War on Terrorism

Monday, August 05, 2013

Prepared for the worst: 188th Airman uses military, civilian skills under fire

by Tech. Sgt. Josh Lewis and Senior Airman John Hillier
188th Fighter Wing Public Affairs

8/2/2013 - FORT SMITH, Ark. -- On an early October morning, rockets began to strike Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. The strikes were coming in close that morning and within a few seconds buildings shook from impact. Inside, dust and debris rained down from the ceiling. Then suddenly over the radio came the call nobody wanted to hear: "We have people down."

This is one of countless situations that Airmen spend months preparing themselves for in predeployment training. In addition to courses in subjects like Explosive Ordinance Reconnaissance, Self-Aid and Buddy Care, and the Law of Armed Conflict, National Guard members bring with them the additional knowledge and skills gained from their civilian careers.

Along with his predeployment training, Staff Sgt. Michael Rybarczyk, an aircraft fuel systems craftsman with the 188th Maintenance Group, possessed skills learned as a civilian emergency medical technician.

"To get to what happened that day, you've got to think about the requirements we fulfilled to get prepared for enemy attacks," said Chief Master Sgt. Randy Barentine, Equipment Maintenance Flight superintendent. "Indirect fire (IDF) attacks were very real in this deployment. We spent many, many hours picking up shrapnel off the flight line and the shots seemed to be be getting closer. There was always a sense of urgency to do whatever we were tasked to do."

By October, the 188th had been deployed for 100 days, and was nearing the end of its rotation. Relief Airmen from Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, Ariz., had recently arrived, and were preparing to take over operations.

Barentine said that morning in October a barrage of attacks hit the base and got dangerously close to the 188th's work area.

"That morning, after the first, second, third and fourth they just kept rolling in," Barentine said. "By the fifth or sixth one, they hit a building attached to ours. We thought ours was hit, so everybody took to their defensive cover."

A short distance away, Rybarczyk and Master Sgt. Perry Davis, aircraft fuel systems superintendent with the 188th Maintenance Group, were taking cover as well.

"Once we made it to our bunker and took accountability, we received word that there were three injured individuals in the bunker down the road," Davis said. "Staff Sgt. Rybarczyk requested permission to go help. Knowing his experience as an EMT, I approved and without regard to himself, Rybarczyk ran to the other bunker."

Rounds were still hitting the base as Rybarczyk moved to the bunker with the wounded. As he ran, he prepared himself for whatever situation he would find inside.

"I was thinking 'How injured are these guys and what am I going to need to do?'" Rybarczyk said. "I have a mental checklist I run through for all the calls we get at work and most of the time you think about the things you gotta do. You just run it through your mind real quick. That training obviously helped me stay calm in that situation.

"My training in the military helped with having to make command decisions and getting people to do things - giving instructions on how to do stuff."

In the bunker, Rybarczyk fell back on those skills he's honed for almost ten years with the Rochester, Minn., Fire Department. He downplays his actions as just another day on the job.

"When I got to the bunker, I just went up to the closest injured person and started assessing him," Rybarczyk said. "He had gotten hit by some shrapnel in his head, so I was just making sure that the bleeding was slowing down and making sure he didn't have any other injuries that could have been life threatening. Then, I just moved from one guy to the next assessing them like I normally would if I was at work in my civilian job.

"For the most part the guys who were injured were very calm. I had a little sense of humor with them, so that helped reassure them. I made sure everything was good to go and there was nothing life threatening, then I went back and started bandaging them up."

Not knowing the injured Airmen's conditions, Barentine arrived at the bunker within moments of the radio call. He was relieved to see that the injured Airmen were receiving proper care and that Rybarczyk had complete charge of the situation.

"Immediately upon arrival, I looked in the bunker and I saw people had been hit," Barentine said. "I'm wanting to know how bad it was, who was hit. There were three [Davis-Monthan] guys who took some pretty good shrapnel. Staff Sgt. Rybarcyzk looked up at me - he made eye contact with me - and says 'Chief, I've got this.'

"To know that that guy after everything we've been through for 100 days: All of the attacks, the things that we had faced, the threats that were real, that is the most defining moment in my military career. He had total control of that bunker. By the time rescue responded he pretty much had those guys taken care of. He had 'em patched up."

With the danger passed, the 188th maintainers returned quickly to accomplishing the mission. The flight line was cleared of shrapnel and debris, and operations resumed.

"Minutes after all of this was over we were launching jets," Barentine said. "We're back at work and it's as if nothing ever happened. They were getting those pilots back in the air."

"For the next two days, [Davis-Monthan's] entire leadership came up to me and wanted to thank me for how well that was handled and how well their guys were taken care of," Barentine continued. "Our active-duty brethren saw the benefit of a drill status Guardsman, and they witnessed first-hand the benefits that the civilian careers of these men and women can can bring to their military organizations.

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