13 June 2010

“I don’t leave people behind”

During a recent battle near Marja, an infantry patrol carried a wounded Marine to a medevac helicopter. The black helmet in the foreground belongs to a crew member of Company C, Sixth Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment. Photo: Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

C.J. Chivers, a former Marine, continues his incredible reporting from Afghanistan. In this article he describes several missions with the Army MEDEVAC crews from Company C, Sixth Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment in Helmand province.

The Black Hawk completed its turn, this time low to the ground, and descended. Gunfire could be heard all around. The casualty was not in sight.

“Where is he?” [Pilot Chief Warrant Officer Deric G.] Sempsrott asked over the radio.

The sergeants [crew chief and flight medic from the Black Hawk] dashed for the trees, where a Marine, Cpl. Zachary K. Kruger, was being tended to by his squad. He had been shot in the thigh, near his groin. He could not walk. The patrol had no stretcher.

A hundred yards separated the group from the aircraft, a sprint to be made across the open, on soft soil, under Taliban fire. [Flight Medic Sergeant Ian J.] Bugh ran back. [Crew chief, Sergeant Grayson] Colby began firing his M-4 carbine toward the Taliban.

Inside the shuddering aircraft, the pilots tried to radiate calm. They were motionless, vulnerable, sitting upright in plain view.

The Taliban, they knew, had offered a bounty for destroyed American aircraft. Bullets cracked past. The pilots saw their medic return, grab a stretcher, run again for the trees.

They looked this way, then that. Their escort aircraft buzzed low-elevation circles around the zone, gunners leaning out. Bullets kept coming. “Taking fire from the east,” Mr. Sempsrott said.

These are the moments when time slows.

Cobra attack helicopters were en route. Mr. Sempsrott and [Co-pilot First Lt. Matthew E.] Stewart had the option of taking off and circling back after the gunships arrived. It would mean leaving their crew on the ground, and delaying the patient’s ride, if only for minutes.

At the tents [back at Camp Dwyer], Mr. Sempsrott had discussed the choices in a hot landing zone. The discussion ended like this: “I don’t leave people behind.”

More rounds snapped past. “Taking fire from the southeast,” he said.

He looked out. Four minutes, headed to five.

“This is ridiculous,” he said. It was exclamation, not complaint.

His crew broke from the tree line. The Marines and Sergeant Bugh were carrying Corporal Kruger, who craned his neck as they bounced across the field. They fell, found their feet, ran again, fell and reached the Black Hawk and shoved the stretcher in.

A Marine leaned through the open cargo door. He gripped the corporal in a fierce handshake. “We love you, buddy!” he shouted, ducked, and ran back toward the firefight.

Six and a half minutes after landing, the Black Hawk lifted, tilted forward and cleared the vegetation, gaining speed.

Corporal Kruger had questions as his blood pooled beneath him.

Where are we going? Camp Dwyer. How long to get there? Ten minutes.

Can I have some water? Sergeant Colby produced a bottle.

After leaving behind Marja, the aircraft climbed to 200 feet and flew level over the open desert, where Taliban fighters cannot hide. The bullet had caromed up and inside the corporal. He needed surgery.

The crew had reached him in time. As the Black Hawk touched down, he sensed he would live.

“Thank you, guys,” he shouted.

“Thank you,” he shouted, and the litter bearers ran him to the medical tent.

The pilots shut the Black Hawk down. Another crew rinsed away the blood. Before inspecting the aircraft for bullet holes, Sergeant Bugh and Sergeant Colby removed their helmets, slipped out of their body armor and gripped each other in a brief, silent hug.

Read the whole thing, and make sure to look through the photo gallery.

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