29 June 2012

Don't tell the troops at Walter Reed the war is 'winding down'

The last American combat troops are expected out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But don't tell the troops at Walter Reed the war in Afghanistan is winding down. Amputations -- many of them multiple -- have gone up to more than 20 a month.

Staff Sgt. Eric Meyers, Lance Cpl. Chad Ohmer, Lance Cpl. Timothy Donley, and Lance Cpl. Garret Carnes are featured in another timely report from CBS's David Martin.

28 June 2012

Fighting the Colorado Fires

A C-130 aircraft equipped with a modular firefighting system drops retardant on a section of the Waldo Canyon fire near Colorado Springs, Colo., June 26, 2012. Four of these aircraft, assigned to the Air Force's 302nd and 153rd airlift wings, are helping civil authorities combat the fire. The 302nd Airlift Wing is based on Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and the 153rd Airlift Wing is part of the Wyoming Air National Guard. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Thomas Doscher.

26 June 2012

Resolve in the face of hardship

[This is a repost from 2008.]

"We feared the Americans would leave, that the airlift would be too much of a hardship. They could have hated us Germans, but they didn’t. They performed their mission, and some even gave their lives just to feed us."

- Traute Grier, 76, former citizen of Berlin.

My first of many trips to West Berlin was in 1982. Although that is a relatively short time ago – and even longer between then and the end of WWII - today it is difficult to imagine the complex set of regulations governing travel to Berlin still in place at that time.

Lufthansa, the German national airline, was prohibited from flying to Berlin. If you flew from the US to Germany on Lufthansa, you needed to change airlines in order to continue on to Berlin.

Travel by car was accompanied by (mostly) peaceful forms of harassment intended to test the will of travelers – and the willingness of businesses to operate in the city. The waiting time at the borders regularly stretched into several hours. Driving speed in the DDR was strictly controlled at 110kph through entry and exit time stamps. If you arrived at the Berlin border too soon, you’d driven too fast. If you arrived too late, well, that opened up an interrogation about what you’d been doing all that time inside the DDR. If your passport photo showed you wearing glasses, then you’d better be wearing them when the DDR border guards examined you and your documents.

Although West German citizens were allowed to travel freely between West Germany and West Berlin, West Berliners and their families were only permitted a limited number of trips to West Germany annually.

West Berliners I knew used to joke about how if anything happened between the superpowers, "you could just hang a big POW sign on the wall." They were acutely aware of the symbolic role they played as citizens of the free, yet captive, city.

But it could have been far worse, considering how it all started. On June 12, 1948 the Soviet Union closed the main highway between West Germany and West Berlin for “repairs”. During the following weeks, roads were closed between the Berlin sectors, barge transportation was halted, and rail traffic was stopped – all ostensibly based upon various “technical” difficulties.

Then, the Soviets announced that they would not supply food to the now-isolated Allied sectors of the city.

Over two million Berliners had enough fuel and food to last for about 5 weeks.

Although the Allies had occupation rights to their parts of Berlin, land passage rights were assumed but had never been explicitly negotiated. And because the Allies – unlike the Soviets – had already withdrawn most of their troops from Germany, victory through military action was unlikely.

The Cold War had begun.

General Lucius D. Clay, commander of the US occupying forces in Germany pushed for support of Berlin, knowing it had “become a symbol of American intent.” After discarding an idea to take the Soviet’s bluff by driving an armed supply convoy from West Germany, the Allies explored the option of using the allowed air corridors.

It was decided that unarmed aircraft would fly the route, in effect challenging the Soviets to shoot them down – or to back down.

There is so much more to this story. How the Berliners were offered food by the Soviets in return for changing "sides". Despite the incredible hardships they were enduring - including the threat of starvation - almost none did. In fact, thousands assisted in the operation.

How calculations were made to determine daily payloads (1534 tons), based on the number of calories per day each West Berliner needed to survive (1700). 3475 additional tons of coal and gasoline would be required daily.

