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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BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan -- It isn't difficult to spot a medevac operator here. They usually have a radio glued to one hip and when it chirps or squawks, everything else stops.

This airfield, or "BAF" as those stationed here call it, is nestled in the mountainous eastern region of the country and serves as a ground zero for wounded fighters. It is one of the largest hospitals capable of treating the injured in-country, and also home to the Department of Defense's busiest airstrip.

It serves as the lifeline for evacuating the grievously wounded out of harm's way and toward Western medicine, regardless of if they are coalition troops, Afghan National Security Fighters or even Taliban insurgents.

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Whether from the storied Army Dustoff squadrons or elite Air Force Pararescue "PJs," all these forward troops envision is someone who needs help within an hour, or their chances of survival plummet.

SOMEWHERE OVER NANGARHAR PROVINCE

The roar of the UH-60 Black Hawk makes it almost impossible to hear anything inside it. Three medical crew members of 10th Mountain Dustoff, Charlie Company squadron are a veritable flurry of activity over the Afghan National Army soldier they just picked up in Jalalabad. A bank of electronic medical equipment mounted over his stretcher is helping to keep him from succumbing to the gunshot wound to his chest.

The crew from a 10th Mountain Dustoff, Charlie Company medevac unit transports a wounded ANA fighter on a stretcher.

The interior of a Dustoff helicopter, stripped of its usual medical support supplies to make the aircraft lighter in the hot, thin Afghan air.

The crew chief, who controls who can come on and off the aircraft as well as directs the activity inside, turns around to explain what each of the dials and screens means.

"Is he controlling his own breathing?" U.S. News asks over the closed-circuit radio system, of the slow rise and fall of the young man's chest.

"No!" the chief responds, grinning. "We've taken over his entire body. Pretty cool, huh?"

The Black Hawk, now bound for Kabul, emerges from mountain passes and skims over the capital city's skyline as daylight turns to dusk. It eventually touches down on a small helicopter pad where another medical crew picks up the unconscious fighter, and takes him to the hospital where the most grievously wounded locals end up.

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Earlier that day had been calm in the Bagram hangar that serves as this squadron's headquarters. The soldiers were studying for masters degrees, tuning the Black Hawks due for service or watching movies on iPads. They snapped to attention as soon as the alert came down on their radios that an ANA fighter was shot in the increasingly violent Kunar Province in the northeasterly reaches of the country.

Computer screens in their control center spit out the "nine-line," a simple document that informs any medevac crew of everything they need to know for the rescue mission, including the likelihood of an attack on the ground.

Every Dustoff mission includes two helicopters. One marked with a Red Cross, which Geneva Convention regulations dictate cannot carry heavy weapons on board. It is usually accompanied by a sister helicopter that traded these markings for twin M-240 Hotel machine guns.

Within an hour of the initial alert, a medevac unit similar to Dustoff brought the fighter to Jalalabad for initial surgery. Less than an hour after receiving this care, he was delivered to Kabul where he would likely survive his injuries to fight again.

Army Capt. Travis Bonney adjusts his helmet as he prepares to leave Bagram on a medevac mission.

"The Afghans are seeing the brunt of the fighting, they're seeing more casualties," says Maj. Christopher Logan, the company commander whose previous life included stints as a guard at a maximum security prison.

He is proud of the capabilities his squadron can offer the Afghans. They launch their helicopters within 11 minutes of receiving a nine-line, and usually bring their quarry back to a base less than 40 minutes later in an attempt to achieve the industry standard "golden hour."



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.