Evacuating the Injured
A Marine Corps pilot flies CASEVAC missions in Iraq.
- By Rocky Checca
- Air & Space magazine, September 2012
Cpl Mark Sixbey/Courtesy Rocky Checca
(Page 2 of 4)
Mass casualties were the worst because improvised explosive devices and car bombs were usually the culprits. The odor of burned flesh is something I hope to never again smell. Lots of times, people with missing limbs were bleeding to death in the back of the aircraft. If it weren’t for the Navy corpsmen, who worked tirelessly to keep the wounded alive while in transit, many more would have died. They did the dirty work to keep everyone breathing or from losing that extra pint of blood that might cost the individual his or her life. They stopped bleeding from massive wounds or held someone’s guts in during the flight to keep them alive.
One of the worst things to hear a corpsmen say to a pilot is “Fly faster,” because that means the patient is slipping away. During CASEVAC, the pilots already fly as fast as the aircraft can go, so to get such a request from a corpsman leaves one with a helpless feeling. There were times when patients would expire in the aircraft en route. Those are some of the longest and quietest flights a pilot experiences. No matter what the situation is regarding the enemy or what is occurring in the back of the aircraft, you must force yourself to compartmentalize what you are seeing and hearing, separating it from the task at hand, which is to get everyone out of there as quickly as possible.
It was about two months into my second deployment in 2006 when I was assigned to fly a mission to al-Qa’im, near the Syrian border. I had been so glad when I learned I was flying to this desolate outpost, because I had heard a rumor that I could hardly believe. I had endured numerous months of compartmentalizing what I saw and only focusing on the task at hand. When we arrived and shut down the aircraft, I headed straight to the chow hall. As I approached the door to the small, rickety wooden structure, I saw the words “Winchester Hall” above the entrance. It made me smile ear to ear. I was nervous though, wondering about the rumor. I walked in the front door and looked around. There, just inside and to the upper left of the main entrance, was a glass case. Inside it, there it was—a big, bright-blue football jersey with white block letters on the chest: NAVY 73.
It was the Navy football jersey of Ron Winchester (USNA 2001). He had been a teammate, killed in action in Iraq in September 2004, a few months prior to my first deployment. Navy football is a brotherhood, built through strong bonds among teammates. Ron was the first person I knew who had given his life during the conflict. His death was shocking; I had a hard time absorbing that he was actually gone. It was one of those things that people never think will happen to someone they know. Two months later, J. P. Blecksmith (USNA 2003), another teammate, was killed in action. Other teammates, Bryce McDonald (USNA 2003) and Scott Swantner (USNA 2001), suffered injuries. I received telephone calls about all of them. My reaction to seeing Ron’s jersey was immediate and uncontrollable. I turned away and walked outside so the other pilots and crew chiefs wouldn’t see me.
Here, in this God-forsaken shithole of a place that looks like the surface of the moon, was the most beautiful thing I had seen in a long time. I pulled myself together by focusing my eyes on the metallic band around my left wrist that bears Ron’s name. I wore the band during all three of my deployments to Iraq. Every time it was hot, things were shitty, or I didn’t think I could do another day of the grind, I’d look at my wrist and be reminded of the numerous people, like Ronnie and J.P., who had counted on us on a daily basis.
Once I had pulled myself together, I walked back in, had a little something to eat, and then walked over to the glass case. I left Ronnie a note on the glass thanking him for his sacrifice and letting him know it had not been in vain. I also left him one of the squadron patches that we wear on our flight suits. At some point, he had been in the back of a CH-46 being CASEVAC’d while mortally wounded or his remains were transported via an “angel” transport to al-Taqaddum, where Mortuary Affairs was located.
Angel transport was a routine part of my squadron’s mission, so I knew that there was absolutely no delay in getting the remains of coalition personnel killed in action to al-Taqaddum. On the day they perished, the deceased were transported there and prepped for the return home. These missions were flown nightly, and like CASEVACs, I had to learn to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand. One mission in particular, though, momentarily broke through the compartment.
I had been assigned to transport five Marines out of Ramadi who died in an IED blast. As we flew in, the entire Marine battalion that operated out of Ramadi was off to the right of the landing zone, standing in formation, at attention. After they brought four of the remains to the aircraft on stretchers, someone handcarried the remains of the fifth Marine in two body bags to the helicopter. When we had landed, the battalion’s commanding officer had come on board the aircraft to tell us that one of his Marines was going to accompany the remains back to al-Taqaddum. Passengers and “angels” were never on the same aircraft together, but in this case an exception was made. The Marine accompanying one of the bodies back was the deceased Marine’s twin brother.