At this point in time the USAF had two squadrons of C-47s capable of carrying 3.5 tons of cargo each. The RAF had a few more than the Americans.

The runway at Templehof airport needed to be repaired.

Weather conditions typical for Germany promised to make the entire airlift a nightmare.

But despite the odds, AF General Curtis LeMay maintained, “We can haul anything.”

And so on June 26, 1948, the Berlin Airlift commenced. Airmen from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa participated alongside British and US Airmen. (The French declined to assist, not believing it would work, but joined in later after success was assured.)

There were some disasters. It was initially believed coal could be dropped from the air, saving precious landing time. But the coal pulverized upon impact and was rendered unusable.

On so-called Black Friday, July 30, 1948, poor visibility caused by bad weather resulted in a plane crash at the end of the Tempelhof runway. A domino effect ensued for the following aircraft, and the entire airport was closed for a day.

New rules were initiated: Each pilot had one shot at landing. If he missed it, he was required to turn around and return to West Germany to keep the airspace clear for the planes behind him. A complex set of air corridors was defined for inbound and outbound aircraft.

Originally expected to last for 3 weeks, the airlift officially lasted for 15 months. As winter set in an additional 6000 tons of fuel were supplied each day. It was the coldest winter in Germany for decades.

At the height of the Berlin Airlift a plane landed every 62 seconds. Over 2.3 million tons of supplies were provided on 278,228 flights totaling over 92 million miles.

The Soviet blockade was lifted on May 12, 1949.

The first battle of the Cold War had been won.

The Berlin Airlift Memorial at Rhein-Main AB, inscribed with the names of the 39 British and 31 American Airmen who gave their lives during the operation. Similar memorials stand at Tempelhof airport and the former RAF base at Celle.

25 June 2012

Wounded Soldier Recounts Heroic Firefight

Nick Keene, 24, of Butte, MT, shows the Purple Heart and an Army Commendation Medal with valor he received after a firefight in Afghanistan. Keene’s actions may have saved the lives of each of those soldiers lying prone on the roadside and his injured lieutenant, but he’s paid a steep price: For one thing, he’ll walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Photo: Walter Hinick/Montana Standard.

Although the force of the blast had pulverized the discs and vertebrae in his back leaving him unable to feel his legs, PFC Nick Keene fired 2,800 rounds into a group of Taliban fighters. Then he picked up a machine gun and emptied that. He put seven or eight clips into his own personal weapon and did the same until he finally lost consciousness.

Late summer 2011, in the Panjwayi District in Afghanistan with the 5th Squadron, 1st Cavalry, 1st SBCT, 25th Infantry Division out of Fort Wainwright:

He was driving an eight-wheeled Stryker armored combat vehicle, keeping watch while most of his unit surveyed a roadside ditch for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Suddenly a rocket hit below his vehicle. There was a moment of confusion and panic. What was that and where did it come from?

The second strike, a direct hit, answered those questions. Keene was blown from his seat into the side of the vehicle, crushing and breaking vertebrae in his back. In the next moments he took stock of his injuries as the gunfire continued: he thought his legs had been blown off despite the fact that he could see them beneath his pants. The crushed vertebra had damaged his nerves and he could not comprehend the new way his body felt.

Yet, there were other concerns. His gunner, the only other man in the vehicle, was imploring Keene to move so they could get in better position to defend soldiers who were now pinned down next to the road. Keene did all he could to drive the vehicle a few hundred yards before it succumbed to the damage of the rocket blast and could go no farther.

Their lieutenant, a recent graduate from West Point, lay injured in the road. Their gunner struggled with a rear weapon that had jammed. Since the vehicle was no longer operable, Keene crawled through it and took his position at one of the guns. It was painful and he could not stand. Yet, he soldiered on, unjammed the gun and took aim behind it. He fired on a group of about eight Taliban fighters who were moving to get a better angle on the pinned troops. Since his legs were not working, Keene had cinched himself in the hole that allowed him to rise out of the vehicle and operate the guns. He didn’t take his finger off the trigger until there were no more bullets left to fire.

