AL ANBAR PROVINCE, Iraq -- One hundred feet above the barren terrain, zipping across the Iraqi desert in total darkness, an Army UH-60 Blackhawk medical evacuation helicopter is on its way to downtown Baghdad, Iraq.
Inside the aircraft, amidst a crowded stash of medical gear, supplies and four patients, an onboard flight medic moves about the dark, cramped cabin to check their vital signs. One bloodied Marine desperately asks where he’s being taken while wincing in pain from multiple wounds.
“How long ‘til we get there?” cries the Marine as he clenches the stretcher above him.
Travelling from Al Asad, Iraq, the speeding Blackhawk will get there in around one hour.
With a calming touch, the flight medic leans over to tell him he’s going to be okay while an extra passenger on board holds the Marine’s hand. A dose of morphine is then skillfully administered through a needle in the shifting helicopter, easing the Marine’s anguish.
The wounded men, whose lives are hanging in the balance, are being flown to an urgent medical care facility by dedicated Army soldiers with the 507th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) here, who put their own lives at risk to save others.
“Before a flight, what goes through my head is making sure that I have the necessary medical supplies that I need to keep a patient alive,” said Army Staff Sgt. Spencer Howell, flight medic, 507th Medical Co. “One of the first things I do is get a set of vital signs and a rapid trauma assessment. On board my situational awareness goes way up.
“When I am not treating a patient during a flight, the crew chief and I watch for any power lines and any suspicious activity on the ground in the event that we receive fire,” he added.
Even when not flying in darkness with night vision gear, MEDEVAC missions in Iraq present many hazards.
For an enemy that has no qualms about shooting at the symbol of the Red Cross, especially over Iraqi cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah and recently Najaf, it is unfortunately a very common occurrence, said Army Maj. Jack Leech, commanding officer, 507th Medical Co., and a native of Louisville, Ky.
“We have some really great Soldiers in this unit and most of them were here last year during the big push to Baghdad in Operation Iraqi Freedom I,” said Leech. “They are some of the most experienced, best trained air crews and medics I have ever worked with.”
Showing a deep concern for his patients, Spencer, a native of Pontiac, Mich., said he makes a point to ask them where they are hurting so he can make their time with him as pain-free as possible.
“Talking to the patients, if they are conscious, is very important,” explained Spencer. “Many of them are very disoriented after the often violent experience that caused their injuries and then moving from the aid station before getting on our aircraft. They are on their backs, in pain and do not know what is going on or where they are, so I tell them it will be alright and give them a ‘thumbs up’ or touch them to reassure them.”
Supporting Marines day and night since they left Fort Hood, Texas, seven months ago has been the ‘507th Dustoff’s’ role here.
“We have one mission,” said Army Capt. Joshua Stuckey, UH-60 pilot, 507th Medical Co. “We are here to help save lives. If there is a wounded person, – be it a Marine, Soldier, civilian or even an (enemy combatant) – we will pick them up from the point of injury on the battlefield, take them aboard our helicopter and deliver them to a treatment facility, where they will receive the critical care that they need to survive.”
With more than 1,300 flight hours and hundreds of MEDEVAC missions behind them, the Army unit handles two types of patient delivery, according to Leech.
“More routine or priority patients are typically loaded aboard our aircraft from a vehicle ambulance,” said Leech. “We also do ‘tail-to-tail’ transfers where we take urgent patients directly from another Blackhawk that picked them up at the point of injury or an aid station.”
Stuckey, a native of Katy, Texas, near Houston, said that once airborne, their strength is speed, low altitude and unpredictability of route on the way to Balad, Iraq, or a more dangerous destination, such as Baghdad.
For trips to and from the Iraqi capitol, the 507th is often escorted by Marine AH-1W Super Cobras, but they sometimes have a difficult time keeping pace with the lighter, faster Blackhawks.
Returning from the nighttime flight from Baghdad, the MEDEVAC crew takes off their flight gear as they exit the aircraft. With another mission behind them, they wind down and prepare for the next mission.
“I love this job and wake up every day knowing that I am going to help save the life of a Marine,” said Stuckey.