BAGRAM AIR FIELD, Afghanistan (AP) — It took a medevac unit 59 minutes to get U.S. Army Spec. Chazray Clark to a hospital in southern Afghanistan after receiving a call that a roadside bombing severed three of his limbs. Clark did not survive.
“I need something, please. It hurts,” Clark, a 24-year-old combat engineer from Detroit, can be heard saying on a videotape as he waited in the dark for the helicopter.
But the rescue aircraft was unarmed, as are all Army medevacs. And the pre-dawn pickup zone in the Zhari district of Kandahar province was considered “hot,” or dangerous, meaning the medevac could not swoop in for the pickup until another chopper with firepower arrived to provide cover.
In Clark’s case, the military says there was a delay in determining whether any armed escort helicopters already in the air could be diverted to the scene. It’s unclear how long that lasted and whether it made a difference. Army officials said they could not disclose the time Clark died because of a policy not to reveal medical information about casualties.
About 20 U.S. lawmakers have written to military officials inquiring about the Sept. 18, 2011, incident, which has revived a debate over whether Army medevac helicopters should have their own guns.
“I feel like they should be armed. They’re in war. Why aren’t they armed? These young men and women are risking their lives,” the soldier’s mother, Keyko Davis-Clark, said by telephone from her home in Romulus, Mich.
Clark’s mother, some medevac pilots and others who want to see the medevacs armed note that helicopters fly in pairs in Afghanistan. If both are armed, escorts wouldn’t be needed and both could evacuate patients from the battlefield. That amounts to greater capacity, not less, they say, and there would be no waiting for escorts.
In a Feb. 7 letter to a lawmaker, U.S. Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. Central Command, which oversees Afghanistan, would be directed to review guidelines on the use of escort aircraft.
Army officials say that waiting for an escort is rare and that installing machine guns, ammunition and soldiers to man them would add roughly 600 pounds to a medevac chopper. That extra weight would limit its ability to fly in some high-altitude areas of Afghanistan and reduce the number of patients who could be evacuated at a time.
“They try to lighten the aircraft as much as they can. They take seats out. They do all kinds of stuff,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Thomas, surgeon general of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. “Weight is their enemy. They need to get lift, and you need to get speed.”
Unlike the Army medevacs, which are emblazoned with red crosses, the Air Force, Special Operations Command and the British fly search-and-rescue and medevac missions with armed aircraft. They do not have red crosses, which can be displayed only on unarmed aircraft, according to the Geneva Conventions.
The Army’s goal is to get the most critically injured troops, or Category A patients, to a medical facility within 60 minutes after someone on the battlefield calls for the rescue. Clark reached the hospital one minute within the goal.
The Army says that last year 167 Category A missions took longer than 60 minutes, nine of them because the medevac was waiting for an air weapons team. None of these delays affected the outcome for the patient, according to the Army.
“You rarely wait” for an escort, said Maj. Graham Bundy, a medevac commander from Sussex, Wis., who is stationed at a hangar at Bagram Air Field that operates like a firehouse waiting for a casualty call. “They could be off doing something else and get retasked (to escort a medevac) and that could cause a delay. In six months, I can’t think of an instance.”