His mother Brenda remembers getting the phone call.

“He was in shock I think, but they let him make a call,” said Brenda. She chokes up thinking about those moments, and contemplating how easily it could have been worse.

“At least I could hear his voice,” she said.

The recovery was difficult, both physically and practically.

He arrived back on base in Alaska without identification, wallet or credit card, and walking across campus was next to impossible. Yet he didn’t complain and didn’t ask for help.

“He’s not very aggressive as far as asserting things,” said Brenda.

Yet she doesn’t think that contradicts what he did that day in the desert, when lives depended on his actions, his ability to pull through pain and do what was required.

“He did what he was trained to do,” she said. “I’m not surprised he reacted the way he did. That’s just the way he is. If he didn’t do what he did, who knows how many would have died.”

You can read the full story here.

And here's a nice story about PFC Keene's return to Alaska, where he was welcomed by the 5-1 Cavalry FRG.

24 June 2012

A Tale of Two Soldiers

After being blown up by an IED, SPC Tim Senkowsi's life was saved by Special Forces Medic SGT Dustin Wisdom. Their story and their reunion is an intimate look at war, tragedy, friendship, and bravery.

Thanks to filmmaker Mickey Stroud for telling their story.

"These for the Soldiers, Nana?"

...Charlie asks his grandmother as he helps pack blankets for the patients at Landstuhl. More on Gold Star Mom Linda Ferrara and the "Blanket Ladies of SoCal" here.

19 June 2012

Wounded Marine's father: 'I get to go hug my hero'

The parents of Marine Lance Corporal Christopher Van Etten on their way to San Diego to see their son after his medical evacuation from Afghanistan. (Tissue Alert)

More at KSDK.com

To Fallen Comrades

Col. Gregory D. Gadson, director of the U.S. Army Wounded Warrior Program, gives a toast to fallen comrades, June 16, 2012, during the 2012 Army Birthday Ball, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Army News Service.

14 June 2012

Flag Day

Near the New York Stock Exchange, December 2001.

Happy Birthday to the United States Army!

"Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago, our Nation's leaders established the Continental Army, beginning a rich heritage of successfully defending this great country and her citizens.

Today, we celebrate the continued honor, loyalty and bravery of our Soldiers in this noble calling. Our Soldiers remain Army Strong with a deep commitment to our core values and beliefs.

This 237th birthday commemorates America's Army – Soldiers, families and civilians – who are achieving a level of excellence that is truly Army Strong. We also celebrate our local communities for their steadfast support of our Soldiers and families. We are "America's Army: The Strength of the Nation." "

From Army.mil's birthday feature.

11 June 2012

Debate over future of Landstuhl hospital continues

Aerial photo of Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, courtesy LRMC.

Stars and Stripes, August 2008:

The largest American hospital outside the United States is set for a $405 million upgrade.

Set for completion in 2014, a five-story tower would house inpatients at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

Landstuhl commander Army Col. Brian Lein received official word Thursday the project had been approved. Construction is slated to begin in fiscal 2011.

The Landstuhl tower has been a long time coming.

Constructing a tower at the hospital has been talked about for at least 20 years. U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan receive treatment at Landstuhl before flying back to military hospitals in the States. Since 2001, Landstuhl has treated more than 50,000 patients from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The New York Times, June 2012:

As the Pentagon and Congress argue over how to shrink the military to fit smaller federal budgets, no debate over matching money to mission is more heartfelt than the order to shut down the premier overseas hospital for grievously wounded troops and replace it with a new one.

With scant public notice, the Defense Department is closing, and relocating, the aging hospital, the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the only top-level military trauma center outside the United States.

The hospital has earned its vaunted reputation over the past decade as it has evacuated, treated and stabilized all American military personnel wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq. It treats 500,000 patients a year.

There is no dispute that replacing the hospital, which opened 59 years ago, is a good idea. And building its replacement next to Ramstein Air Base in Germany would reduce transit time for patients. Additional savings would be found by closing Ramstein’s existing clinic and combining it with the Landstuhl replacement.

