Medical crews transfer patients out of Afghanistan
by 2nd Lt. Daniel Riley, 375th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
4/28/2010 - SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- If it weren't for the roar of the engines on the cramped KC-135 heading into Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, this flight would have been completely silent.
"I've never seen the plane this full before," said Senior Master Sgt. Chuck Smith, a boom operator for the Mississippi Air National Guard's 153rd Air Refueling Squadron.
The flight had two full Aeromedical Evacuation crews, one Critical Care Air Transport Team and several thousand pounds of equipment associated with each of these crews. This is all in addition to the normal aircrew and equipment aboard the aircraft.
With a few hours left before making the roller-coaster ride landing over the Hindu Kush Mountains and into the valley of Bagram, the medical crews all sat in silent reflection.
Some read books and magazines, but most were resting because as soon as the aircraft landed, their 18-hour work day would begin: unloading gear, loading patients, and working to get them safely to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
Aeromedical Evacuation crews performed 19,025 patient movements in 2009, and have evacuated more than 140,000 patients since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom. These crews are all supremely dedicated to their mission of saving the lives of wounded warriors, and they all have an extensive medical background.
"It's amazing the number of years of medical experience we put to each and every one of our patients," said Master Sgt. Terry Starkey, a medical technician with the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight.
Lt. Col. Patricia Fulton said, "I have been doing this for 23 years, taking care of these heroes like they're family is what I'm here to do."
Colonel Fulton is a medical crew director with the 10th EAEF and trauma nurse in Oklahoma in her civilian career.
Many of the men and women aboard these flights are Reservists and Guardsmen, who volunteer their time to deploy and take care of these wounded warriors.
The dedication of these men and women have pushed the survival rate of all wounded to above 98 percent today, said Maj. Ed Schmidt, a Guardsman and nurse with the 10th EAEF.
Multiple factors contribute to this high survival rate, including the amount of time it takes from moment of injury to successful evacuation to Landstuhl--the first stop for most of the evacuated patients. It takes only 12 to 15 hours to get an injured warrior to Landstuhl, he said.
Lt. Col. Shelby Mills said, "The better training, technology and equipment today also lead to a better survival rate."
Colonel Mills is a medical director with the 455th EAEF and a member of Scott's 932nd Airlift Wing.
"The experience of field medics, and the implementation of the Self Aid and Buddy Care program has pushed medical care to the very front lines, and that has helped immensely," she said.
As soon as the plane hit the ground there was a calm urgency as practiced hands re-configured the cargo-bay to accept litters. Soon the ambulances pulled up and volunteers from across the airfield came out to help carry the litters.
"The other day a young Airman who was working the flightline came up and asked if he could help," said Colonel Mills. "He started to help carry litters and equipment, and when all the patients were loaded he said he needed to get back to work and thanked us for allowing him to help. He wasn't assigned to our plane, he just saw us and wanted to lend a hand where he could. Since then he's been a staple around our flights and is always there when we're loading patients."
Sergeant Smith said, "We fly these missions in and out of Bagram, right up to the limit we are allowed to fly in a month, but that month-long limit is filled in a little over one week. These really are great missions, and we just love doing our part in every way we can."
With the patients loaded and secured, the massive C-17 taxied, cut off all of its lights, hammered down the throttle and pulled away from Bagram over the mountains on its way to Germany with its precious cargo.