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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Forward Operating Base Warhorse. It’s near Baqubah, at one time the hangout of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, once Al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq before the U.S. Air Force delivered him a pair of 500-pound bombs one evening in 2006.

I punch up the navigation system preset for Warhorse so the destination will be loaded when we take off. The pilot in command arrives, with sticky-note updates, and begins dressing. A couple of hundred feet away, an identical crew dance is happening in our chase aircraft.

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I gesture a request to start the engines: the pilot nods. “Clear one.” The crew chief verifies it is clear. The GE turboshaft engine, with its near-2,000 horsepower, fires up with a low moan. The blades begin to turn. The second the number-one engine starter switches off, I am clearing the number-two engine. In a minute, both engines are started and the aircraft systems are beginning to stabilize. Our chase aircraft will not be far behind us in the start sequence; I can see its blades turning. When chase is ready to go, the crew transmits the code word over the radio. We acknowledge and are already calling the air traffic control tower as we go light on the tires. “Tower, Alamo 10, flight of two UH-60s, request immediate departure Alpha Bravo, urgent MEDEVAC.”

“Alamo 10, cleared for immediate departure, report Bravo.”

In the combat environment, locations and directions of departures and arrivals are encoded—indecipherable to anyone monitoring the radio who does not have a current airfield diagram. No sense making it easy for the bad guys to figure out where we are going.

Picking up to a high hover, I nose the aircraft over and accelerate over the compound, housing units, and military vehicles and warehouses, and between Saddam-era aircraft shelters now filled with Air Force aircraft and support equipment. Our chase aircraft falls in behind us and we cross the fence into greater Iraq, approaching maximum level speed. Eight minutes from notification, Alamo flight is en route. Not bad.

We avoid overflying buildings as best we can. At this altitude and speed, we can just barely make out Iraqi people in red and black robes going about their business in the fields and small villages surrounding the base. From the air, it seems peaceful below. We wonder what the Iraqis think of us as we blow over their houses, day and night, on our way to lifesaving missions. Probably nothing good. One of our pilots has remarked that when they fire at our aircraft, half the time they probably don’t know that they are shooting at Iraqi patients. Today, we don’t notice if anyone shoots at us. Our plan is to be half a mile away by the time they can aim their weapons.

“Did you see that?” says the pilot.

Few of us did, but a few miles away, very near where we plan to fly, a thick column of black smoke rises from a burning vehicle. The pilot just saw the vehicle explode. We consider reporting what we have seen to headquarters, until we see two AH-64 Apache helicopters already circling the scene.

For now, we avoid the site by several miles. We will find out many hours later that this burning vehicle is where our casualties had come from, and the unit had hauled them back to Warhorse instead of calling us directly to the site.

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