28 February 2013

Wounded Warrior deploys again for love of mission

Staff Sgt. Brandon Vilt, an OH-58 "Kiowa" helicopter crew chief with Delta Troop, 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Lighthorse, shows his prosthetic leg during an interview, Feb. 15, 2013, at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Vilt, a Cameron Park, Calif., native who lost his leg during a 2007 deployment to Iraq, said he deployed with Task Force Lighthorse because he loves what he does and feels he is a valuable asset to the mission. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Luke Rollins.

From Sgt. Luke Rollins of U.S. Army Public Affairs:

KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Feb. 21, 2013) — It's clear from the way Staff Sgt. Brandon Vilt moves around the maintenance bay of Delta Troop, 3rd Squadron, 17th Cavalry Regiment, Task Force Lighthorse, that he has his mission in mind.

An OH-58 "Kiowa" helicopter crew chief responsible for the maintenance of the troop's fleet, he and his Soldiers keep the "moshshe"—Pashtu for mosquito because of its bite and illusiveness, and the nickname for the Kiowa—flying to bring the fight to the enemy.

"I just want to make sure my guys put out a good, quality product," said Vilt, a Cameron Park, Calif., native.

Not only is he responsible for the Soldiers on the maintenance bay floor, but he's also a platoon sergeant. If he's not overseeing the maintenance of Kiowas, he's up in the office loft doing administrative work for his Soldiers.

Vilt moves up the stairs to his office. The motivation in each upward step ignites a spark of inspiration among his coworkers, but he's too humble to show his discomfort if he had any.

"Stairs are the worst," he said, collapsing into his office chair. A prosthetic leg hangs on the rear wall. Vilt rolls up his left pant leg to reveal the prosthesis helping him accomplish his mission here.

Vilt, who lost his leg during his first deployment to Iraq in 2007, said he decided to deploy a second time with Task Force Lighthorse and Task Force Falcon, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, because he simply loves what he does.

He was guarding an entry control point when a truck came barreling through and caused the cement barriers on either side of the road to topple. One fell on him.

"All I could think in the moment was, 'Get this thing off of me!'" he said. "It was surreal to be told the leg was gone for good."

He underwent surgery and physical therapy at the Bob Wilson Naval Hospital in San Diego, Calif. While there he considered leaving the Army, but his experiences as a squad leader in the Warrior Transition Battalion reminded him of his love for Soldiering—and helicopters.

"I was always in good spirits," he said. "I just thought, 'I got to get back to aviation.'"

He did, becoming an advanced individual training instructor in the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va. He arrived at Hunter Army Airfield, Ga., in September 2011.

First Sgt. Paul Julien, the Delta Troop first sergeant, said that Vilt's resilience and positive outlook make him a beacon to Soldiers and peers throughout the Task Force.

"He's a pleasure to be around," said Julien. "He's an outstanding leader of Soldiers, dedicated to their development—they respect what he's been through, his ability to overcome all that and stay motivated."

Julien recalled a particularly difficult troop run when Vilt's determination galvanized his fellow Soldiers.

"Everyone was struggling," he said. "And then, out of nowhere, Staff Sergeant Vilt runs up to the formation. The amount of motivation for the troops was indescribable."

Though Pfc. Andrew Wegner, a Kiowa maintainer and one of Vilt's Soldiers, was not yet with the unit for that run, he was regaled with stories of Vilt at the USAACE schoolhouse.

As is often the case, there's a difference between the man and the legend preceding him, but Wegner said meeting Vilt revealed both Vilt's down-to-earth demeanor and his dedication to the mission.

"His mentality is different," said Wegner, a Fort Bragg, Calif., native. "He's a relaxed guy, but he gives it his all. He gets up there and does all the maintenance like the rest of us. He doesn't let the leg stop him."

Vilt keeps his motivation with a three-step approach: openness, communication, and humor.

Where Wegner and others were once wary to broach the subject of his leg, now it's just one more topic in the good-natured ribbings among fellow Soldiers. For his part, Vilt said he doesn't tire of using his prosthesis for the occasional practical joke.

"I mean, I miss my leg, but I might as well have fun with this one," he said.

Though the atmosphere is light, accomplishing the mission is still the Delta Troop Soldiers' top priority. Wegner acknowledged the gravity of both Vilt's injury and securing the future of Afghanistan.