But with the Iraq war over, involvement in Afghanistan winding down, and troop reductions in Europe, there is debate over the size of the new facility.

Not to mention that the cost estimates for this new solution are three times that of the earlier one.

In a blistering critique of the Pentagon’s initial plan, the Government Accountability Office, the auditing and investigative arm of Congress, rejected proposals from Dr. Jonathan Woodson, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, because he had failed to show how the Pentagon had come up with a $1.2 billion price tag for the hospital.

In the Pentagon’s official response to Congress, Dr. Woodson wrote that he accepted the Government Accountability Office’s criticisms. He emphasized that the Defense Department had conducted a reassessment of the $1.2 billion proposal. A new plan — along with “a documented audit trail of how the size, scope and cost of the alternatives” were determined — would be provided to Congress after it was approved by Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta, he wrote. No timetable was provided.

Update, 18 June:
Stars and Stripes has published a follow up story, DOD reassessing plans for new medical center near Ramstein.

DOD was awarded $71 million this fiscal year for the first phase of construction, money which will allow the department “to begin some site preparations as we address the concerns raised by the Congress,” [Pentagon spokeswoman Cynthia] Smith said in an email.

10 June 2012

Army Surgeon General's office: Rise in multiple-limb amputations in 2012

From USA Today:

BETHESDA, Md. – American troops are suffering more extensive physical damage — measured in lost arms and legs — to buried explosives in Afghanistan than ever before, according to data collected by the Army Surgeon General's office.

This year through May, 60% of all combat amputation casualties in Afghanistan — 31 of 52 cases — were troops who lost two, three or four limbs, according to statistics. The vast majority are caused by makeshift bombs known as improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, the Army says.

In 2009, about one in four combat amputations involved multiple limb-loss. That increased to one in three in 2010 and nearly one in two last year, when there were a record 225 amputation cases in Afghanistan.

Half of the six American troops left quadruple amputees during 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, suffered their wounds this year, data show.

Two lethal trends in Taliban bombmaking are larger explosives targeting U.S. foot patrols and bombs that have less metal and are more difficult to find with detection devices, says the Army and the Joint IED Defeat Organization, or JIEDDO, the Pentagon's lead agency for combating makeshift bombs.

The military has responded by placing more highly skilled medical personnel on helicopters that retrieve wounded servicemembers from the battlefield, including critical care nurses from the Army and doctors and nurse anesthetists from the Air Force.

"We believe that by placing this higher-level medical capability farther forward faster, that we will be able to save the lives of more of these servicemembers," says Brig. Gen. Bart Iddins, Air Force air mobility command surgeon.

More at the link.

08 June 2012

The Faces of Freedom

Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Brian Bohlman prays with members of the Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, May 26, 2012. U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Clay Lancaster.

"At the end of the sermons I give, I have a slideshow of the service members I've worked with who have died, and I always tell my congregation, 'These are the faces of freedom!’”

- Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Brian Bohlman

Face of Defense: Chaplain Tends to Wounded Warriors

By Senior Airman Alexandria Mosness
U.S. Air Forces Central

BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan , June 4, 2012 – The chaplain gave the cross he brought from home to the young injured Marine from Florida.

The Marine had been hurt in a roadside bomb explosion and had lost the cross that was on his body armor. When the chaplain presented the cross to the young Marine, both men cried.

This was Air Force Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Brian Bohlman's first experience as the night shift chaplain at Craig Joint-Theater Hospital here about six months ago.

The chaplain would experience these types of scenarios and more throughout his time at CJTH, one of the largest and best-equipped trauma facilities in Afghanistan.

Bohlman said his pager goes off each time a trauma patient is admitted to the hospital.

"Our role in the trauma room is to introduce ourselves, and we tell them we are praying for them," said Bohlman, who deployed from the 169th Fighter Wing at McEntire Joint National Guard Base, S.C. "We will also follow them while they are in the hospital."

