Transporting the wounded in Iraq.
- By Christopher Ryan
- Air & Space magazine, April 2013
Nicole Fruges / San Antonio Express-News / Zumapress.com
The door to the ready room swings open and our platoon leader sticks his head in. Seven hours into our workday at Joint Base Balad, in Iraq, surfing the Internet and watching DVDs on our laptops, we barely notice.
“You guys might have a nine-line coming in. Not sure if it’s urgent or priority.”
Mentally snapping out of the crew rest profile that we maintain for 24 hours at a time, we are thankful for the warning. Most of the eight crew members for our two Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks hustle to the operations office 50 yards away. There have been false alarms before. Sometimes missions are cancelled before we can get the engines started. Sometimes missions we think belong to us are actually closer to another MEDEVAC company. Sometimes the location changes. Sometimes what appears to be an urgent mission ends up being a routine transfer request and we get all wound up for nothing.
But sometimes minutes count, and American GIs, or Iraqi troops, or Iraqi civilians, or even enemy insurgents are in pain, bleeding, and dying as the clock ticks. So when the call for MEDEVAC goes out, we go NOW. The battle captains and operations officers and staff toads can all take their time sorting out what we should have done, if we could have gone quicker, and why we didn’t notify them sooner. We will be back long before the finger pointing has begun. In the meantime, we need to move hurt people. No GIs are going to die on our watch if we can do anything about it. It’s not heroism, or self-aggrandizing: it’s just what we do.
What we do now, in February 2009, is stare across the desk at the operations specialist on the phone. He’s getting something off the computer. There is probably some paperwork he already started. Wait, did he write down the location already? Do we know how many patients yet? He hasn’t pointed any fingers our way or called “MEDEVAC” on the radio yet. Are we wasting our time? Another phone rings. The operations specialist is still on the other phone. A senior medic answers it.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The senior medic confirms it’s an urgent mission. But operations still has not sent the call. He probably doesn’t have all the information needed to launch us yet. Where did the pilot in command go? We should have everybody in our crew close by and within radio range. I key the radio: “Lead PC, are you up?”
The operations specialist keys his radio. “MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC, MEDEVAC.”
The familiar refrain begins every urgent mission. The scary ones, the boring ones, the ones where we wake up at 2 a.m. and are in the aircraft before our brains boot up, and the ones where the flight medics are fully engaged with critical patients in the back of the aircraft, telling us to speed up. We joke around a lot, but we rarely joke using the word MEDEVAC. The mere mention of the word raises the blood pressure of every crew member on duty.
The standard operating procedure kicks in. Operations will give the pilot in command and the medic as much information as they can, including weather and intelligence updates, while the crew chief and I, as copilot, will get the aircraft ready. Whether the mission will be a big deal or a big waste of time and jet fuel is not our problem.
We blow through the door, hoping nobody is on the other side. Between operations and the aircraft, amazing track-and-field feats have been witnessed: bicycles and boxes hurdled, old and fat National Guard crew members setting 50- and 100-yard-dash records. Very entertaining.
This will be a quick launch: It’s mid-afternoon, most of us are awake and close by, and we can see. Night launches are the same, except for the seeing part. Ever try to fasten a car seat belt in the dark? Over body armor? While full of adrenaline?
After the short run to the aircraft, we begin dressing in aviation combat gear, throwing body armor vests over our heads first, taking care not to smash ourselves in the face with the 10-pound armor plates. Over that goes the survival vests, with radios, ammunition, medical equipment, and whatever accessories we strapped to it months ago while in training. Gloves, earplugs, watches, and kneeboards are laid out in the aircraft where we left them. Or not. I notice that I am still holding the magazine I was reading in the ready room.