"It is very motivational to know someone can go through such a traumatic experience and still have the drive to stay in the military and deploy," he said. "I'm honored to have him as my first platoon sergeant."

For Vilt, it always has been and always will be equal parts labor and love.

"I still love what I do," he said. "I love my job. I love working with Soldiers. I'm just trying to do my part. I'm still capable, and I feel I have something valuable to add to this mission."

24 February 2013

Hoist Ops, J-Bad Style

Re-posting one of my favorite DUSTOFF videos from YouTube user 'dustoff18'. He describes it as "POV of a flight medic during a combat MEDEVAC hoist mission in Afghanistan's Pech Valley" which took place on January 31, 2011. The video features CW3 Langa, CW2 Plummer, SGT White, and SSG Cammack.

19 February 2013

'Inside Combat Rescue'

National Geographic's Six-Part Event 'Inside Combat Rescue' Premieres Monday, February 18 10pm Eastern.

The elite Combat Rescue members of the U.S. Air Force, Pararescuemen, or PJs, have one mission: rescue American or allied forces in extreme danger. Whether their targets are shot down or isolated behind enemy lines, surrounded, engaged, wounded, or captured by the enemy, PJs will do whatever necessary to bring those in peril home. For the first time in their history, the PJs allow camera crews to extensively cover their missions in Afghanistan. Inside Combat Rescue brings you into the lives of these elite airmen.

16 February 2013

Air Force discontinues Search and Rescue operations out of Kandahar

An HH-60 operated by the 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Kandahar Airfield sits with its rotors folded in preparation for redeployment. The squadron's departure signals the end of 11 years of combat search and rescue at Kandahar. Photo: Josh Smith / Stars and Stripes.

From Stars and Stripes:

Air Force officials say the end of the specialized combat search-and-rescue mission at Kandahar Air Field in southern Afghanistan won’t leave NATO or Afghan units stuck on the battlefield.

The Army will continue to operate medevac helicopters from the base, but a declining number of missions in southern Afghanistan and growing demand for the specialized helicopter rescue teams elsewhere in the world mean the 59th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Kandahar won’t be replaced after it shipped out last week. The move ends 11 years of such operations at Kandahar Air Field.

The 46th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron at Camp Bastion, including a detachment at Kandahar, has already been inactivated.

Since Air Force rescue squadrons arrived at Kandahar in 2002, they have saved nearly 1,200 lives and evacuated nearly 1,800 other people from combat zones, according to Air Force statistics. But officials assert that the redeployment won’t leave troops — who may still face at least one more season of fighting — without help from the helicopters that have played a major role in medical evacuations throughout the war in Afghanistan.

Combat search-and-rescue teams will still operate from Bagram Air Field in the north and Bastion in the southwest, with the ability to cover most of the country, said Col. Mike Trumpfheller, 651st Air Expeditionary Group commander, who oversees the rescue missions at Kandahar and Bastion.

More at the link.

13 February 2013

Treating the war wounded, and getting them home fast

Terrific - and these days rare - report on medical evacuations from Afghanistan from FOX31 Denver.

Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, President Obama said the U.S. war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of 2014.

But that’s still a long way away for soldiers still fighting – and being injured – in the battlefield. And soldiers are still being injured by the hundreds.

"When a soldier is hurt, they’re airlifted out of Afghanistan, and usually taken to Europe.

"They arrive by the busload at an American hospital on foreign soil, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. More than 60,000 patients have been treated at Landstuhl since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began.

Including, on the day of our visit, Nathan Shurter, an Army Sergeant who just days earlier in Afghanistan had a brush with death when his Army buddy stepped on an IED (improvised explosive device) next to him.

“Got him, got me, and got my saw gunner right behind me,” Shurter told FOX 31 Denver.
The homemade bomb turned the terrain into shrapnel, hurling pebbles, dirt and sticks at Shurter, embedding them in his skin.

“Some of the bigger holes (in my skin) are (from) rocks. Doesn’t sound like much, but it works,” Shurter joked.

