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Joint Base Andrews Features

NEWS | Aug. 23, 2012

Behind-the-scenes look at saving lives

By Val Gempis Air Force News Service

It was his first deployment to Afghanistan, and to make matters worse, he was assigned to one of the busiest trauma centers in the region. Staff Sgt. Caleb Gibson felt a sense of shock, pride and satisfaction as he watched U.S. military medical personnel treat injured troops.

"It was shocking to see the extent of injuries in there. But at the same time I felt pride and satisfaction because the medical equipment that was helping these people stay alive belonged to me," Gibson said.

Gibson is a biomedical equipment technician assigned to the Medical Logistics Flight of the 779th Medical Support Squadron at Joint Base Andrews, Md. The unit's mission is to equip and provide medical forces for Air and Space Expeditionary Force deployments, homeland operations and support joint operations within the National Capital Region. They also support aeromedical evacuation aircraft returning sick or injured patients from Southwest Asia to the U.S.

An integral part of their operation is to ensure that Patient Movement Items, including designated medical equipment, durable supplies, and consumable supplies, are working properly. These include ventilators, defibrillators, respirators, monitors, infusion pumps and oxygen analyzers. These items are maintained by a team of Airmen and civilians at a warehouse at Andrews.

Gibson said that his time in Afghanistan made him realize just how important his job is. At his home unit PMI equipment can sit on shelves for weeks or months until needed. At Bagram AB they are used daily. "Seeing them used on our troops daily was tough, but it really hit home that you were making a difference. It gives you a different perspective when you see blood on them," he added.

"Our job is to provide the best possible healthcare to our warriors. They have done their part for our country then it's our turn to provide lifesaving care and get them home as soon as possible," said Maj. James Camilleri, commander of the 779th MLF. He said the equipment is vital to sustaining the increasing high survivability rates of injured servicemembers once they reach the Theatre Aeromedical Evacuation System.

The Air Force maintains and trains its own biomedical equipment repair technicians. The Airmen here service and maintain about 2,000 pieces of PMI equipment worth more than $19 million. They also handle about 200 pieces monthly that comes from Southwest Asia. They are used for surgery and other medical procedures.

Staff Sgt. Erick Bartels is also a biomedical equipment technician who has deployed to Kuwait and Iraq and added that there's no room for error when maintaining this equipment. "They have to be precise. A drug delivery machine that's not calibrated correctly can kill someone," he added.

Bartels also said that one of the most challenging aspects of their job is that there are no technical orders for their equipment. Unlike aircraft mechanics who rely on TOs when fixing planes, biomedical equipment technicians must keep up with the fast changing technology.

And the lack of TOs can be tough at deployed locations. "We spend a lot of time researching on the Internet and calling companies. We don't have contractors who can come out and fix them," he said.

But servicing and maintaining equipment is not the only job that these Airmen do when deployed. They maintain ambulances and facilities, as well as help move patients from gurneys to the aircraft during aeromedical evacuations. Although the hours are long and the work is exhausting, deployments are a great learning experience for them. Working with people from different services, and learning to do things differently helps them get better at what they do.

Bartels mentioned that he feels proud every time he sees an aeromedical evacuation aircraft carrying wounded warriors land at Andrews. "These troops have a special place in my heart for the sacrifices that they have made. It makes me feel great to know I'll be working on equipment used on them."