness that you can, and then you commit to the landing."
The crew's patient had received initial treatment at a troop medical clinic before coming into the care of the brigade's medevac unit for transportation to the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.
"It is important to constantly check the wounds, vitals and the alertness level of the injured soldier to ensure his condition does not degrade," Henson said.
Time is an extremely valuable commodity when a soldier suffers a serious injury in combat, and medevac soldiers know not to waste it. Henson said it took the medevac crew less than a half hour to transport their patient from the troop medical clinic to the hospital, including the time spent on the ground.
The medevac aircrew's mission is complete once the patient and all of the critical information are handed over to the new provider.
"After that, we either head back home, or sometimes we can get a follow-on mission and the whole process starts all over again," Finley said. "This is probably the most rewarding job I could think of in the Army."
Ground soldiers usually don't leave their base unless they know the medevac unit is flying, Finley said.
"[They] think about us whenever they do missions," he added. "One of the questions they check the box on during planning is, 'Hey is medevac up?' It is a pretty important piece to the puzzle for the ground commanders."
The Company C pilots, crew chiefs and medics have a great sense of pride knowing they are helping soldiers get through life-threatening situations.
"Being a medic, you can go to sleep at night knowing that you made a difference, knowing that this guy will be able to go home and see his mother, his wife, his sister and continue to live his life," Henson said. "It gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling."
(Army Sgt. Travis Zielinski serves with the 1st Cavalry Division's 1st Air Cavalry Brigade public affairs office.)