Afghan Medevacs Run to Gunfire, Explosions to Rescue Injured Comrades

Local forces have an uphill climb to replace Pararescue, Dustoff guardians.

An HH-60 Pavehawk support helicopter leaves Bagram Air Base on a mission for the 10th Mountain Dustoff Squadron. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

A UH-60 Black Hawk support helicopter leaves Bagram Air Base on a mission for the 10th Mountain Dustoff Squadron.

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Work for his crews has dropped sharply since 2010 and 2011, when coalition forces were engaged deeply in a surge of troops in Afghanistan. Since that time, and the planned transition of fighting to the Afghan troops, business has been cut in half.

He offers the same cautious optimism echoed at the top levels of the Pentagon, regarding whether the local forces will be able to provide the same level of care to wounded fighters after the U.S. drawdown of combat forces in 2014.

"The threat is still the same, it's real and its out there," he says. "The enemy has a vote." 

'IT TAKES SIX YEARS TO MAKE A SIXTH GRADER'

It's a common phrase among those who regularly respond to questions about the Afghans' capabilities. President Barack Obama has declared the U.S. war in Afghanistan will be over by the end of 2014, and has not yet offered any indication of what sized force may be left behind, if any at all.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, was in Kabul in late July negotiating with President Hamid Karzai about the size of this prospective "enduring force." They were not yet able to reach a bilateral security agreement, or BSA.

The U.S. has been honing its ability to save wounded troops with a superpower budget and more than four decades of trial and error since first broaching the idea during World War II and the Korean War. Squadrons with the callsign DUSTOFF first cut their teeth in Vietnam saving wounded troops from remote jungle bases.

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The Afghan's version will likely begin as a strictly casevac operation, where aircraft simply transport a wounded troop without in-flight treatment. Yet the program and its likelihood for success has many critics.

"I have so many people tell me all the time, 'The Afghans don't do casevac,'" says Air Force Lt. Col. Michael McBeth, surgeon general of the 438th Air Expeditionary Air Wing, from his headquarters in Kabul where he trains Afghan pilots and crews. "That's so frustrating to me because three times a week I'm getting an urgent call to jump on a helicopter and go out with the Afghan medevacs to pick up one to six patients right off the battlefield."

"Afghan casevac capability has been overshadowed and lost by the drawdown of ISAF capability," he adds. "Most stories I've seen have been the hard luck story of 'ISAF air is going away," and so, what now?"

Afghan pilots have flown 640 missions since May 2013, the beginning of the fighting season, an Army spokesman in Bagram confirms. Afghan crews now perform roughly 80 percent of the maintenance on their Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters with oversight from contractors and U.S. troops, which has drawn criticism from government watchdogs.

An Afghan Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter returns to base at Jalalabad. (Paul Shinkman for USN&WR)

An Afghan Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter returns to base at Jalalabad.

A majority of these missions are conducted autonomously. But the Afghans still have a long way to go. No conventional Afghan Air Force pilots are qualified to fly using night vision technology, and pilots still have to rely on coalition troops for invaluable close air support.

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"There is a misconception that casualty evacuation is not a priority for the Afghans," says McBeth. "From my experiences, working directly with Afghan air crews flying joint casualty evacuation missions, not only is that absolutely false for the guys who are doing these missions, but they think of this as their number one priority."

'THAT OTHERS MAY LIVE'

On the opposite side of the Bagram Air Strip lies the inconspicuous headquarters of an elite unit that outside observers describe as "Navy SEALs with medical skills," search-and-rescue operators with a "surgical, clandestine" streak or just simply as the "Guardian Angels" espoused on their insignia. U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen are known as PJs for their ability to jump out of airplanes – among other skills – to rescue sensitive forces caught behind enemy lines. They came out of the jungles of Vietnam when the military realized it needed a highly trained force that could fight or sneak its way to a downed pilot and return him home alive.


Corrected on : Correction 08/09/2013: A previous version of this story misidentified the Army’s rescue helicopter. It is the UH-60 Black Hawk and uses M-240 machine guns. The story also misidentified Capt. Travis Bonney and Sgt. Julia Bringloe. They serve in the Army.