27 August 2006

Our Medical Warriors in Action

As we were loading the first 3 soldiers on the aircraft, the one who was conscious looked up at the Airmen carrying him and said, "Thanks guys for taking good care of us."

The story below was emailed home by an Air Force CMSgt serving in the 332nd Air Evacuation Wing, and forwarded to Soldiers' Angels by LTC Mario Pastrano, CASF flight commander serving with the Expeditionary Medical Group in Balad.

LTC Pastrano is one of the contacts of the Soldiers' Angels Wounded Team whose goal is to support our soldiers throughout the medevac process.

Soldiers wounded in action are typically sent from a Combat Support Hospital to Balad for further treatment before being medevac'd on to Germany.

It's long but well worth your time. LTC Pastrano would like you to know about the great work our medical personnel are doing.

Friends and Family;

Today was a day that I will long remember. Not only because it's my sister's 38th birthday, not because it was 118 degrees, and not because I am at the end of a 16 hour day. No, I will remember it because of the events that transpired right in front of my eyes at the hands of some incredibly talented and dedicated medical professionals assigned to the 332d Air Expeditionary Wing's Air Force Theater Hospital (AFTH).

For me the day started when the daily intelligence briefing included the medical report which detailed a military vehicle accident that took place the evening before in the local area. As we all listened to the senior medical officer, an AF Reserve Colonel, describe the circumstances of the injuries and status of the soldiers, it sounded like one of the worst tragedies we could imagine. I knew instantly that I wanted to go to the AFTH and visit with these terribly injured soldiers, no matter what their physical status.

Shortly after the meeting concluded I received a call from the senior enlisted member of the AFTH, their chief. He told me just how busy the AFTH was currently after receiving wounded soldiers from several incidents. He thought I should stop in and see these valiant medical warriors in action under some very trying circumstances. So off I went to witness this first hand, having no idea what I would encounter during the rest of the day.

When I arrived at the Emergency Department I could see how busy they were. The soldiers, including the Iraqi National Army soldiers inside, were receiving care from trauma teams consisting of medical doctors from the active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve. They were assisted by nurses from the same and the most visible part was watching the young enlisted medics handling business like true professionals, even in the face of dire injuries. They were treating four victims of a vehicle borne improvised explosive device. Most were suffering from burns and shrapnel. Watching these teams was like watching water run through a pile of rocks. It went so smooth that I felt helpless to do anything except to watch them and thank them as they passed me. At one point I noticed a young medical technician trying to carry a large pile of supplies and his hands were full. It was something that I could do to help, so I took them from him and let him get back to work doing what he was paid to do. This was a small thing I could do and it is only a pinch of salt in the large effort made daily by volunteers from all walks in the Air Force. I came across members of several other squadrons who give their day off or come after work to help the medics with patient movement, supply and re-supply, cleaning and organizing and whatever else it takes to concentrate the right effort on the patients.

After a short stay I knew that I had to get to the Intensive Care Unit where the soldiers of the earlier mentioned incident could be found. While I'm not very comfortable seeing badly injured patients, I knew in my heart this was worth facing to see if there was anything I could do or say to help the situation. You see, the soldiers I was about to see we involved in a terrible motor vehicle accident the previous day where they rolled into a large canal near the base and were trapped under water. This is not good clean water like we are all used to seeing in canals and rivers. This is the most green, murky water you can imagine and just going into the water would be dangerous enough. Now imagine these soldiers were wearing about 60 pounds of gear and were tucked well into this armor plated vehicle which immediately sank. As I am told, one of the soldiers got out immediately and he was fine. A second soldier was rescued by the first and quickly got to the shore where he was attended to by several other soldiers from a trailing vehicle. Those soldiers cannot remember the details of what happened next, but somehow they rescued the other two more critically wounded soldiers. While we don't know the full details and may never know, suffice it to say that both were drowned or nearly drowned. We are told that neither had a pulse and neither was breathing. It was then that several of the attending soldiers went to work doing CPR and trying to resuscitate their fellow soldiers.

The second one was able to regain a pulse at the scene and was prepared for transport to the AFTH. The third was not so fortunate. But the spirit of the American Soldier cannot be easily defeated. Within a short period of time and with constant CPR being applied to the third soldier, all of them were brought to the AFTH for life saving treatment. One trauma surgeon described it to me like this. He said, "Chief, this guy was basically drug in here by the collar of his shirt by his buddy and he asked us to save him." Well, you can imagine that I am telling you this story for good reason. Our medical trauma team was able to get a pulse and get him breathing again. In fact, all 3 were now breathing on their own or with some assistance. I can only describe this in one way. They brought him back to life after being drowned to death. If that is not miraculous, I don't know that I ever will figure that word out.

