May 14th, 2006 15:00 EST
Medics Make Air Evacuation Easier On Wounded Troops
BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq (AFPN) -- Wounded U.S. troops leave this base each day on military transports after their release from the contingency air staging facility at the airport waiting area.
The staging area is a busy place and has all the staff and equipment needed to treat any patient awaiting air evacuation.
Airmen from the 446th Airlift Wing at McChord Air Force Base, Wash., are currently running the facility. Their job is to receive wounded troops from the Air Force Theater Hospital here and get them ready for their flight to more definitive medical care.
That usually means a flight via C-17 Globemaster III aircraft to Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Ambulances take the patients to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center a few miles away.
Col. (Dr.) Dean Bricker, commander of Ramstein’s 435th Medical Squadron, said he has heard troops are saying “If they can make it to Landstuhl, they know they have a very high chance of living and making it back to the (United) States.”
The McChord medics want to up those odds.
If a patient is “urgent” -- at risk of losing life, limb or eyesight -- the staging facility staff works to get the individual on a plane to Ramstein within 24 hours of the patient suffering his or her wound or illness. “Priority” patients leave within 48 hours and all “routine” patients leave on the first flight available.
Except for the memories and the illness, injury or wound they carry, patients, for the most part, leave the Iraq war behind when they enter the staging facility.
“This is the first time patients have a chance to slow down,” said Lt. Col. Dean Wagner, staging facility commander. He is serving at Balad with the 446th Aeromedical Staging Squadron.
Six rows of cots fill the facility’s quiet and dimly lit main area. Candy and handwritten notes from American students rest on the pillows.
If patients are restless and can move, they may play video games and grab a bite to eat in the back room. And there is a courtyard built by squadron members in the back for them to use.
Patients walk or are carried in by litter to the facility. One of the first to quietly greet and treat them is Maj. Melanie Carey, a nurse known as “Mom.”
The staging facility’s main goal is to make the patients as comfortable as possible until it is time to depart. On average, C-17s medevac about 20 to 25 servicemembers each flight.
The C-17 becomes a flying hospital when it has stanchions attached along its walls to hold the litters and medical equipment on board. A C-17 from the Mississippi Air National Guard’s 172nd Airlift Wing had the distinction of flying patients out of Iraq on the aircraft’s milestone 1 millionth flying hour mission March 20.
The staging facility crew works hard to prepare the patients for the flight. When the time comes to leave, they are helped or carried onto the plane and made as comfortable as possible.
When cleared, the C-17 wastes no time taking off. It rushes down the runway and pitches steeply into the sky to avoid the risk of incoming rockets.
During the five-hour flight, a team of nurses and medics keep vigil on the patients.
“Our medics give out a lot of drugs,” said Staff Sgt. Selina Barone. The medic was part of a 20-member squadron medical team who recently returned to McChord from a deployment at Ramstein.
Patients use less oxygen during a flight and therefore breathe faster and go through their pain medications quicker. The nurses and medics have to stay on top of their patients' conditions so they don’t start to feel pain.
“I can relate to the 20-year-old Soldiers,” said Sergeant Barone, whose son is an Army combat medic in Iraq. “Those are the ones who really stand out. I saw them as being just like my son.”
At times, the emotions she went through on many of the medical evacuation flights al-most overwhelm her.
“But you learn real fast that you can’t do that,” she said.
Succumbing to the emotions would make her job impossible.
“These kids, they’re all heroes,” she said. “You just want to take them home and put them in bed and say 'go to sleep.'”