Transporting the wounded in Iraq.

Soldiers place a wounded sergeant aboard a MEDEVAC flight in Iraq’s Diyala province in October 2008. (Nicole Fruges / San Antonio Express-News /
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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.

As I strap into my seat, a lieutenant rides by on a bicycle, stopping to ask the crew chief if the aircraft is hoist-capable, probably for some bean-counting administrative tasking from headquarters.

“Clear!” I shout.

We are not yet on intercom, nor are we wearing earplugs and helmets. Shouting does the trick for crew communications, and sometimes wakes up people who are wandering about the flightline in a daze. Plus it sounds kinda cool.

“Clear!” the crew chief shouts back, meaning there is nobody on the left side of the aircraft, by the auxiliary power unit, which will soon be quite warm and loud.

I flip on the switch for the APU. It runs the electrical systems that would otherwise be powered by the aircraft engines, and provides the compressed-air to start the engines themselves. It’s the loud jet engine noise you hear on airliners sitting at the gate, and on larger helicopters whose rotor blades are not turning.

The APU is lit and howling as a medic runs up to the aircraft, bag and rifle in hand, and begins the same dressing sequence. We’ll have to shout louder over the noise. I am flipping switches and turning on radios in sequence with the checklist. The pilot in command is still in operations, getting updates and figuring a course that will keep us clear of any friendly operations and airspace. We’d hate to fly through anybody’s firefight or air strike on the way to pick up the injured, though it happens occasionally—mostly to those who don’t get updates.

“Where we going?” I ask the medic.

“Warhorse,” he answers. Great.

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