Thursday, January 22, 2009

Airmen Care for Wounded Warriors

Airmen Care for Wounded Warriors

January 16, 2009
Air Force Print News|by MSgt. Jeff Loftin

SOUTHWEST ASIA - Airmen of the 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron airlift warriors on military aircraft out of locations throughout the war zone and to military medical treatment facilities.

Consistent and readily available airlift is usually the difference between life and death for servicemembers fighting the war on terrorism.

"It's very humbling to me and very much an honor," said Maj. Susan Behrens, the unit's chief nurse. "I have the greatest job. It's like taking care of my kids. I take care of them so they can do their job the very best they can. You can't tell people what that is like."

Squadron members transport patients with a wide variety of medical problems to where they can get the best treatment.

"We get patients from explosions, patients with multiple fractures, motor vehicle accident (injuries), sports injuries, and psych patients," said Major Behrens, a native of Finlayson, Minn. "There are gastrointestinal problems. There are head injuries. We have to know a little bit about everything."

Staff Sgt. Rebecca Jaudon, a squadron crewmember, added burn victims and gunshots to the major's list of medical conditions they care for in flight.

"I've had a patient with third-degree burns over 90 percent of his body, and I've had someone with a sprained ankle from a sports injury," Sergeant Jaudon said. "It really depends."

Caring for wounded warriors with a variety of medical conditions is further complicated by the flight itself.

"What happens when you take them up where the air is really thin and you are vibrating on a plane?" asked Major Behrens, a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard. "You have to know what that does to a fracture or an injury and how to take care of it. It is a whole different medicine in itself."

The squadron stands ready to provide that expertise 24/7. In addition to its weekly missions, the unit provides the only alert air medical transport team in the theater. The alert team must be at the aircraft in 10 minutes and be ready to take off in one hour. Alert missions can come at any time making it difficult for the five-member crews to know when to sleep.

"We've had times when we've had quick mission launches in the middle of the night," said Lt. Col. Georgeanne Johnson, the 379th EAES commander. "They'll call up in the middle of the night and say to whoever is up, 'We're launching a mission. Can anybody come up and help?' They are over there to help right away. Everybody pitches in."

The key to the unit meeting the timelines is the squadron's operations team, according to the commander. The team is responsible for preparing for the mission, working the patient manifest and paperwork and configuring the aircraft for medical airlift.

"We have crews who aren't on duty to help get the equipment ready and preflight it," said the native of Eagin, Minn. "They go out to the alert facility to load all their stuff on a big truck. They go out to the aircraft and configure it. We have to configure everything and bring all of our equipment on before each mission."

It takes about six hours of preparation for a normal mission to get the aircraft ready for patients and to load the 600 pounds of medical equipment. If the mission calls for transporting warriors in critical condition, the unit adds a three-person Critical Care Air Transport Team and another 600 pounds of equipment. Flights with the CCATT often pick up patients from Iraq or Afghanistan and transport them to Germany.

Typical missions for the squadron can range from 12 to 16 hours, but can go as long as 24 hours.

"On a typical mission, once you get to your starting point it is really busy," said Sergeant Jaudon, a native of Clarksburg, W. Va. "It's about 2.5 hours up there and then it is about 30 minutes between stops. You are up and down. You are only on the ground for about 25 minutes at each place. It is dark. You're on the flightline, but you can't go out and use flashlights because depending on where you are everyone may be using (night-vision goggles). It's definitely a contingency situation."

The experiences the flight crew have had with the patients on typical missions are anything but typical.

"One of the first missions I did was a (coming) back from Germany to the states hauling kids," said Major Behrens as she started choking up. "We had 74 patients on board. It was in a C-141 (Starlifter) so it was kind of dark. I had to crawl up the litters to start an IV on a young man that was up there. He said to me, 'Ma'am, can you just stay here with me for a little bit and hold my hand. You remind me of my mom.'"

Interacting one-on-one with wounded warriors is why many squadron members endure the long hours, unpredictable schedules and emotional stress of their job.

"It's emotionally draining because you really do care about these people," said Sergeant Jaudon, deployed from Pope Air Force Base, N.C. "Some of them are really hurt and you just don't know what is going to happen to them. We really care about them or we wouldn't be in this job. Some patients we'll never forget."

Colonel Johnson, a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard, is a critical care nurse in her civilian job, but said working with military members is an entirely different experience.

"It is a job that is our honor and privilege to do," she said. "I truly think it is the best job in the Air Force. It is important we constantly have our skills up to speed and that we are ready to go at any time. We never know what we might see when we open that aircraft door and start loading patients."


The Air Force has been doing an outstanding job moving the wounded from Afghanistan and Iraq to Germany and to the US thruout the entire years of war, the flight crews and flight nurses and doctors do an outstanding job bringing our fellow military personnel back home and we owe them a thanks that can never be fully repaid.

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