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 look ahead on the map and out the window for a clear approach to the base. A fairly large city is in our path, but working our way in from the north, we can avoid most of the built-up areas and not shake too many roofs. A few minutes out, the pilot is already talking to the base tower on one radio, and the medic has contacted the medics on the ground. We are less than a mile out now, on a close-in downwind approach that keeps us clear of the base, the built-up areas off base, and a big antenna right in the middle. I radio the chase aircraft to give us plenty of space for our turn to the base leg of the approach.

The pad is hard enough to see in daylight, and near impossible at night, when it is lost in the dark spots between blinding lights elsewhere on the base. In seconds we are calling “landing” to the tower and touching down on the helipads surrounded by protective barriers; just outside the walls, an ambulance waits. As soon as the parking brake is set and the flight controls are centered, the medics and crew chiefs of both aircraft are scrambling out their windows to get to the ambulance.

There is still some confusion as to how many patients we will have. The final vote is two, one for each aircraft. The infantrymen who have taken shrapnel have some burns, but they look okay. Stripped down to an army blanket and oxygen mask, our patient gives us a thumbs-up as he is loaded into the litter pan in back.

A quick before-takeoff check, and we are airborne again, over the fence, and speeding back to the hospital. The vehicle we saw earlier appears to have stopped burning. We avoid the area anyway. Everyone is happy that the two wounded are stable and will make it to the hospital for the hand-off to advanced care.

Halfway back, the medics transmit patient information to the emergency room, and within minutes we are touching down on the hospital pad. Seconds later, the medics and crew chiefs jump out and are met by several members of the hospital staff and litter team, who wheel the patients into the hospital. Inside, the medics will confer with the receiving medical personnel and make a speedy hand-off. Two more satisfied customers.

Our medics return with new litters, and we make the short flight to our unit, where oxygen tanks and medical supplies are restocked and the aircraft gets a final walk-around in case we need to launch again soon. Engines are shut down, the blades stop, and the paperwork and after-action review process begins. We’re not sure what the night will hold, but we are ready. So we go to dinner. It’s chicken again.

Having retired from the Army National Guard in 2011, Chris Ryan continues to fly helicopters in the civilian sector.

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