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NEWS | March 20, 2014

Flight for life

By Airman 1st Class Aaron Stout 11WG/PA

Last November, I was offered a chance to support a mission to Afghanistan, which I jumped on before I even knew the full details. My mission, as I had chosen to accept it, would have me rendezvous with an imbedded Washington Post duo in Afghanistan and escort them back to the U.S. I was also document an aeromedical evacuation and the life-saving measures implemented to save our wounded warriors.

An unfortunate side to the work we do as military members is sometimes we are asked to sacrifice life and limb to protect the values we hold dear. Unfortunately, many of us may never really come to realize this until our first trip down range.

My epiphany came when a Marine, who had been severely wounded from an improvised explosive device, was loaded onto the back of the C-17 Globemaster III I'd been traveling on and secured in place directly across from where I'd been sitting. I vividly remember the thought I had: "Does he have arms or legs?" The tubes and wires that were keeping him alive were too numerous to count, almost as though he was buried thoroughly under vines in a vineyard; it was surreal.

From the moment he was on board, there were people swarming him, pushing buttons, checking gauges and taking notes. It was like a whirlwind of medics and doctors all focused on keeping him alive and giving him the best in urgent care.

Thankfully, the military has learned a great deal from this and prior conflicts. It has taken those lessons learned to set in place myriad precautionary measures to ensure first, the saving of our lives, and then our limbs - and it seems to be working.

According to Maj. Matthew Weber, a medical service corps officer at the 86th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility, located at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, "we are seeing the lowest numbers of injured troops being evacuated out of theater since the beginning of the war."

Due to this particular Marine's critical condition, the doctor in Afghanistan deemed the best care possible for him would be available at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda Md., so he would be evacuated out.

I noticed something once we had taken off and were on our way to Ramstein. There seemed to be a divide between the people caring for him and those caring for the other injured on the aircraft; all of his care was done by the same three people.

It was explained to me during the flight by Maj. Shane Runyon, 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight nurse, attending to the Marine, that the three of them were not members of the AE team but were, a Critical Care Air Transport Team; a more-specialized team that only dealt with critically wounded patients that need to maintain a certain level of care during transport.

The AE team took care of the other, less severe, but no less important, patients on the aircraft.

When speaking to Maj. Juan Sanchez, a flight nurse with the AE team, he told me, "the ultimate goal of the AE mission is to have critically injured patients out of theater and back stateside within 72 - 96 hours."

During the flight, I saw his foot twitch and thought, "Oh my gosh! He's waking up!" With urgency, I went to tell the team taking care of him. Runyon explained that he was being kept in a semiconscious state that allowed him to respond to the team with simple head nods but he would never remember the flight.

We eventually landed in Germany and all the patients were unloaded by classification of their illness or injury and the transported to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Landstuhl Germany.

Landstuhl is a medical center where military personnel from Afghanistan, Kuwait, Africa and parts of Europe are treated and then evaluatedfor return to their duty station, or home for more extensive care.

While at Landstuhl, Lt. Col. David Zonies, the chief of trauma and critical care, explained how today, approximately 99 percent of troops that make it into the system survive. The challenge comes from getting an injured troop the immediate, lifesaving medical treatment they need on site and getting them to the nearest medical facility.

We talked about the measures the Air Force was taking with its doctors to ensure they are staying proficient as they are pulling them out of the theater with the draw down.

The doctors are being embedded into universities, such as The University of Maryland, to ensure they stay current.

Usually, the wounded that are not categorized as urgent or critical are prepped and transported to the 86th CASF the evening before they fly out.

As a result of the wounded Marine's condition, he was not sent to the CASF but was held at Landstuhl until the aircraft was ready to receive him.

I met back up with the Marine on my flight back to Andrews. He instantly seemed different, better even. He was more conscious and was no longer intubated, though he still had heaping of tubes and wires strewn across him.

Due to crew rest limitations, the CCATT who had brought him this far, switched out and another team tended  to his care.

Upon landing at Andrews, he was greeted by a fellow Marine and ushered off of the aircraft and onto a bus that took him to his final place of care, Walter Reed.

With shrapnel in his lung, arm and various other places in his body, the Marine survived because he made it into the system. I became aware first hand that he survived because as skilled as the enemy has become at injuring our troops, we have become more skilled at saving their lives.