27 July 2009

‘No one dies in my aircraft’

Over the past three weeks the MEDEVAC crews from the 2nd Platoon “Gypsies” of Company C, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade have pulled dozens of wounded U.S., British and Afghan troops from the battlefields of the Helmand River valley. Here are some of their stories.
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — The UH-60 Black Hawk medevac helicopter descends into a maelstrom of swirling brown dust and touches down in a field with a bone-jarring thump.

Staff Sgt. Robert Cowdrey, a flight medic, jumps off the aircraft, a stretcher in one hand, an M-4 carbine in the other. He makes his way through the dust to a group of Marines about 50 meters away.

The Marines are standing between two armored trucks outside a mud-brick compound. They’re clustered around a wounded Marine. He is stripped to his underwear, partially covered in a thin foil blanket.

The wounded Marine has been hit by a Taliban bomb. He has no visible injuries, but he’s barely conscious, and clearly in need of further medical help.

Cowdrey, 37, of La Junta, Colo., puts a neck brace on the Marine, who is taken to the waiting Black Hawk. It lifts off as soon as he and Cowdrey are aboard. The helicopter has been on the ground less than five minutes.

Later, after Cowdrey’s Black Hawk is safely on the ground again, the Marine regains consciousness while being transported to a field hospital.

“Where am I?” he asks. “What happened?”

Cowdrey tells the Marine he’s been in a bomb blast. The young man immediately tries to sit up.

Cowdrey puts a firm, but gentle hand on the Marine’s chest.

“Take it easy,” he says. “You’re OK. You’re in an ambulance, and everything is going to be fine.”

“I sure hope you’re right,” the Marine says, as he drifts out again.

One recent morning, [Sgt. Nathaniel] Dabney’s crew is first in line for missions. The first call comes at 9:15 a.m. It’s listed as a priority.

The patient is a British soldier who has been hit by a concussion grenade. He’s loaded onto the aircraft in just his underwear and boots. He has no visible injuries, but he’s clearly hurting and scared.

Dabney puts an oxygen mask over the soldier’s face, then starts him on an IV drip. He then leans in close, rubs the soldier’s forehead and tells him he’ll be OK. The soldier’s eyes are shut tight, and he motions for someone to hold his hand. He doesn’t let go until the Black Hawk gets to Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, about 30 minutes later.

“Blood and guts, don’t affect me,” he says. “But it’s that personal bond that you establish with your patient, that’s what gets to you.”

Dabney has one rule: “No one dies in my aircraft.” So far, it hasn’t happened, he says, even if it is probably just a matter of time.

This is a must read article at Stars & Stripes with accompanying photo slideshow.

Update, October 2011: Godspeed, SSG Robert 'Brian' Cowdry.

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