By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
April 20, 2010 - Ash from an Icelandic volcano limiting European air traffic has forced the U.S. military to reroute some American troops wounded in Afghanistan through Iraq instead of Germany, a military official said today.
Defense officials decided to transport war wounded to Balad, Iraq, to increase troops' level of survival and to maintain medical capacity in Bagram, home to the primary U.S. medical center in Afghanistan, Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven L. Kwast said.
"It's all driven by the requirement medically that that intermediate stop saves lives, and it needs to be done," Kwast, commander of the 455th Expeditionary Air Wing, told Pentagon reporters.
While Balad does not have the same capacity as the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where troops normally receive care before returning to the United States for further treatment, Kwast said, the military has taken measures to ensure care at the Iraq-based facility is comparable.
"The reality is that there is no degradation in care because we're going to Balad instead of Landstuhl," he said.
Discussing the need to maintain capacity at the field hospital in Bagram, Kwast cited last year's battle at Combat Outpost Keating. Fighting that erupted at the remote U.S. military camp near the Pakistan border left eight American troops killed and 24 wounded, necessitating a field hospital equipped for handling mass casualties.
"We have to be prepared at a moment's notice for something like a COP Keating or a devastating attack by the enemy," he said. "To have that capacity ready at our hands means we have to move those wounded soldiers [to Iraq], and we have to move them in a way that allows us that capacity to be prepared for the unexpected."
Kwast said the military is using flight paths that circumvent the ash plume when transporting those wounded and killed in action, albeit on different flights.
"There has been no degradation in the speed and the efficiency and the dignity and respect with which those remains have come back home since the volcanic eruption," he said.
A plume of ash that began erupting last week continues to block European and transatlantic flight paths, including those of American military aircraft. Thousands of commercial and military flights ranging from Ireland to the Ukraine have been cancelled as the Eyjafjallajokull volcano continues to spew ash.
In addition to rerouting Afghan war casualties, the U.S. military has made other adjustments. American bases in Mildenhall and Lakenheath, England, and Ramstein and Spangdahlem air bases in Germany have been affected by the ash plume.
"There are no flight ops due to the mandatory declaration and suspension of flights from EuroControl," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said yesterday. EuroControl is the equivalent of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
"We still have a solid contingency plan for evacuating our wounded out of [the U.S. Central Command area], and we've relocated some of our aeromedical evacuation aircraft to Rota, Spain, along with medical teams that provide for care all along the route," Whitman added.