So today there they were, all 3 soldiers being prepared for an emergency flight to Germany for more treatment. When I looked into the ICU, I saw yet another team of professional military men and women, US Army and US Air Force working hand in hand to save these lives. There was an ICU crew, an aero medical Evacuation Team and other critical care ward personnel working in concert to make sure every detail was covered before they were transported. Just outside the room was a team of volunteers waiting to move these brave soldiers to the bus and ultimately to the C-17 aircraft that would evacuate them home. Watching this was like nothing I had ever witnessed. I was truly inspired and nearly speechless. My only conversations were with the staff as they passed me or took a short break from the action to clear their heads. I was nearly speechless again and could only think to shake their hands or put a hand on their shoulders and thank them for what they were doing. At one point I noticed two soldiers standing in the room off to the side. I could tell they were associated with these men and so I had to talk with them. I reassured them that we were and would continue to do anything and everything we could to get their soldiers home and keep them alive. They were shook, but mustered the strength to tell me how proud they were of the soldiers and how happy they were to see our medical team handling the situation in the professional manner they were witnessing. There was one other soldier at the other end of the ICU. It was their unit first sergeant and I could see from a distance that he was affected hard as well.

Over the next few minutes the medical chief told me that we should go outside and help lift the patients into the bus to relive the medical staff from this duty. There was no time to think about it, we just moved out and prepared for this honorable duty. Before we left I noticed that one of the three soldiers (the second one out of the vehicle was moving around and appeared to be doing well. I asked one of the attending physicians how he was doing and I was amazed at the positive yet funny response he gave me. He said, "Chief, I would say he is doing pretty good considering yesterday he was upside down in a Humvee in murky water with his lungs full of gunk." What more could I say, I was speechless once again. He told me that one of the other soldiers had to have multiple liters of fluid pumped from his lungs and that the extent of his injuries would not be known until he was past the infectious stage in his lungs. These medical professionals take great pride in saving lives and fixing wounds. It was plainly obvious to me that pride in saving these men was swelling in this room like nothing I had ever felt before.

At the bus the chief and I joined a small group of volunteers with the medical staff members and we lifted each man into the bus carefully, making sure not to move or bump the medical equipment attached to their gurney. It was a slow and careful operation and you could tell that each and every person on that detail was focused on the mission at hand. After loading the first 3 into the bus we then loaded one additional victim into the bus who had severe burns. He had his wit about him though, as we delayed outside for a brief moment, he looked up, laughed and said, I think I'm getting a sun tan! It broke the tension of the moment and most everyone smiled.

Once complete we headed to the flight line to help load the C-17. Once again we found another team of volunteers standing at the ready. Over the next 30 minutes, the team of volunteers withstood temperatures exceeding 130 degrees behind the aircraft. It was hot, but nobody minded, they just stood ready to handle the gurneys to make sure these men were safe. As we were loading the first 3 soldiers on the aircraft, the one who was conscious looked up at the Airmen carrying him and said, "Thanks guys for taking good care of us." What more needed to be said? Once on the aircraft there was a full team of medical professionals taking care of more than 10 wounded soldiers. They had equipment equal to any emergency room available and working. It looked like an emergency room inside the back of the jet. There were more soldiers on the side seats, each heading home after more than 1 year in Iraq.

As this part of a long day ended, there were 3 US Army Soldiers who were alive, breathing and with strong pulses who had faced death just hours before. They were alive because of the collective team effort of USAF and USA medical teams dedicated to saving lives. While this was a life altering experience for me, it was all in a day's work for them. You see, they had to recover and wait for the next emergency. There was not another crew waiting for them so they could take a break, there was not a break in the action for them to take lunch breaks or rest. No, they went right back to the grind ready for the next accident or explosion. These are true professionals, who already had my respect, but now have my deep admiration beyond any level I could have ever imagined. It was a day I will long remember and I pray that there will be 3 healthy soldiers who can tell their grandkids about the medical care of the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base Iraq.

This was a proud day for our medics, the Air Force and for me personally. I am so proud to be associated with the AFTH and the professionals who work within it's walls.

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