War on Terrorism

Monday, April 15, 2013

Teamwork, technology allows Kandahar C-130J AE crew to save a life

by Capt. Tristan Hinderliter
451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

4/15/2013 - KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan  -- On the battlefield of northern Afghanistan in late March, an Air Force combat controller was shot by the enemy through the right thigh, opening up a large wound and fracturing his femur. The Airman was rushed to a hospital at Mazar-e Sharif, where he was operated on in an effort to save his leg and his life.

With limited medical resources at the base, however, doctors there knew he would need to be quickly evacuated to receive more advanced care.

Meanwhile, a C-130J Aeromedical Evacuation flight out of Kandahar Airfield, dubbed "Bandage 33," was in the air over northwest Afghanistan. It was a routine mission to pick up patients from remote forward operating bases and transport them to Bagram Airfield, the main hub for providing medical care in the country.

The 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron crew, led by Capt. Ryan Thornton, the aircraft commander, had already made two stops when they received an urgent message over the Dynamic Retasking Capability, a sophisticated new communications technology in the aircraft.

The message: divert immediately to Mazar-e Sharif to evacuate a high-priority patient. There were no other details, so Thornton and the crew didn't know what to expect.

In addition to Thornton, the crew consisted of Capt. Eric Jones, the co-pilot, and loadmasters Tech. Sgt. Brian Commodore and Airman 1st Class Anastasia McCorkle - all deployed from Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark. Since it was an AE mission, they also had a 5-person medical team aboard led by Capt. Adriana Valadez, the mission's medical crew director and a flight nurse with the 651st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.

The AE team also included Lt. Col. Kathleen Sprague, a flight nurse, and medical technicians Master Sgt. John Kley, Staff Sgt. Julian Williams and Senior Airman Amanda Pena.

When the aircraft landed, the young combat controller was brought out to the jet in an ambulance, having been operated on just hours earlier. Despite the extent of his injuries, he was categorized as "urgent but stable," and the crew took off with orders to continue their original flight plan, which included a stop at one more FOB before heading to Bagram.

Once airborne, however, the patient's condition deteriorated rapidly. He started to bleed from his gunshot wound, and his blood pressure dropped.

"I told the pilot, 'we have to go straight to Bagram,'" said Valadez, a reservist deployed from Joint Base San Antionio-Lackland and a trauma nurse at San Antonio Military Medical Center in her civilian job.

"At that point we were worried about saving his leg and making sure he was hemodynamically stable," she said. "We knew he needed to go straight back to surgery to figure out why he was bleeding and that he needed to get to a higher level of care very quickly."

Unfortunately, the crew's orders were to continue to the next FOB, and conventional means of communications were unable to reach their command and control element to request authorization to go straight to Bagram. The DRC, however, allowed them to successfully communicate that they were heading directly to BAF to try to save their patient.

The flight - which normally takes well over an hour - took just 42 minutes.

"We were max blast all the way there," Jones said. "That's the closest thing I think we'll ever get to driving an ambulance. You call 'urgent medevac' over the radio and they part the Red Sea for you. All the traffic gets out of your way."

In the back of the aircraft, Valadez and her team worked on the combat controller, attempting to control his bleeding. Valadez remained standing next to him during landing, applying pressure to the wound, and continued to work on him as he was transferred from the jet to the ambulance and all the way to the Emergency Room.

The injured combat controller went straight to surgery. He lived, and the medical team was able to save his leg.

"It was truly one team up there," Valadez said. "Both pilots and the loadmasters were great. When it became an emergency situation, everyone pulled together. Everyone knew their roles and was able to help out whatever way they could."

The mission was a great example of an aircrew and AE team working together to accomplish the mission and save a life, said Lt. Col. Sean Barden, 772nd EAS director of operations.

"I'm really proud of the entire crew," he said. "It's great to see what a difference our Aeromedical Evacuation mission makes for folks who are wounded on the battlefield. It's rewarding to know that our teamwork and use of technology made such a big difference for one of our fellow Airmen."

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