11 February 2013

Afghanistan Change of Command

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, hands the U.S. Forces Afghanistan colors to U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. during the change-of-command ceremony for the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, Afghanistan, Feb. 10, 2013. U.S. Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, center, outgoing commander, has been nominated to be the next supreme allied commander for Europe. U.S. Army photo by Sgt. 1st Class Joann Moravac.

05 February 2013

Landstuhl reaching limits of repairs, officials say

U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Michael Newcombe, 37, of Edwards, N.Y., is lifted into a bus at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for transport to Ramstein Air Base. Newcombe, a member of Company D, 5th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment, was injured in Afghanistan. Photo: Joshua L. Demotts, S&S.

From a story by Matt Millham of Stars and Stripes:

Landstuhl, which has treated virtually every U.S. servicemember medically evacuated from Afghanistan and Iraq, is reaching the end of its life span and becoming harder and costlier to maintain and upgrade to standards never considered when it was built in 1953, officials said.

Last year, more than 7,000 man-hours were spent on preventive maintenance to head off utility breakdowns and structural problems, and about double that went into repairs, Arseneau said.

That work and renovations at the hospital cost American taxpayers $8.3 million last year, he said, and between $8 million and $10 million each year over the last decade.

The renovations, which took up a large chunk of that cash, have transformed the hospital from a Cold War relic into something more in line with modern standards.

“We’re very proud of it,” Arseneau said, “even though it’s a 1950s-era facility.”

But the 1950s design, he and other officials said, doesn’t leave room for renovations needed to bring the hospital up to the current standard of world-class care.

Landstuhl’s rambling, spine-and-rib cantonment structure was built to handle mass casualties and confine damage from Soviet bombing that never happened. Patients, including new moms and wounded troops, sleep two or three to a room and share communal bathrooms down the hallways. Current standards call for single rooms with their own bathrooms, officials said.

An addition to the hospital in 1983 improved the hospital’s intensive care and operating rooms, “but those ORs are, like, 400 square feet, and the standard today is 650 square feet,” said Col. Brad Dunbar, the U.S. Army Health Facility Planning Agency’s program manager in Europe. No matter what new infrastructure is installed in the rooms, “it’s going to be constrained in terms of supporting surgery,” he said. “You can only take it so far.”

“That goes back to the size,” Arseneau said. “We can’t stretch the building, unfortunately.”

The facility doesn’t limit the staff’s ability to care for patients, “but there are risks with a building this old,” said Col. Barbara Holcomb, the hospital’s commander. “It’s prudent to replace the facility.”

Congress agrees, but has wrangled with the Pentagon over the new facility’s cost and scale amid a drawdown of forces from the continent and budget battles back home.

What they have agreed on is consolidating replacements for Landstuhl and an aging clinic at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The new facility would be at the Army’s Rhine Ordnance Barracks in Kaiserslautern. Adjacent to Ramstein, the site will allow for a speedy transfer of wounded troops from the flight line — something Landstuhl, atop a steep hill about five miles from Ramstein, has never afforded.

Treating the wounded, though, isn’t the new facility’s top priority. According to defense officials, the hospital is being designed for peacetime operations, with the capacity to expand in case it’s needed for another war, and the decline in casualties from the last decade’s wars is not a factor in deciding what the new medical center requires.

The Pentagon initially wanted $1.2 billion for the facility, but Congress authorized just $750 million in the 2012 defense bill. Congress upped the authorization to $990 million in this year’s defense bill, which President Barack Obama signed Jan. 2.

Congress still wants the Pentagon to provide more data to justify the size and price of the new hospital, according to language in the defense bill, but raised the price tag because members “felt that the authorization needed to increase in FY13 (fiscal year 2013) to avoid further delay in the project since the FY14 (defense authorization bill) may not be completed fast enough to accommodate the construction schedule,” Kathleen Long, a spokeswoman for Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said in an email.

Still, authorizing the money isn’t the same as handing it over to be spent.

Congress has thus far appropriated just more than $70.5 million of the $990 million to start construction.

Another $127 million approved in the 2013 defense bill hasn’t been appropriated yet, and Congress won’t release any more until the Pentagon certifies the facility is the right size to support the forces and other beneficiaries who will be in Europe long term.

The Government Accountability Office also questioned the proposed size and cost of the new facility and is still waiting to hear back from the Pentagon on recommendations it made in May.

Much more at the link.