POPE AIR FORCE BASE, N.C.: Members of the 451st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, executed the first U.S. and British aeromedical evacuation mission to airlift non-validated casualties.
In the early afternoon of June 9 insurgents shot down an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, killing four pararescuemen and injuring three others. The helicopter crashed as the Airmen, assigned to the 66th Rescue Squadron at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., were performing a medical evacuation mission in Helmand Province of Afghanistan.
When the news hit that an American helicopter was shot down and four Airmen had been killed and three injured, a solemn and serious mood filled Camp Bastion, according to Maj. Charles Moniz, deployed to the 451st EAES from the 43rd AES at Pope AFB.
“You put your head down, and you try to get through,” said Staff Sgt. Ben Johnson, the NCO in charge of medical logisitics. “It wasn’t until I stopped, sat down and thought about it that I realized we didn’t just lose a helicopter, we lost an American helicopter and American servicemembers. They were shot down and the enemy got away.”
Despite the situation, Sergeant Johnson said he knew the pararescuemen would be rescued and the EAES team would be a big part in that.
“The rescue procedures run like clockwork,” he said. “There’s a chain of reactionary events; a helicopter goes down, and more go after it. It’s comforting to know that if guys go down, we’ll find them. I know if there are survivors, we’ll find them. If there is anyone to blame, we’ll find them.”
The next few steps Major Moniz took to transport the Airmen led to a ground-breaking first for American theater aeromedical evacuation procedures.
Typically, before an EAES team is able to transport patients, they are required to go through a process of validating and approving patient evacuation. If a patient’s condition is grave, a critical care air transport team is assigned, and, along with an aeromedical evacuation crew, sent to perform their mission.
“We were anxious when we got the call,” said Tech. Sgt. Kristin Cooper, a member of the 451st EAES. “You never know what injuries the Airmen have incurred.”
In what could normally take up to 24 hours, Major Moniz was able to coordinate all the necessary elements to support and launch an urgent aeromedical evacuation mission in only 90 minutes.
After confirming aircraft availability, members of the aeromedical evacuation operations team contacted the theater tasking agent requesting permission to build their own plan. All medics know, ‘time is tissue’, thus they also asked for permission to use on-site assets and to move the American injured intra-theatre without going through the lengthy patient validation process, Major Moniz said.
Permission was granted on all accords.
“From there, the mission took a life of its own when we realized two of the victims were being (medically evacuated) at one time,” he said.
An American CCATT and aeromedical evacuation crew flew alongside a British critical care air support team as they delivered life-saving and condition-stabilizing care in the attempt to rescue the two PJs onboard, Sergeant Cooper said.
The American CCATT supported one patient, while a British CCAST supported the second. The group of medics operated out of an HC-130P Special Operations search and rescue fixed-wing aircraft.
Col. Barbara Jones, the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron commander, said she is proud of the members deployed from her squadron and she is not surprised by their ability to break the mold.
“Our members have a lot of combat experience,” she said. “They are confident, competent and capable and everywhere we go, we break the glass and push the envelope, because we have that levoe of understanding with the system.”
Upon the successful completion of the mission, a second mission was launched to evacuate the third surviving casualty. Later, a ramp ceremony was held to honor the four fallen Airmen.
“Standing on the flightline was the hardest moment of this deployment,” said Sergeant Johnson. “During the ceremony, we tried so hard to be so tough, but we all just sobbed. It’s like your brother disappearing. He was there and suddenly he’s not where he’s supposed to be.”
Sergeant Johnson said he learned a valuable lesson from this tragedy. “It’s not about me,” he said. “It’s not about counting down the days until we’re home. It’s doing what I can, the best that I can. That’s the pararescumen’s motto: ‘So that others may live.’ It’s something we should all take away.