KHOWST PROVINCE, Afghanistan — They’re the crew no one wants to see take off.
“A perfect deployment would be no missions,” said U.S. Army Spc. Bryan Heaston, 30, of Lusby, Md.
Nearly every time Heaston, a medevac crew chief serving on Forward Operating Base Shank, climbs into a Black Hawk and fastens his seat belt, he launches knowing someone is in pain and may be dying.
“We always see the worst days for people,” said Heaston. “Sometimes it’s their best days when they all come together for a wounded friend, but it’s generally the worst day of someone’s life.”
Medevac operations are a rollercoaster of emotions, swinging from hours of overwhelming boredom, to explosions of frenzied activity every time the radio crackles “Medevac! Medevac! Medevac!”
Plastic forks quickly fall to their styrofoam takeout plates. Books drop. Boots pound the wood floor. Eight bodies are suddenly in motion, grabbing cases of medicine and weapons as they head out the door.
“That’s the worst part of this job,” said Heaston, whose Company C, 3rd Battalion, 82nd Airborne Division’s medevac platoon supports Task Force Corsair, 82nd Combat Aviation Brigade. “It’s the sitting around, knowing something might happen at any time, but you don’t know what it’s going to be or how serious.”
Traffic screeches to a halt on a dusty gravel road, Shank’s main thoroughfare, as a ragged line of medics and pilots plunge across, each seeming to try and outrace the other. The quarter-mile sprint continues to the airfield, then down the long runway to an awaiting aircraft. It’s a fast-paced, but well-choreographed symphony of pre-laid-out vests and equipment slapping against bodies.
The rip-tear of Velcro and jingling buckles on flight vests snapping home in rapid succession pierce the solitude blanketing the helipad, just as the auxiliary power unit and huge General Electric T-700 turbine engines begin their ear-piercing screams.
Moments later, 54-feet of rotor blades chop the air, drowning out everything except the sound of radio calls in the crews’ headsets. Amid the adrenaline-driven actions, each member of the crew runs down an internal checklist, mentally and physically preparing for what they’re all about to head in to. Oftentimes, however, medevac crews don’t know.
“That’s the thing that’s interesting about this job,” said Heaston. “Once you get a POI (point-of-injury) call, you have no clue what you’re getting into until you’re there. They’re all different. We’ve been all over this area of Afghanistan — farmers’ fields,
On an evening quickly fading to darkness, Forward Operating Base Shank medevac birds are headed to pick up the victim of an IED blast near a small combat outpost in Wardak province.
In the back of a helicopter being tossed about seemingly in every direction all at once by heavy winds whipping over mountains that seem so close to the bird it is almost like you could touch them, U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Erin Gibson, 31, a flight medic, sets up monitors and IV bags, readying herself for whatever may come her way.
“You kind of just hope for the best and prepare for the worst,” said Gibson, of Covington, Ohio. “If it’s somebody who has uncontrolled bleeding, I try to get all my bandages and stuff together and get IVs hung, just in case they haven’t gotten any yet. I just try to mentally prepare like that.”
In the near-darkness, mountaintops fly by. Medevac pilots push their aircraft harder than the usual Black Hawk cruises. Every moment that elapses between them and their injured comrade takes with it the precious gift of time.
“You are literally racing for someone’s life,” said U.S. Army 1st Lt. June Ciaramitaro, 26, of Fort Worth, Texas. “On an urgent medevac, you’re going to pull as much as you can. Usually you’ll go into a 30-minute TGT (turbine gas temperature) limit, so the engine can only be at a certain temperature for 30 minutes. We go as fast as we can to get there, then based on what the medic’s analysis is, we’ll still pull as much as we can to get back if we need to.”
As the bird touches down on a small landing area, four U.S. Soldiers crouch under the whirling blades, each bearing a corner of the stretcher carrying their fallen brother. A massive man lies on it covered in blankets and bandages, his arms interlaced across his abdomen; his wrists are secured together with a green U.S. Army issue sock.
“He had a head injury, so they tied his hands together so they wouldn’t be flopping around or flailing, trying to hit people,” said Gibson.
Gibson goes to work. The inside of the helicopter is now pitch black, except for the faint glow of the bird’s instrument panel.
(Editor’s note: This is part one of a two-part series about the division’s medevac crewmembers, for part two, see next week’s Paraglide.)