Bohlman said he and his assistant generally see about 15 patients nightly.

"I always ask them [about] their hometown," he added.

Bohlman, a 20-year Air Force veteran, said caring for people is nothing new for him, noting he always had a strong desire to serve others. He didn't initially meet the requirements to a become chaplain so he enlisted in 1992 as a chaplain's assistant. After serving four years on active duty and a year in the reserve, he earned a commission through the Air Force’s Chaplain Candidate Program.

"Our mission is to care for the warrior's soul," Bohlman said. "There are three functions we do. One, is nurturing the living; two, is caring for the wounded; and three is honoring the dead.”
Bohlman carries a small green book in his left breast pocket. Though the book is not worth more than a couple of dollars, he said, it holds a deep meaning to him. Bohlman said he records the name, rank, service and some descriptive passages of every injured military member he comes in contact with.

"I try and write a little bit about everyone I meet," the chaplain said. Some service members, he said, have heart-wrenching stories.

"In April, we had a lot of traumas. At one point there were four patients in the trauma room, and I looked down and realized there was a lot of blood on the floor. I still have those stains on my boots. I thought about the sacrifice, and how our job can be a dirty one. I just thought about how they truly left their mark on me."

After his first week at the hospital, Bohlman told the staff that he can pray and chew gum at the same time, meaning he could help out the staff if needed.

Soon, Bohlman said, he was "taking temperatures, putting on the blood pressure cuff, and getting warm blankets.”

Bohlman has been a great asset, said Air Force Maj. (Dr.) Micah Schmidt, an emergency room physician.

"He participates in all the traumas. He is very helpful. It is not expected, but it's nice,” Schmidt said of Bohlman. “Just the other night, he helped me change the dressing on a gunshot wound."

The chaplain said it's not just the patients he watches over, but also the staff at the hospital.

"We're here to listen to their stories," Bohlman said. "A lot of times, the staff will compartmentalize what they deal with. You can have an enemy prisoner of war and the soldier who was injured by the enemy POW, but you have to give the same exact care. They have to keep their feelings and emotions out of it."

The chaplain said he tries to keep abreast of the hospital staff’s well-being.

"I usually ask if they've talked to their family lately," Bohlman said, or if they’re keeping up on their exercise.”

“My goal is to build resilient airmen,” the chaplain added. “I tell them I'm here regardless of their faith or denomination.”

A lot of times, Bohlman said, the people he encounters just need someone to talk to.

"They have seen a lot but the way they deal with it is knowing that many would die if they weren't here," he said. "They see the big picture. It helps them during difficult days to pull through."

Bohlman, who’s on his fifth overseas deployment, said losing people is always difficult.

"At the end of the sermons I give, I have a slideshow of the service members I've worked with who have died, and I always tell my congregation, 'These are the faces of freedom!’”

06 June 2012

The Longest Day

Army troops wade ashore on "Omaha" beach, 6 June 1944. Photo: National Archives.

"You are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you... I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle."

- General Dwight D. Eisenhower

On June 5, 2012, a cold and overcast day, John Perrozi walked between rows of white marble gravestone at the Normandy American Cemetery, on a cliff overlooking Omaha Beach. He stopped at one cross and then another, paying his respects to several buddies who died fighting in Normandy. It was his first trip back since the war. As an 82nd Airborne Division paratrooper, Perozzi fought on D-Day with the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. During a June 3 ceremony at the La Fière drop zone, a battlefield near where Perozzi fought, he received France’s highest military medal, the Légion d'Honneur. Photo: Warrant Officer Patrick Brion, Belgian Armed Forces.

01 June 2012

Live RPG removed from Marine's leg by New Mexico MEDEVAC crew

Here's a great follow up to a story posted back in April about this and other rare and amazing cases in which live ordinance was removed from patients by courageous medical personnel.

CAMP DWYER, Afghanistan – In the midst of combat, acts of valor and bravery are performed so often they are sometimes overlooked. This was almost the case with the story of the soldiers who rescued Marine Lance Cpl. Winder Perez. This is a story that will finally be told, months after it occurred.

