02 August 2012

Sending Heroes Home

Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility personnel and volunteers move a patient to an awaiting C-17 Globemaster III at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July 23, 2012. Bagram’s CASF staff relies on a dedicated team of volunteers to safely transport wounded warriors off the battlefield. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Capt. Raymond Geoffroy)

"Every night is a night I won't forget. One of the most rewarding parts of this is getting to talk to the people here. Recently there was a guy coming off the aircraft with a gunshot wound in the chest. I just started talking with him a little, and found out he was from my hometown. I got to talk to him about life back home."

- Tech. Sgt. Matthew Kostos

Critical care for heroes
Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility provides "stable care" function to battlefield care process

By U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Shawn David McCowan

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - The state-of-the-art Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield is widely recognized as the premier medical facility in Afghanistan. CJTH treats about 4,000 patients each month - as many as 130 war-related injuries each day - yet more than 95 percent of their patients survive. The hospital has the most current equipment, expert staff, and pioneering specialty units. While media from around the world have spotlighted the hospital staff's accomplishments, innovations, and even unconditional care to locals and enemy combatants, no military hospital running 24/7 operations in a combat zone cannot operate as successfully as the CJTH with standard hospital staffing.

That is where the "CASF" comes in. The Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility provides a critical "stable care" function in the hospital's battlefield care process. Patients who arrive stabilized from the battlefield are transferred to this facility within the hospital while awaiting a flight to a medical center outside of Afghanistan. There, staff and volunteers work to keep wounded warriors as comfortable as possible until their flight. When it's time to move patients to or from aeromedical airlift, the CASF team calls on a group of unsung heroes - volunteers from units all over Bagram Airfield - who give much of their late night off-duty time to make a difference in their own way. The number of patients being moved varies greatly, but it always requires tight coordination. Amazingly, the transfer process takes only about ten minutes.

Airman 1st Class Robert DeSantis of Clearwater Fla., is a medical technician who works at the facility in a job called "Bulldog." He manages all of the patient transfers both into the CASF when they arrive, and out to an aircraft when they leave. He recognizes the value of those volunteers possibly more than anyone at the hospital.

"I have to know who's coming in on a litter and who's going to be able to walk in. Before they had a CASF, a lot of the manpower used to move patients was from hospital staff. Now we have people who are dedicated to move patients. That's important because it allows the hospital staff to do their jobs," said DeSantis.

DeSantis also says speed and timing is vital to accomplish the CASF mission for several reasons.

"I have to make sure we're out there on time. There is a tight schedule for the aircraft. It's not only important to get patients to the aircraft quickly, but some of them are critical and need to get to that next level of care. Sometimes we have missions that are last-minute notice. So the airfield has a schedule to keep, and our patients need to get out in a timely manner," said DeSantis.

"We'd be lost without our volunteers. Without these volunteers, the mission would take a lot more time, and we might have trouble maintaining good patient safety. But with all these people from different units, we always have enough people, so things go smoothly, and we can get our patients out in a timely manner."

Even though most of the MEDEVAC volunteers work very late hours, sometimes working until the next morning, DeSantis noticed how CASF volunteers seem to be brought together by their service.

"A lot of these people become friends. We can forget there are people still getting injured out there. This makes me realize how aware people are that there are servicemembers out there who need our help."

The long hours of stop-and-go labor might be an inconvenience for the volunteers, but any difficulties seem to be lost on those lending a late night helping hand.

Chief Master Sgt. Gregory Boyer, of Honolulu, Hawaii, a volunteer who is otherwise assigned to 455th Expeditionary Logistics Readiness Squadron, was just looking for a place where a chief master sergeant could volunteer. But he says he found something much more meaningful at the CASF.

"CASF is one of the places where we can give back to the men and women who put their life on the line out here. It's a really tight team and a really wonderful thing we're allowed to be a part of. There's been a lot of very strong memories here too," said Boyer.

Tech. Sgt. Matthew Kostos works with Chief Boyer in ELRS, and joined him one evening to help. He immediately understood the importance of the volunteer experience.

"I volunteered one night. And after doing this only once, I could really see the opportunity to give back. Volunteering here made me see the war is impacted by CASF. If there's any place to give time that has impact, it's here," said Kostos.

As Kostos continued to return to volunteer, his experiences had a deeper and more personal impact on him.

"Every night is a night I won't forget. One of the most rewarding parts of this is getting to talk to the people here. Recently there was a guy coming off the aircraft with a gunshot wound in the chest. I just started talking with him a little, and found out he was from my hometown. I got to talk to him about life back home."

Finding the right people to serve in the CASF is up to Senior Airman Guillermo Hernandez, a medical technician from Oakland, Tenn. He is in charge of personnel assignments, "Manpower," there. His job gives him a special appreciation for the volunteers.

"We get notified of an arrival, then we have to be at the aircraft about 90 minutes before wheels up. We wouldn't be able to do anything without our volunteers. Without a CASF, the patients could not get processed out and they would all be in-house. To allow us to keep bringing critical patients in we need the CASF to help the rest of the stable patients transfer out."

As a testimony to the value of serving there, Hernandez also volunteers at the CASF when off-duty.

"Volunteering is very rewarding. It gives you a different perspective on being part of the war. You get to know your patients, and you hear what happened to them and why they're in the CASF. They could've been a six-foot-something football player, but now they're an amputee. But you're here with them, and they're still smiling. That's always a great feeling," said Hernandez.

Each morning at sunrise, a shift of tired volunteers leave while the physicians and day shift staff arrive, prepared to use every advantage at their disposal to save nearly everyone they see. Behind the renowned doctors and staff, and beyond the cutting-edge medical technology, the hospital's greatest assets show up; the next wave of CASF volunteers.

MSgt Shane Mortimer, a radio operator with the 455th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, steps off a C-17 Globemaster III at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, July 23, 2012. Mortimer regularly supports the Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility team as they move wounded warriors from the battlefield. (U.S. Air Force Photo/Capt. Raymond Geoffroy)

There's a great video at the link that I was unable to embed here. Definitely worth watching to meet some of these volunteers.

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