Afghanistan Lifelines: New Technologies Bring Home Grievously Wounded Troops

New medical technologies connect families with grievously wounded troops.

Air Force Capt. Denise Covert, center, helps carry a wounded soldier from an ambulance onto a C-17 cargo plane for a flight back to Germany. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

Air Force Capt. Denise Covert, center, helps carry a wounded soldier from an ambulance to a C-17 cargo plane headed to Germany.

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Editor's Note: The Defense Department allowed for the release of the name of the wounded soldier following his death last week. Army Spc. Nickolas Welch, 26, died in Bethesda, Md., on Aug. 6. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 15th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Stewart, Ga.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany -- Barry and Lorria Welch sit solemnly in the jump seats of the massive C-17 cargo plane. Their son, who joined the Army three years ago to pay off thousands of dollars in student debt from getting his associates degree, is strapped to a stretcher a few feet in front of them. He is in a medically induced coma with a ventilator tube regulating his breathing.

This most grievously wounded soldier involved in a fatal attack outside Kabul in late July returned to the U.S. this week, following two failed attempts to transport the blast victim for fear the flight would kill him.

The military flew his parents from their home in Salem, Ore., to this medical facility after he was wounded by an insurgent fighter who detonated an explosive-laden donkey next to a U.S. Army patrol. The Welches then accompanied their son for his return journey to Walter Reed Army hospital in Washington, his body riddled with shrapnel from the attack. 

[READ: Combat Medical Evacuations Key to Afghanistan Success]

The blast killed three of his fellow troops based at Combat Outpost Soltan Kheyl in Wardak Province, and blinded and likely paralyzed this soldier. The unit's translator and four other Afghans were also killed in the attack. 

Military officials asked U.S. News not reveal the name of the victim due to privacy regulations.

An HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter hovers over the air strip at Bagram Air Field in eastern Afghanistan. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

An HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter hovers over the air strip at Bagram Air Field in eastern Afghanistan.

This journey for the Welches would not have been an option 30 or 40 years ago, at a time before the military put a top priority on sending wounded troops home quickly, and allowing families to reunite with their grievously injured loved ones.

This system of aerial medical evacuation from the war zone saves nearly 99 percent of the critically wounded troops. It employs 21st century medical techniques that allow a soldier injured deep in enemy territory abroad to get the critical care he needs within hours. Medical technicians who spoke with U.S. News say the remainder are usually those who will likely succumb to their wounds but can be stabilized long enough for a reunion with family members in Germany or the U.S.

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"It means the world to us," says Lorria Welch, from the deck of the C-17 carrying her son. This traumatic but important journey for her marks the second ever time she's been on an airplane, after first flying to Kentucky to witness their son's graduation from his basic training. "As a parent we say we'd beg, steal, or rob a bank to get here."

Tickets and lodging to go see their wounded child might cost the Welches nearly $4,000, which they don't have, she says. Without support from the military to get to their son, Lorria Welch says, "I don't know what would have happened."

Their son's commander called the Welches shortly following news of the blast, telling them the military would pay to fly them to the East Coast and onward to this airbase to meet their son.

A medic from the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron tends to a wounded Marine being flown back to the U.S. from Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

A medic from the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron tends to a wounded Marine being flown back to the U.S. from the Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

"They went above and beyond just doing their jobs," Lorria says. "These men who put their lives on the line deserve the best treatment."

A trauma doctor on the flight explains just how much medical care in this war differs from previous conflicts.

Most of the military's medical treatment was exported to the war zone in Vietnam, says Air Force Col. William Rogers, a doctor at Georgetown University and Vietnam veteran. This included advanced therapies, such as fitting for prosthetics as well as rehabilitation. Wounded soldiers could spend months at these facilities before returning home.


Corrected on : Update 08/13/2013: This story included updated information on Army Spc. Nickolas Welch.