On Jan. 12, 2012, a call was passed over the radios to a medevac (medical evacuation) crew to rescue a 3-year-old Afghan girl who had suffered from a gunshot wound and shrapnel to the back. After dropping off personnel and equipment from their current mission, they headed back out to the location for pick-up.

Upon contacting the ground crew on the directed frequency, the pick-up location had moved. After verifying the medevac request and landing safely to retrieve the patient, the landing zone controller came over the radio with a loud, frantic voice, “the patient has (unintelligible) unexploded ordnance!”

The patient was no longer the girl, but Perez who had a rocket propelled grenade embedded in his leg extending to his lower abdomen. The RPG had not detonated yet meaning the slightest wrong move could set it off.

“That call will be in my mind all my life,” said Sgt. Robert Hardisty, a crew chief with C Company, 1st Battalion, 171st Aviation Regiment, New Mexico National Guard, who was attached to 25th Combat Aviation Brigade. “First you land thinking it’s a little girl and the next thing it is a Marine with an unexploded RPG embedded in his body.”

Spc. Mark Edens, a flight medic with C/1-171, was the first to see the RPG round visible in Perez. At this point the crew had to make a decision. “Because of the level of danger, if the crew left Perez on the ground and decided not to take him, no one would have ever blamed them. We all would have understood,” said Maj. Christopher Holland, C/1-171 commander.

Capt. Kevin Doo, the pilot-in-command for this mission, the pilot of the crew decided they would only take Perez if the entire crew agreed.

“There was no doubt to anyone that we were going to take this Marine and get him the medical attention needed to save his life,” said Doo. “When dealing with this, not knowing that any moment could be your last. Eighteen inches from the patient’s legs was about 360 gallons of aviation fuel.”

The crew transported Perez as quickly as they safely could landing at Forward Operating Base Edinburgh 24 minutes from the time the RPG hit Perez.

“After Lance Cpl. Perez was loaded on the Black Hawk, it was a total of 11.2 minutes of flight time where every minute felt like an hour,” Doo said. “During that time, we were on the radio coordinating with our escorts, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team, and medical personnel who were going to treat Perez.”

The crew’s coordination paid off. The coordination included telling the armed escorts of the medevac helicopter to stay a good distance away for their safety, calling the EOD team to handle the disposal of the RPG, and ensuring medical personnel were aware of and prepared for the situation they were about to handle.

Upon hearing the news of the RPG, the medical team set a plan in motion to properly remove the round as they gathered necessary supplies and met the medevac at the landing zone. When Perez arrived at FOB Edinburgh, he was transported to a safe area to extract the round with only the necessary personnel present.

Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, department head, Surgical Company B, 2nd Supply Battalion, noticed the wounds Marine Cpl. Perez received were life threatening. If he had not been transported by the speed of medevac, then he would have died of those wounds.

After removing the round and closing up the wounds, Perez was transported to Bastion Hospital for further care. The same crew who evacuated him from the battlefield were the ones who transported him to the next higher medical facility.

Although the RPG round was now miles away from Perez, other issues arose for him and the crew. His ventilator failed during the flight prohibiting his oxygen flow. At this moment, Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty acted rapidly manually giving oxygen and bringing the Marine back to a stable condition.

“After stabilization, I witnessed Spc. Edens and Sgt. Hardisty work in a calm, cool and professional manner ensuring the safety of this patient who suffered a second near catastrophic event with the loss of the oxygen ventilation machine,” said Gennari. “I distinctly remember thinking that if Dustoff could risk their lives to bring this patient to us, the least I can do is take some risk and get that thing out of his leg.”

Stories of heroism like these happen more than we think. While the fog of war keeps most stories hidden so they will never be told, this one escaped from the mist so it could find a place in our hearts. As for Perez, it was thanks to these heroic acts that allow him to read this story today from the comfortable safety of the United States.

Update, 5 June: Video interview with some of the crew here.