21 May 2009

Tom’s Medevac Journey: The rest of the story

Capt. Kristen McCabe holds a patient's hand during the flight to Germany from Afghanistan in 2003. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Keith Kluwe

The photo above is quite well known. I've even used it here myself. But I never knew the rest of the story until I recently found this archived page at DefendAmerica.mil.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, April 7, 2003 — Two service members were killed and one seriously wounded in an ambush March 29 in southern Afghanistan.

They were the first combat casualties since Sgt. Steven Checo of the 82nd Airborne Division was killed by hostile fire in December of last year.

Along with the army Special Forces soldier and air force tactical air controller killed, a Special Forces soldier named Tom was critically wounded.

Tom worked with a small team and when he was hurt, he was treated by a few different small teams. Tom had to work on healing while the teams treating him had to help him and at the same time deal with the emotional involvement caused by caring for one of their own.

Tom was shot in the right side, destroying one of his kidneys, perforating his diaphragm and puncturing his lung. Another round went through his right hand. Another round grazed his head. He also was cut over his left eye.

The Forward Surgical Team here saved his life in the operating room at Kandahar Air Field. They removed his damaged organ, closed the hole in his diaphragm and lung. They operated on his hand and closed the wounds he had above his eye and on the side of his head.

Once his surgery was done, it was the job of the Critical Care Aeromedical Transport Team to move Tom to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Everyone on the team had to do their part so he could be moved to a better medical facility.

A mixed crew of soldiers and airmen move "Tom" into the back of a waiting C-17 so he could be moved to a hospital in Germany. "Tom" is a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier that was wounded in an Ambush Mar. 29. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Keith A. Kluwe.

Lt. Col. Wendy Tomczak, the senior clinical advisor in the Operation Enduring Freedom theater, was an army nurse in Vietnam and an Air Force nurse in the Gulf War.

“Tom was the first American casualty I’ve moved since Vietnam,” Tomczak said. “It was a mixture of feelings for me. There is the officer and the nurse in me, who treated a young man that was badly hurt and that was very touch and go.

“The other part is the mom, thinking Tom is two years older than my son,” she continued. “It’s made for complicated feelings looking at it from two different angles at the same time. I think if he would have been my son, I would have been so grateful that he survived the ambush and that there were skilled enough people there to help him survive. I would have been proud at the same time, proud that he elected to serve his country.”

“We were pretty busy with (Tom) when they brought on the two caskets. I didn’t have that much time to think about it. We did have things settled enough so that as they finished up the ceremony we all came to attention to render our respect.”

A Special Forces team from Tom’s unit wanted to ride on the aircraft with him and their friends that were killed.

“We usually don’t take passengers with human remains on board, but the guys came on board and asked us to reconsider,” Tomczak said with tears in her eyes. “They said they would be honored to go back with him and I couldn’t tell them no.”

Members of the 438th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, carry Tom, a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier wounded in Afghanistan Mar. 29, past the caskets of two of his team mates in the cargo bay of a C-17 at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Keith A. Kluwe.

[Technical Sgt. Dean] Altman was the most experience crewmember on the C-17 we flew on. He oversaw the loading of the two caskets twenty feet from Tom.

“My main thing was to not let (Tom) see what was happening, if he was awake enough to see it,” Altman said. “He didn’t know (two of his friends had been killed), but even if he did know, you don’t want him to see the caskets. It’s better that way. I didn’t want (Tom) to start thinking ‘why wasn’t I killed? Why couldn’t it have been me instead of one of my buddies?’ He needed to be thinking about himself and getting better.”

“I felt sad for them. I wish there was something I could do, but there isn’t. I just wanted to give (the two killed) dignity on their trip home so their family could bury them, get some closure,” said Altman.

Maj. (Dr.) Daniel Smith stands next to his patient in the back of a C-17 during landing in Germany. His patient "Tom" is a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier wounded in Afghanistan Mar. 29. U.S. Army photo by Cpl. Keith A. Kluwe

Maj. Daniel Smith was Tom’s CCATT doctor. He said Tom was very critical. Tom had a chest tube in, was on a ventilator to help him breathe, had three IVs for fluids, an arterial line to monitor blood pressure, an OG tube into his stomach. Smith said he had just about every line and every tube a patient could have.

“I have a great sense of honor taking care of one of our Special Forces guys that was injured in battle. Here was a soldier wounded in battle, protecting our liberty and freedom and it gave me a great sense of pride to help him,” Smith said. “When we were carrying him from the plane in Germany I was thinking that freedom is never free. There will always be a sacrifice the sons and daughters will have to make to maintain their freedom. It sometimes requires the lives and the spilled blood of those sons and daughters to keep our land free. I have a lot of patriotism and pride in our country and what these guys (special forces) do to defend out country. It really drove home to me that this is a real ball game and that lives are at stake here to keep us free.

Staff Sgt. Larry Minor is the youngest member of the team and was Tom’s cardiopulmonary technician on his flight from Afghanistan to Germany. He monitored Tom’s breathing and the drainage from the chest tube in the left side of Tom’s chest.

“It feels good to actually do the job we have been training for,” treating U.S. combat casualties. Minor’s team has moved injured Afghans in the past, but this was his first combat casualty mission. “That’s why I’m here, to help that one guy survive. I’m glad he is alive, that his family didn’t get that phone call or that visit.”

Capt. Kristen McCabe was Tom’s nurse. She was strapped to the floor standing next to Tom on the take off. She is the person Tom saw the most on his flight to Germany.

“This is what I’m here for. This is why I joined the military, to take care of patients. Those guys are out there taking care of America and I’m here to give them the best medical care I can if they are hurt. Tom was the first patient I’ve had that was true-blue, fighting for America, going out into harms way. I will always remember him, forever.

“Tom asked me where his weapon was, and told me he was OK, if I asked him. He could answer yes or no,” McCabe said. “I almost got possessive of him. I didn’t want to give him over to the team in Germany. I know he was in capable hands; he just wasn’t in my hand at that time. He kept telling me thank you,” she said crying. “All I did most of the time when he said thank you was give him a sip of water. He was out there taking bullets for me, and my family, and he was thanking me.”

She stood or sat at his side the entire eight-hour flight, giving him his medicine, holding his hand, talking to him. She didn’t start crying until she left his side in Germany.

* * *


March 29, 2003 - The Department of Defense announced today the identity of an Illinois Air National Guardsman who died from wounds sustained in an ambush today in Geresk, Afghanistan.

Staff Sgt. Jacob L. Frazier, 24, of St. Charles, Ill., was assigned to the 169th Air Support Operations Squadron, 182nd Airlift Wing, Peoria, Ill.


March 30, 2003 - The Department of Defense announced today the identity of a soldier who died after being wounded in an ambush on Saturday in Geresk, Afghanistan, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.

Sgt. Orlando Morales, 33, was assigned to A Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Special Forces Group, out of Ft. Bragg, N.C., when his mounted reconnaissance unit took hostile fire. Morales was from Manati, Puerto Rico.

* * *

And now you know the rest of the story.

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